America, Supplicant to Iran?

January 16, 2007 Topic: Security Region: Persian GulfMiddle East

America, Supplicant to Iran?

Secretary Rice is correct that the United States would indeed be seen as a supplicant by engaging Iran—a supplicant for stability, that is, thereby bolstering America’s waning stature.

In his speech to the nation on Wednesday, President Bush made one thing crystal clear: he has no intention of adopting the major recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. More precisely, he is going to do the opposite: he will increase troop levels in Iraq and he will not talk to, but will instead confront, Iran and Syria. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave further details in her congressional testimony on Friday: President Bush authorized in a presidential finding (and it would now appear in anticipation of the ISG report) the active pursuit and detention of Iranians operating in Iraq. The United States has made good on the finding, detaining two groups of Iranian officials in Iraq without the approval or knowledge of the allegedly "sovereign" government of Iraq, thereby angering the government in Baghdad. If the United States should ever want a dialogue with Iran in the future, the Bush Administration has certainly worsened those prospects.

Why is Mr. Bush taking such action now? Is this a prelude to blaming Iran as well as the Shi‘a-dominated Iraqi government for U.S. failure in Iraq and to maybe even undermining a Shi‘a government in Baghdad? Is the goal to provoke war on another front to deflect criticism at home? Is it to impose total U.S hegemony over the region through an all-out regional war? What Mr. Bush's real intentions are, I don't know. However, one thing is clear, Mr. Bush has never intended to engage in rapprochement on a basis that any Iranian leader could accept.

Secretary Rice's stated reason for declining a dialogue with Iran was the fear that the United States might appear to assume "the role of supplicant." I think Secretary Rice has missed the point: the United States has more problems than appearing to be a supplicant. I, for one, would even talk to the devil if I could save a human life, as should any devout follower of Jesus.

Iran's calculus

U.S. actions are clearly pushing Iran's national-interest calculus in the wrong direction. If Iran believes the United States will behave towards it as it has in the past, then it is in its interests to try to weaken the United States in Iraq and get ready for war. If war with America seems inevitable, then Iran would be better off facing a U.S. adversary now, while it is weakened by the Iraq imbroglio. If, on the other hand, Iran believes that Washington wants to change direction, abandon interference in internal Iranian affairs and promote freedom and self-determination, then it is in Iran's interests to work toward stability in Iraq and pursue collaboration with the United States. It is President Bush's choice. His actions have indicated that he wants war.

The United States has deployed its forces over 6,000 miles to surround and threaten Iran from Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, some former Soviet republics from the north and from an ever-increasing armada in the Persian Gulf. It is waging a colonial-style war on Iran's border in Iraq. The United States tolerates a nuclear-armed Pakistan, embraces a nuclear-armed India and does not mention that Israel is nuclear-armed; but it bullies Iran to forego what its leadership claims to be peaceful enrichment, and Washington will not even talk with Tehran unless it first suspends that enrichment. Meanwhile, Washington continues to back pliant and "moderate" Arab dictators. Iran sees a United States that has not adhered to the rule of law, reserves the right to overthrow regimes, does not follow the Geneva Convention, has been belligerent toward Iran and now surrounds the country on all sides-can anyone blame ordinary Iranians for feeling insecure?

Further, over a span of fifty years the United States has overthrown one of Iran's constitutionally elected governments; gave enthusiastic support to the oppressive, Shah-led government in Iran; and backed a madman that killed over 500,000 Iranians. That madman, otherwise known as the late Saddam Hussein, was used as foil against Iran after the revolution, due to the perception that Iran threatened the Al-Sauds (favored U.S. clients) and could roll-back America's Persian-Gulf hegemony. For decades there was no concern for the human rights of the Shi‘a majority in Iraq. The West and the United Nations acquiesced to Saddam's trashing of the rule of law and undermining of international treaties and failed to condemn him for his atrocities and use of Western-supplied biological and chemical weapons. When Saddam Hussein was no longer useful, the United States and its partners invaded the sovereign nation of Iraq-ultimately resulting in a mess that is now conveniently blamed on Iraqis, most recently Shi‘a Iraqis, and on Iranian intervention.

So how should Iran now perceive its interests? Should it be friendly and complacent or should it take precautions, in case the United States should seek a sequel to Iraq in Iran?

Supplicant for Stability

A war with Iran will further solidify the rule of the mullahs in Tehran and stoke further animosity towards the United States and towards America's so-called Arab "moderate regimes" in the Muslim world. If Mr. Bush truly wants to serve U.S. interests he could try putting hubris aside and learn statesmanship from Nelson Mandela and his efforts at reconciliation in South Africa. After years of foreign interference and regional conflicts, the West needs to adopt humility and contrition if it wishes to bridge the chasms it has created in the region. At a minimum, the United States needs to understand Iran, in order to determine how to pursue dialogue and avoid a war.

Should Bush decide to change direction and support pluralism and regional peace, then he has nothing to worry about. Announce the new goal. Show remorse for past actions. Change directions. Iran will stand down. And Mr. Bush is right about one thing: an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces would result in more death and hardship in Iraq. But so will the continued U.S. presence, in its current posture.

And Rice is also correct about the image the United States would project by engaging Iran. It would indeed be seen as a supplicant-a supplicant for stability, and peace, that is, thereby bolstering, not undermining, America's waning stature.

Hossein Askari is Iran Professor of International Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.