Iran and the Obvious Question

In this picture released by an official website at the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sits under a portrait fo the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini prior to his speech in a meeting with Iranian ambassadors in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014.  Khamenei on Wednesday dismissed the value of direct talks with the U.S., his first comments touching on meetings that officials from the Islamic Republic had with Americans dating back to secret talks that began in 2012.  (AP Photo/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader)

There is, of course, much going on with the P5+1 that really doesn’t have anything to do with the #GOP47 except for their determination to meddle and even tank the deal. That said, the larger American discourse can be a bit thin on details.

I think a realignment is happening in Iranian politics. The 2000s were a period of right wing populism under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khamenei had his hands burned by the Ahmadinejad faction of hard line populists. They provoked all that trouble in 2009, and mismanaged the economy with massive subsidies. By 2012 Khamenei was openly slapping Ahmadinejad down. Then the US kicked Iran off the bank exchanges and took Iran oil exports down from 2.5 mn b/d to 1.5 mn b/d. Since prices were high, it didn’t hurt the regime that much, but must have been concerning given what was done to Mosaddegh in 1953, when similar int’l oil sanctions prepared the way for a CIA coup.

Khamenei hates the reform camp but seems to have realized that he can’t count on simply being able to crush them. He can, in contrast, live with a centrist like Rouhani. Domestically, Rouhani is his way of deflecting what’s left of the Green Movement (which really shook Khamenei, perhaps even moreso after Mubarak et al were toppled by the Arab youth 18 months later). Internationally, Rouhani holds out the possibility of escaping the severe sanctions but keeping the nuclear energy program, which is Khamenei’s baby and which he sees as a guarantee that Iran can’t be held hostage by the international energy markets and great powers. But deploying Rouhani means slapping down Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) hard liners, which he did in February.

Hard liners are jumping up and down mad about what Rouhani & Zarif are alleged to have given away to the West, and my suspicion is that Khamenei’s demand for immediate end of sanctions is a way of tossing them a bone for the moment. If you read the whole speech he comes back and is still supportive of the process at the end, saying he is not for or against the deal since there really is no deal yet, just a framework agreement for negotiating the deal. But then that means he did not, contrary to the headlines, come out against the deal today.

(Cole)

In those brief paragraphs, Juan Cole gives basic questions about the Iranian perspective more consideration than most Americans would think to give. To the other, one such analysis is hardly definitive.

Still, though, the problem facing the American discourse is that so few acknowledge Iran’s reasons for distrusting our government, and there is also a larger question about the implications of what we have done. Jon Schwarz offers a look into some of the―well, this is the part where we are supposed to say “complicated”, but that really is a way of euphemizing―insidious history of how the United States and other Western nations have gotten along with Iran over the years.

The 1953 coup is a vital consideration. Consider, please, an idea called the Schwartzkopf Cycle.

The basic outline is exactly what it sounds like. In 1953, Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkopf participated in a CIA-backed coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. In 1990, his son, Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkopf, Jr., led the American effort against Iraq in the Gulf War. And what happened in between largely defines what is happening today.

One of the things that happens when tyranny seizes power is that it eliminates its opposition. Repeatedly. That is, military rivals and political opponents are not the only targets; academics with the knowledge and influence to lead the critique, scientists whose research conflicts with the government’s interests, journalists who document the violations, and even clerics who simply do not line up to support the regime. In the end, society’s moderating influences, those with the power of information, are eliminated. But nature abhors a vacuum, so the question becomes what steps in to fill its place. The American discourse is aware of a variant of this device; we recognize the “Hydra” challenge when engaging stateless actors in theatres of war―if you cut off the head of the organization, who will step up in its place? In terms of Iran, who stepped up to fill the gap in the nationalist line? In the end, we might well ask why Iranians followed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; the answer is, simply, that he was the one. He was the one who answered the call. He was what they had left. This was the One That Made It That Far.

Jon Schwarz, however, reminds Americans:

• We had extensive plans to use nuclear weapons in Iran

• We were cool with Saudi Arabia giving Saddam $5 billion to build nukes during the Iran-Iraq war

• U.S. leaders have repeatedly threatened to outright destroy Iran

We can acknowledge what a lunatic Khomeini was, all day and night if that’s what people really want; and, yes, there was that ugly hostage episode that, hey, was at least worth screwing with in order to make things worse and win a presidential election, but American actions have certainly had their effects on Iranian attitudes, as well.

What we have before us is an opportunity to start to unravel some of that tapestry; in order to have a better tomorrow, we must allow tomorrow to come. This is a chance for everybody to start working our way out from beneath a burden of history that need not weigh on every tomorrow. But beyond the headlines and brief reports from cable and evening news, there really is a subtle and vital dynamic at play. It’s one of those things about learning from history; in order to do that, we must not only acknowledge that history, but also be willing to learn. We have this chance. Why would we not take it?

Steve Benen noted last week:

As observers around the world digest the details of the preliminary nuclear agreement with Iran, one of the striking aspects of the reactions is how pleasantly surprised some proponents are. There’s a large contingent of experts saying this morning, “I was ready to live with an unsatisfying deal, but this is a bigger win for America than I could have imagined.

Fred Kaplan, for example, said the framework “turns out to be far more detailed, quantitative, and restrictive than anyone had expected.” Max Fisher called the blueprint “astonishingly good,” adding that it’s “almost astoundingly favorable to the United States” and “far better than expected.”

To the other, it is only a framework. And given this starting point, really, why would we not pursue this opportunity not only to address the Iranian nuclear arms question, but also start rebuilding the sort of trust nations require in order to not be afraid of one another?

____________________

Image note: In this picture released by an official website at the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sits under a portrait fo the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini prior to his speech in a meeting with Iranian ambassadors in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. Khamenei on Wednesday dismissed the value of direct talks with the U.S., his first comments touching on meetings that officials from the Islamic Republic had with Americans dating back to secret talks that began in 2012. (AP Photo/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader)

α We might suggest it striking how many Americans are unaware of the coup against Mossadegh.

Cole, Juan. “Iran: What did Khamenei really say about the Lausanne Agreement, and Why?” Informed Consent. 10 April 2015.

Schwarz, Jon. “Seven Things You Didn’t Know the U.S. and Its Allies Did to Iran”. The Intercept. 7 April 2015.

“Key Events in the 1953 Coup”. The New York Times. 2000.

Benen, Steve. “The familiar, reflexive anti-agreement posture”. msnbc. 3 April 2015.

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