Unclenching the American Fist Toward Iran

"If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us," President Barack Obama said upon assuming the presidency, and this phrase has become a new mantra in Washington: If only the mad mullahs would play with us, we would be ready and willing.


But the "clenched fist" metaphor is misleading, and, more important, the attitude it signals may prevent actual progress in U.S.-Iran relations.

Obama has certainly changed the tone of White House rhetoric about the Islamic republic. This is welcome and necessary. His vow to engage with respect and without threats is particularly bracing. It's a first step among many to free U.S. policy from 30 years of failure toward Iran, a policy based on coercion, sanctions, military threats, covert action and relentless insults instead of actual diplomacy.

The prevailing political atmosphere, however, remains stuck on hoary tropes that will continue to impede progressive policy.

A New York Times editorial on April 24 signals the conventional view: "The logic of [Obama's] Iran strategy is to give Tehran a chance to come in from the cold with offers of engagement and economic and security incentives. If Tehran does not take him up on the offer -- early signs are not hopeful -- he must build support for tougher international sanctions to constrain Iran's nuclear program."

Most apparent is the fervent attention to Iran's nuclear program. Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson describes this as "nuclear orientalism," our reflexive belief that nuclear development in the Third World is inherently alarming. It draws from a longstanding habit, he writes, "where 'we' are rational and disciplined, 'they' are impulsive and emotional; where 'we' are modern and flexible, 'they' are slaves to ancient passions and routines; where 'we' are honest and compassionate, 'they' are treacherous and uncultivated."

And so we are incessantly told that Iran, with its program to enrich uranium, is obstreperous, even treacherous, toward global nuclear norms. The Israelis are vowing to strike Iran's nuclear facilities because it is the most dangerous threat facing the world, they say.

The Israel lobby, led by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), tirelessly inveighs against Iran's "nuclear ambitions" and the "cascade of instability" it purportedly brings.

"When we talk about engagement with Iran, do not be in any way confused," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Jerusalem in March. "Our goal remains the same: to dissuade and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and continuing to fund terrorism."

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the Senate that "The regional and nuclear ambitions of Iran continue to pose enormous challenges to the U.S.," and, later, that he preferred tighter sanctions to diplomacy.

The Israelis have gone so far as not only to threaten an attack on Iran, but to use Iran's nuclear program as an excuse to refuse negotiations with Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, adding to the "red line" restraints delivered to Clinton on what Israel would allow in U.S. policy toward Iran, is insisting that all regional issues are trumped by the fissionable atom (Iran's prospective ones, that is, not Israel's own arsenal of 200 nuclear weapons).

So Iran's "nukes" are Topic A in this new administration, emotionally and politically charged. Negotiations with Iran must first take up the "nuclear file," everyone seems to agree, as the sine qua non of engagement. Iran must stand down from its recalcitrant, clenched-fist attitude about its nuclear program, or nothing can improve. It's carrots and sticks -- juicier carrots and sharper sticks, as Dennis Ross, the former WINEP honcho and now a special adviser in the State Department, has put it. The carrot is engagement, the sticks more sanctions or other, nastier forms of coercion.

This is a recipe for more failure. Iran is not going to give up its enrichment program, this seems apparent. U.S. intelligence has maintained for at least 18 months that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program. It is possible that the enrichment program could be curtailed, and indeed Iran has promised to bring forth a new proposal next month, though it's doubtful that a "no new centrifuges" policy will satisfy the hawks in Israel or Washington.

The Obama administration may have tragically misread Iran's interests, as every president has -- "tragic" because opportunities to improve the relationship are rare, and allowing our own obsessions to frame this singular diplomatic opening is possibly a colossal blunder. The nuclear issue needs to be put on the back burner. Other actions should come first, and, if successful, the nuclear controversy will be easier to resolve.

Why would Iran want nuclear weapons? Consider the map: They are surrounded by nuclear weapons states -- Israel, Pakistan, Russia and U.S. deployments in the region. Nuclear weapons, as we are often told, are the great equalizer, and Iran's security concerns are only too real: Iraq's Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against them while the "international community" stood mute. Bush and Israel threatened them repeatedly. Nuclear weapons would, in such reasoning, be an obvious option. They hedged against Saddam's WMD programs, and when he fell, they stopped their weapons development.

Not surprisingly, then, their frequent entreaty to the United States is for "security guarantees," which means, "don't attack us, don't overthrow our republic." Given such guarantees, and the actions that would persuade them of our sincerity, they are likely to seek cooperation over confrontation.

And the actions we could take are low-risk: lifting non-nuclear sanctions, unfreezing Iranian assets and moving toward normal diplomatic relations. The sanctions, by any measure, are a failure. And the absurdity of not being able to speak directly to Iran is not only foolhardy but counterproductive. Our capacity to speak directly to the Soviets was one of the instruments that ended the Cold War.

So Obama and his advisers seem have the policy backwards. However welcome the new rhetoric from the president himself, the primary interest in the nuclear issue as the next step in the engagement is premature.

We need to do the other things first, and then the nuclear issue will follow suit. Demonstrate not only that we do not threaten Iran (and continue to block Israel's attempts to bomb Iran), but that we will stop the policies of strangulation. At the same time, Obama's vows on nuclear disarmament could go a long way toward fulfilling our obligations to global norms on nuclear weapons, which would provide Iran with more tangible evidence of our own good intentions.

Sooner or later, Iran will need to reciprocate, of course, but the United States, as the vastly more powerful nation and the one that until recently offered only a mailed fist, must take the conciliatory actions first.

We risk nothing and stand to gain so much -- in enhanced security for Iraq, Afghanistan and even Israel -- if we take these simple, if bold, steps.

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