If Obama Wants Anything Productive with Iran, He's Going to Have to Show a Little R.e.s.p.e.c.t
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In Election 2012’s theatre-of-the-absurd “foreign policy” debate, Iran came up no less than 47 times. Despite all the fear, loathing, threats, and lies in that billionaire’s circus of a campaign season, Americans were nonetheless offered virtually nothing substantial about Iran, although its (non-existent) WMDs were relentlessly hawked as the top U.S. national security issue. (The world was, however, astonished to learn from candidate Romney that Syria, not the Persian Gulf, was that country’s “route to the sea.”)
Now, with the campaign Sturm und Drang behind us but the threats still around, the question is: Can Obama 2.0 bridge the gap between current U.S. policy (we don't want war, but there will be war if you try to build a bomb) and Persian optics (we don't want a bomb -- the Supreme Leader said so -- and we want a deal, but only if you grant us some measure of respect)? Don’t forget that a soon-to-be-reelected President Obama signaled in October the tiniest of possible openings toward reconciliation while talking about the “pressure” he was applying to that country, when he spoke of “our policy of... potentially having bilateral discussions with the Iranians to end their nuclear program.”
Tehran won’t, of course, “end” its (legal) nuclear program. As for that “potentially,” it should be a graphic reminder of how the establishment in Washington loathes even the possibility of bilateral negotiations.
Mr. President, Tear Down This Wall
Let’s start with the obvious but important: on entering the Oval Office in January 2009, President Obama inherited a seemingly impregnable three-decade-long “Wall of Mistrust” in Iran-U.S. relations. To his credit, that March he directly addressed all Iranians in a message for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, calling for an “engagement that is honed and grounded in mutual respect.” He even quoted the thirteenth century Persian poet Sa’adi: “The children of Adam are limbs of one body, which God created from one essence.”
And yet, from the start he was crippled by a set of Washington misconceptions as old as that wall, and by a bipartisan consensus for an aggressive strategy toward Iran that emerged in the George W. Bush years when Congress ponied up $400 million for a set of “covert operations” meant to destabilize that country, including cross-border operations by special forces teams. All of this was already based on the dangers of “the Iranian bomb.”
A September 2008 report by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, was typical in assuming a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran as a fact. It was drafted by Michael Rubin from the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, the same AEI that had unashamedly promoted the disastrous 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Several future Obama advisers “unanimously approved” the report, including Dennis Ross, former senator Charles Robb, future Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, Anthony Lake, future U.N. ambassador Susan Rice, and Richard Clarke. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate by all U.S. intelligence agencies stating that Iran had ended any nuclear weapons program in 2003 was bluntly dismissed.
Mirroring the Bush administration’s “all options are on the table” approach (including cyberwar), the report proposed -- what else? -- a military surge in the Persian Gulf, targeting “not only Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but also its conventional military infrastructure in order to suppress an Iranian response.” In fact, such a surge would indeed begin before George W. Bush left office and only increase in scope in the Obama years.
The crucial point is this: as tens of millions of U.S. voters were choosing Barack Obama in 2008, in part because he was promising to end the war in Iraq, a powerful cross-section of Washington elites was drafting an aggressive blueprint for a future U.S. strategy in the region that stretched from North Africa to Central Asia and that the Pentagon was then still calling the “arc of instability.” And the key plank in this strategy was a program to create the conditions for a military strike against Iran.
With an Obama 2.0 administration soon to be in place, the time to solve the immensely complex Iranian nuclear drama is now. But as Columbia University’s Gary Sick, a key White House adviser on Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the Tehran hostage crisis of 1979-1981, has suggested, nothing will be accomplished if Washington does not start thinking beyond its ever-toughening sanctions program, now practically set in stone as “politically untouchable.”
Sick has proposed a sound path, which means that it has no hope of being adopted in Washington. It would involve private bilateral discussions by credible negotiators for both sides based on a mutually agreed-upon agenda. These would be followed by full-blown negotiations under the existing P5+1 framework (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- U.S., Russia, China, France, and Britain -- plus Germany).
Considering the frantic post-2009 seesawing of sanctions, threats, cyber attacks, military surges, and colossal mutual incomprehension, no one in his right mind would expect a pattern of “mutual respect” to emerge easily out of Washington’s “dual track” approach.
It took Ambassador Hossein Mousavian, research scholar at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and spokesperson for the Iranian nuclear negotiating team from 2003 to 2005, to finally explain it all last August in a single sentence: "The history of Iran's nuclear program suggests that the West is inadvertently pushing Iran toward nuclear weapons." Chas Freeman, former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, agrees,suggesting in a recent speech that Iran now “seems to be reenacting Israel’s clandestine weapons development program of five decades ago, developing capabilities to build and deliver nuclear weapons while denying that it intends actually to do any such thing.”
What makes these developments even more absurd is that a solution to all this madness exists. As I’ve written elsewhere, to satisfy the concerns of the West regarding Iran's 20% stockpile of enriched uranium,
“a mutually acceptable solution for the long term would entail a ‘zero stockpile.’ Under this approach, a joint committee of the P5+1 and Iran would quantify the domestic needs of Iran for use of 20% enriched uranium, and any quantity beyond that amount would be sold in the international market or immediately converted back to an enrichment level of 3.5%. This would ensure that Iran does not possess excess 20% enriched uranium forever, satisfying the international concerns that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. It would be a face-saving solution for all parties as it would recognize Iran's right to enrichment and would help to negate concerns that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.”
Time to Hit the New Silk Road(s)
The current U.S. strategy is not exactly a raging success. Economist Djavad Salehi-Esfahani has explained how Tehran’s theocratic rulers continue to successfully manage the worst effects of the sanctions and a national currency in free fall by using the country’s immense oil and natural gas wealth to subsidize essential imports. Which brings us to the bedrock question of this -- or possibly any other -- moment: Will Obama 2.0 finally admit that Washington doesn’t need regime change in Tehran to improve its relationship with that country?
Only with such an admission (to itself, if not the world) are real negotiations leading to a Wall of Mistrust-blasting deal possible. This would undoubtedly include a genuine dÃ©tente, an acceptance of Iran’s lawful pursuit of a peaceful nuclear program, guarantees that the result would not be a covert weapons project, and a turning away from the possibility of a devastating war in the Persian Gulf and the oil heartlands of the Greater Middle East.
Theoretically, it could also include something else: an Obama “Nixon in China” moment, a dramatic journey or gesture by the U.S. president to decisively break the deadlock. Yet as long as a barrage of furiously misinformed anti-Iran hawks in Washington, in lockstep with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government, deploy a relentless PR offensiveburning with incendiary rhetoric, “red lines,” deadlines, and preemptive sabotage of the P5+1 negotiations, such a moment, such a gesture, will remain the faintest of dreams.
And even such an elusive “Obama in Tehran” moment would hardly be the end of the story. It would be more like a salutary twist in the big picture. To understand why, you need to grasp just how crucial Iran’s geopolitical positioning is. After all, in energy and other terms that country is the ultimate crossroads of Eurasia, and so the pivot of the world. Strategically, it straddles the supply lines for a sizeable part of the globe’s oil and gas reserves and is a privileged hub for the distribution of energy to South Asia, Europe, and East Asia at a moment when both China and India are emerging as potential great powers of the twenty-first century.
The urge to control that reality lies at the heart of Washington’s policy in the region, not an Iranian “threat” that pales as soon as the defense spending of the two countries is compared. After all, the U.S. spends nearly a $1 trillion on “defense” annually; Iran, a maximum of $12 billion -- less, that is, than the United Arab Emirates, and only 20% of the total defense expenditures of the six Persian Gulf monarchies grouped in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Moreover, the Iranian nuclear “threat” would disappear for good if Obama 2.0 ever decided to push for making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. Iran and the GCC have endorsed the idea in the past. Israel -- a de facto (if never officially acknowledged) nuclear power with an arsenal of up to 300 warheads-- has rejected it.
Yet the big picture goes way beyond the strategic gaming of the U.S. and Israel about Iran’s possible future arsenal. Its position at the ultimate Southwest Asian strategic crossroads will determine much about the future New Great Game in Eurasia -- especially whose version of a modern Silk Road will prevail on the great energy chessboard I call Pipelineistan.
I’ve argued for years that all these intertwined developments must be analyzed together, including Washington’s announced Asian military “pivot” (aka “rebalancing”). That strategy, unveiled in early 2012 by President Obama, was supposed to refocus Washington’s attention away from its two disastrous wars in the Greater Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region with a special focus on containing China. Once again, Iran happens to lie right at the heart of that new policy, given how much of its oil and natural gas heads east to China over waters patrolled by the U.S. Navy.
In other words, it hardly matters that Iran is a rickety regional power run by aging theocrats with an only modestly impressive military. The relationship between Obama 2.0 and Iran is guaranteed to involve the nuclear question, but also (whether acknowledged or not) the global flow of energy across Pipelineistan, and Washington’s future relations with China and the rest of Asia. It will also involve Beijing’s concerted movements to prop up the yuan in relation to the dollar and, at the same time, accelerate the death of the petrodollar. Finally, behind all of the above lies the question of who will dominate Eurasia’s twenty-first century energy version of the old Silk Road.
At the 2012 Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) meeting in Tehran, India, Iran, and Afghanistan pushed for the creation of what might be called a new southern Silk Road -- really a network of roads, railways, and major ports that would connect Iran and its energy wealth ever more closely to Central and South Asia. For Delhi (as for Beijing), getting closer to both Afghanistan and especially Iran is considered crucial to its Eurasian strategy, no matter how much Washington may disapprove.
India is betting on the port of Chabahar in Iran, China on the port of Gwadar in Pakistan (and of course a gas pipeline from there to Iran) as key transshipment hubs linking Central Asia and the Gulf. Both ports will be key pawns inPipelineistan’s New Great Game, which is quickly slipping from Washington’s control. In both cases, despite its drive to isolate Iran, there is little the Obama administration can do to prevent these and other instances of closer Eurasian integration.
Washington’s grand strategy for a “Greater Central Asia” under its control once centered on Afghanistan and India. Its disastrous Afghan War has, however, blown a hole through its plans; so, too, has its obsession with creating energy routes that bypass Iran (and Russia), which looks increasingly irrational to much of the rest of Eurasia. The only version of a Silk Road that the Obama administration has been able to devise has been war-related: theNorthern Distribution Network, a logistical marathon of routes crisscrossing Central Asia for bringing military supplies into Afghanistan without relying fully on an increasingly unreliable Pakistan.
Needless to say, in the long term, Moscow will do anything to prevent a U.S./NATO presence in Central Asia. As with Moscow, so with Beijing, which regards Central Asia as a strategic rearguard area when it comes to its energy supply and a place for economic expansion as well. The two will coordinate their policies aimed at leaving Washington in the lurch through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. That’s also how Beijing plans to channel its solution for eternally war-torn Afghanistan and so secure its long-term investments in mineral and energy exploitation. Ultimately, both Russia and China want post-2014 Afghanistan to be stabilized by the United Nations.
The ancient Silk Road was humanity’s first globalization highway centered on trade. Now, China in particular is pushing for its own ambitious version of a new Silk Road focused on tapping into energy -- oil and natural gas -- from Myanmar to Iran and Russia. It would, in the end, link no less than 17 countries via more than 8,000 kilometers of high-speed rail (on top of the 8,000 kilometers already built inside China). For Washington, this means one thing: an evolving Tehran-Beijing axis bent on ensuring that the U.S. strategic target of isolating Iran and forcing regime change on that country will be ever just out of reach.
Obama in Tehran?
So what remains of the initial Obama drive to reach out to Iran with an “engagement that is honed and grounded in mutual respect”? Not much, it seems.
Blame it -- once again -- on the Pentagon, for which Iran will remain a number one “threat,” a necessary enemy. Blame it on a bipartisan elite in Washington, supported by ranks of pundits and think tanks, who won’t let go of enmity against Iran and fear campaigns about its bomb. And blame it on an Israel still determined to force the U.S. into an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities that it desires. In the meantime, the U.S. military build-up in the Persian Gulf, already at staggering levels, goes on.
Somebody, it seems, has yet to break the news to Washington: we are in an increasingly multipolar world in which Eurasian powers Russia and China, and regional power Iran, simply won’t subscribe to its scenarios. When it comes to the New Silk Road(s) linking South Asia, Central Asia, Southwest Asia, and China, whatever Washington’s dreams may be, they will be shaped and constructed by Eurasian powers, not by the United States.
As for an Obama 2.0 “Nixon in China” moment transplanted to Tehran? Stranger things have happened on this planet. But under the present circumstances, don’t hold your breath.