Saturday, January 25, 2014

Can We Engage Iran?

Most of us are hoping we are able to work out a deal with Iran. The President puts the odds at 50-50. I'm a bit more optimistic, 60-40 maybe. Why? I think our actions in the Middle East since 2008 have convinced Iran that we are no longer an imminent threat, that we have taken regime change off the priority list, and that we are coming to understand that countries in the region must work out their own futures. decide their own fates. In other words, Iran might be able to trust us, just enough to pull back on the nuclear weapons program, but not enough to abandon it completely, in case we turn menacing again. The challenge is to craft an agreement with enough inspection protocols so we will know if they suddenly move to weapons breakout. If we have that and they maintain enrichment capability, neither of us will feel "optionless", and therefore deeply vulnerable. I think we'll get there.

My point in this blog is actually to point out how radical and dangerous this manner of looking at Iran will seem to many of the key players in this now unfolding drama - the GOP, many Democrats, neocons, AIPAC,  Netanyahu, and many foreign policy analysts who would call themselves "realists". Why dangerous? Dangerous because Iran is our enemy. They have killed, or supported the killing of Americans. After Al Qaeda they are the leading terrorist system in the world. They fund Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Israel. They are supplying money and fighters to protect Assad in Syria, thus preventing a good conclusion to the Syrian civil war. They are a theocracy, completely in the grip of a messianic religious ideology and therefore, not rational actors. If they had the bomb, they would use it. They always cheat and lie in negotiations. They cannot ever be trusted. Only a complete destruction of their nuclear capability will give us a reasonable outcome.

Obama gets Iran's viewpoint. He has the integral leader's capacity to fully enter into the perspective of the other, even -no, particularly when that other is considered an enemy. If you were an Iranian leader, why in the world would you think anything other than that America is an existential threat to your existence? On January 29, 2002, President Bush declared that Iran, along with North Korea and Iraq formed the "Axis of Evil". The following Spring, the US invaded Iraq, captured Saddam Hussein, and effected regime change. In 2008, Senator McCain, the GOP presidential candidate, was caught on camera singing about bombing Iran. Why wouldn't Iran fear the US? And why wouldn't they want a nuclear capacity to defend themselves? In fact, why wouldn't they work through proxies (Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas) to destabilize Israeli, Sunni and American control of the region? Iran's job as a country, quite simply, is to protect itself and its people. That's the very rational manner in which they have been acting, for quite some time now.

But right from the start of his Presidency, with his Cairo speech on June 4, 2009, new President Obama called for change. He extended an invitation to all, enemies and friends, to engage with the United States, to see if we could work together to find ways to solve old problems, and new ones - problems on the world scene that increasingly needed collaborative, multi-country engagement to solve - WMD proliferation, climate change, resource scarcity, poverty and sectarian conflict. A week later, when the elections in Iran gave Ahmadinejad a lopsided, and surely rigged victory, and the country exploded in the Green protests, the President was very circumspect, clearly choosing not to intervene or to be seen supporting efforts for regime change, saying that the form of their Government was fully up to the Iranian people. Then the withdrawal from Iraq. The surge but simultaneous planned pull-down date for troops to leave Afghanistan. And perhaps above all, the last minute decision not to strike Syria: rather working with Russia to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons.

Can you see the long game Obama was playing? Much of this was designed to create a conversation with Iran - the one that has taken five years to become verbal and face to face, the one going on right now.

Getting an agreement with Iran will not be the hard part. It will be selling the deal at home and to Israel. So many are committed to the holding of Iran as enemy, as a force of evil in the world that must be destroyed, not engaged.

This is not a game for the weak of heart. Appeasing evil is frowned on in this country. Not agreeing with the wise folks who recognize evil beyond a shadow of a doubt is also not likely to make you many friends.

Obama is up for the challenge. And we must pray for him!

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