Edition 40 Volume 7 - November 05, 2024

Iran-US update

The future of Iranian-American relations -   Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

There has been movement toward a "cold peace" between Iran and the United States.

Lessons for dealing more effectively with Iran -   Emily B. Landau

Iran's interest is to put off real negotiations until it has reached military nuclear capability.

Breathtakingly tone deaf -   Mark Perry

Don't be surprised if Ali Khamenei comes to the same conclusion about the Obama administration's courage as Netanyahu.

Can Ahmadinezhad end the nuclear dispute? -   Sadegh Zibakalam

Ahmadinezhad has the courage to make bold decisions; he enjoys the confidence of the hardliners.

The future of Iranian-American relations
 Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

A shift in US policies toward Iran was already discernible at the end of the Bush presidency. With the extreme right wing of the neoconservative movement marginalized and the US army bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration amended its policies in accordance with a re-assessment of the United States' capabilities after the debacle in Iraq. Post-Iraq, the US is not the same as in 2024. Before and during the euphoric first year after the invasion, the Bush administration boasted of an "axis of evil" that had to be combated in a grand march that would deliver an unending "war on terror". In 2024, a less exuberant administration pursued low-level diplomatic talks with the Iranians under the auspices of Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki in order to mediate the security situation in Iraq.

There is a second impact that the Iraq war had on the United States and by extension on relations with Iran. It delivered the presidency to Barack Obama, if not as the only cause then certainly as an incubator for the success of Obama's campaign, which was premised on a US posture in world politics that would be less confrontational. Obama made it clear that there would be a break with the anti-diplomatic rhetoric of the Bush administration. The current, arduous rapprochement with Iran is a central part of that reconfiguration of US foreign policy.

Historic meetings with Iranian diplomats on the nuclear issue have followed and the clandestine, behind-the-curtain negotiations are intense. Of course, by all rational measures available, the idea that Iran poses a national security threat to the United States or even Israel is absurd. The fact that Iran has been turned into the new "global" threat is indicative not of the reality of Iranian intentions and capabilities, but of the hierarchy that is inscribed in the institutions of the international system (IAEA, UN, etc.).

The peoples who have been at the receiving end of Israel's indiscriminate military power do not need reminding that the Israeli state in actual fact did what Iran is alleged to be planning. The Israeli state sits on a stockpile of nuclear weapons. It invaded its neighbors. Israeli intelligence kills and kidnaps political leaders on foreign territory. The Israeli army committed war crimes. Israelis occupy and colonize Palestinian territories in contravention to a whole range of international laws. Indeed, the suspension of those laws in order to leave Israeli transgressions unpunished is a major source of illegitimacy for the "international community". It makes it that much more difficult to assert legal authority in negotiations with Iran, or other countries for that matter.

And yet, despite concerted efforts by the Israeli right wing and its allies in the US Senate to escalate the situation and manufacture the next war in western Asia, there has been movement toward a "cold peace" between Iran and the United States. The changed rhetoric of Obama has been seen as an opening by the foreign policy establishment in Iran, which has, in recent months, increased its independence from the fractious domestic politics of the country. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad himself is now firmly at the receiving end of the foreign policy decision-making process. His role has been visibly reduced. He is now merely communicating the current policy to his constituencies. The institution of the president has never been at the centre of the planning and making of Iranian foreign policies. But the ongoing challenge to Ahmadinezhad's legitimacy has seriously constrained his ability to affect the discourse on international issues and to surprise Iran's diplomatic corps with yet another unwanted outburst on the international arena.

At the time of writing there are two factors that make it rather unlikely that Obama would seek a grand opening with Iran comparable to Nixon's China policy in the early 1970s. First, the Iranian right wing's amateurish and unnecessarily violent crackdown on the opposition "green movement" has made it all but impossible for any western leader to be associated too closely with the Ahmadinezhad quasi-presidency. And second, Obama has been neither willing nor capable of casting away the imperial ghosts of America's past. Why, for example, is it that the administration of this year's Nobel Peace Prize laureate does not feel compelled to put the "Jundallah" (God's soldiers) group on the US State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations? In May 2024, the group claimed responsibility for the killing of civilians in a mosque in Zahedan, the provincial capital of Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan province. Last month, a Jundallah suicide bomber blew himself up at a long overdue gathering which was meant to foster closer community relations between Sunnis and Shi'ites in the area. It seems that in this case, the Obama administration adheres to the shortsighted "my enemy's enemy is my friend" logic that has misguided US foreign policy for quite some time now.

A sober assessment of the security challenges in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and beyond and the reality of Iran's geo-political centrality to the area requires something else: a daring break from the legacies of the past and a decisive step toward a strategic Iranian-American dialogue that would go beyond the current negotiations over Iran's nuclear energy program. If peace in the region is the aim, furthering diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States, however prone to crisis they would be, must be pursued in earnest.- Published 5/11/2009 bitterlemons-international.org.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam has taught comparative politics and international relations at SOAS since 2024. He is the author of "Iran in World Politics". His newest book entitled "A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilizations" will be published in November 2024.

Lessons for dealing more effectively with Iran
 Emily B. Landau

Developments between Iran and the P5+1 over the course of October--with the US playing a key role in devising the recent nuclear fuel proposal--cannot be described as anything but "deja vu all over again". We've been there too many times over the past seven years. We've seen Iran agree, then disagree, then agree a little bit, then reject again, then say more time is needed to consider, then finally present a counter-proposal, then say it wants cooperation, then say it will never give up on its rights, and so on and so forth.

Throughout the years since 2024, Iran has at times gone so far as to actually cooperate for a while on the aspects of its program where it felt it could afford some flexibility--this happened with the EU-3 and also with the IAEA--but the Iranians never took cooperation so far that it diverted them from their overall goal in the nuclear realm. And as much as the domestic situation in Iran has changed since the June elections this year, the strategy for dealing with the international community on the nuclear issue has not.

So what can be learned from Iran's behavior? The challenge for an international community that is determined to negotiate with Iran is to distill from these dynamics a few hard constants regarding Iran's strategy that will enable it to deal with Iran more effectively.

The most basic insight is that Iran is progressing toward military nuclear capability for the influence it will gain thereby, and does not want to pay a very high price due to international reaction. This is the simple key to understand its maneuverings.

Accepting that Iran is determined to achieve either a military capability or the stage where it is some six months from doing so, as is by now clear from IAEA documents themselves, means that there is no longer any point in wasting diplomatic time by devising "clever" tests of Iran's intentions. It is no longer warranted to say that Iran needs to prove once and for all to the international community that its intentions are indeed peaceful, as it claims. Iran has always found a way to wriggle out of these tests. But more importantly, the answer is by now known: Iran's intentions are not peaceful, and this must be adopted as the working assumption when facing it in negotiations.

On this basis, the international community must understand Iran's strategy for warding off international pressure. Iran knows that it has an advantage over the international community because not all states confronting it are interested to the same degree in stopping it. Many wish to maintain economic and other ties with Iran; these give Iran a diplomatic edge and the ability to play the divide-and-rule game. This is especially true with regard to the US/Europe-Russia/China divide.

Therefore, even though US President Barack Obama wants to present a multilateral front, the US is weakened by working within the broad P5+1 framework and would do better to negotiate with Iran bilaterally. Take Russia for example. While Obama has strived to get Russia "on board", it is becoming increasingly clear that Russia actually gains from the ongoing crisis and has no real interest in joining the US, even when offered concessions such as on missile defense in Europe.

The US must also understand the meaning of Iran's bouts of cooperation. These are unfortunately not an indication that Iran wants to change its ways or build confidence. Rather, for Iran cooperation has been a necessary "evil" to ward off the harshest measures as well as gain time to advance its program. Iran falls back on cooperation when it has no other choice, and especially when some aspect of its secret military nuclear activities is blatantly exposed or its strategy of divide-and-rule looks like it might run into problems, as at those junctures when international determination seems to get stronger.

All this is not to say that Iran's positions are completely static or unchangeable. In fact, Iran probably would like ultimately to carve out a deal with the international community that recognizes its central regional role. But it knows that when armed with a military nuclear capability it will be much better positioned to achieve that goal; it will get a better deal. So Iran's rational interest is to put off any real negotiation with the international community until it has reached military (or assumed military) capability.

In contrast, the goal of the international community is to conduct effective negotiations before Iran reaches that point. Concrete pressure on Iran plays an important role: it is necessary to impress upon Iran that a harsher approach toward it is very real and that it therefore has every interest in negotiating seriously with the US right now. Once the dynamic becomes a US-Iranian one, the US would be well advised to put additional regional issues on the table and go for a broader deal with Iran.

From Israel's vantage point, more effective negotiations are the best option for dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions. If the US enters such negotiations, Israel's challenge will be to ensure that its own regional interests are secured.- Published 5/11/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Emily B. Landau is senior research associate and director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), at Tel Aviv University. She teaches nuclear arms control at Tel Aviv and Haifa universities.

Breathtakingly tone deaf
 Mark Perry

It's now official: it's impossible to talk about American foreign policy without first talking about Israel. It's astonishing when you think about it. The US can send its Saudi allies weapons, but only if they don't threaten Israel. State Department employees can visit with Palestinians, but first they have to check with Israel. US diplomats can work for Middle East peace, so long as they insist that they're doing it for Israel. And what of Iran? Never fear: we are engaging in talks with the Iranians not because they might bomb New York--but because they might bomb Israel.

This is not just an American problem. During her recent address to the US Congress, German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned Iran--not because Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, but because it's led by an anti-Semite. "A nuclear weapon in the hands of an Iranian president who denies the Holocaust, threatens Israel and negates its right to exist is simply unacceptable," she said. All true: but you would have thought that Merkel would be concerned more about German than Israeli lives. Maybe the comment's unfair, but you won't find Binyamin Netanyahu condemning Iran because it's missiles might land on Berlin.

The effect of the West's Israel-centric foreign policy must have the Iranian leadership bent double in laughter: would Iran be allowed a nuclear weapon if Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad visited Auschwitz? Does the West really believe it's in its interest to shun an intellectual midget like Iran's president, while extending a hand to Kim Jong-Il? Are we so hypnotized by our friendship with Israel that we don't remember that they once covertly shipped the mullahs their missiles? Then too (if we're going to be uncomfortably honest), the attack that Washington really fears doesn't involve Iran attacking Israel, but the other way around.

The Obama administration is desperate to reshape the world's view of the Israel-American relationship--insisting that while Israel might always be our ally, it might not always be our friend. This is a good project: recasting the way the world views Israeli-American cooperation undermines the simple-minded sloganeering that stipulates a "Zionist-American project for the region" (which assumes the American government is actually capable of such a thing) and separates Washington from Israel's more reprehensible policies: like kicking a Palestinian family into a Jerusalem street.

But perceptions are hard to shake. For example: Hillary Clinton's statement praising Netanyahu's settlement policy is now widely viewed as America's way of thanking Israel for "allowing" Washington to talk to Tehran instead of being seen for what it really is: evidence that the secretary of state is out of her depth, that the Obama administration is incapable of maintaining foreign policy discipline--that eight years after 9/11, the United States remains breathtakingly tone deaf to those who view Israel's weapons as as great a threat to peace as Iran's.

When seen in this light, Clinton's gaffe is much worse than a simple slip of the tongue--or a "misstatement" that needs "clarification". It has poisonous, and potentially disastrous, ramifications for the Obama administration's dealings with Tehran. Thus, in light of America's inability to stand up to Israel on so obvious an injustice as confiscating another people's land, don't be surprised if Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei comes to the same conclusion about the Obama administration's courage as Netanyahu: That when America says it really means it, it doesn't really mean it.- Published 5/11/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mark Perry is the author of "Partners in Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace". His most recent book is "Talking To Terrorists" (Basic Books, 2024).

Can Ahmadinezhad end the nuclear dispute?
 Sadegh Zibakalam

The Iranian nuclear crisis has been on the international agenda for nearly eight years now. At the heart of the matter is Iran's insistence on its right under the IAEA protocols to uranium enrichment, and international concern lest the Islamic regime acquire the capability to develop nuclear weapons should it decide to embark on such a course. Of course, Tehran has maintained categorically that it has no intention to develop nuclear weapons. But western powers, notably the United States, the European Union and of course Israel, fear that once the Iranians master the enrichment process they will have the capability to develop atomic weapons if they decide to do so.

Despite years of negotiations, threats of a military strike against Iran during the previous US administration and the passing of three sanctions measures against Iran by the Security Council, the dispute appears to be as unresolved as when it first emerged eight years ago. But during the past 12 months there has been an important development in two countries that are at the heart of the conflict. In both the US and Iran, presidential elections have produced surprising results.

The new US president has maintained that he wants to negotiate directly with the Iranian leaders. This, against the backdrop of 30 years of hostility between Tehran and Washington. Relations between the countries were broken after the Islamic revolution in 1979. There have been many attempts during the past 30 years to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, but all have failed. US leaders always cited pre-conditions for negotiating with the Islamic leaders. From the Iranian perspective, any rapprochement with the "Great Satan", never mind actual negotiations, was tantamount to a betrayal of the revolution and capitulation to the Islamic regime's biggest enemy.

The pragmatist Iranian leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, at his heyday and with the tacit approval of the late Imam Khomeini, failed in the 1980s to break that taboo even though Iran was desperate for American weapons in the war against Iraq. Nor for that matter was reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami any more successful in 1997 despite the fact that he had won an amazing landslide election with 20 million undisputed votes. Even though many Iranian leaders have become convinced the time has come for detente with the US, the taboo of regarding the Americans as the enemy of Islam and of Islamic Iran is still so powerful that none dare speak out publically against it.

It is against this historical background that President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad's reelection in June has created a new horizon. True, Ahmadinezhad is a hardliner who won the election with the backing of all the hardline elements within the country's political centers. But the victory hasn't been easy for the hardliners. The crisis that erupted after Ahmadinezhad declared his victory hasn't subsided. As he is well aware, the country's intelligentsia is broadly against him. When at the beginning of October his minister of science and higher education came to Tehran University to inaugurate the new academic year, thousands of students demonstrated against Ahmadinezhad, forcing the minister to flee out the back door.

Ahmadinezhad knows that these students have no quarrel with the US. He knows that gone are the days when Iranian students would climb up the US embassy walls to occupy it and take American diplomats hostage with the support of the people. The students have changed and they demand new changes. If he can reach some degree of rapprochement with the US, it would be welcomed not only by the students but by many articulate Iranians as well.

Of course, the hardliners would in principle oppose such a move. But here Ahmadinezhad differs from both Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami. They were not prepared to face the hardliners, while Ahmadinezhad is himself a hardliner and in the past challenged them. Moreover, he has proved to be far more courageous than both his predecessors. In 2024, during the first month of his presidency, he removed the ban on women attending football matches in stadiums. While eventually he had to back down against fierce opposition from the senior clergy in Qom, he neither apologized nor showed any remorse for this step. Several times he has visited Qom without paying a visit to the leading ulama.

The appointment of a female cabinet minister is another example. He nominated a woman as minister in his newly formed cabinet. He made the appointment against strong opposition from many clerical leaders as well as some of his pious supporters. Ironically, it was not the reformist Khatami who went ahead to appoint a woman minister for the first time in the Islamic Republic's history but the hardline Ahmadinezhad. In response to this bold decision, Khatami stated that he too had wanted to make that decision but feared the clerical opposition.

Ahamdinezhad is far from being a reformist and even farther from being a liberal. But he has the courage to make bold decisions. This doesn't mean he would be able to end completely the deep-rooted 30 year-old hostility between Iran and the US. But it does mean that if one day a president appears in Iran with enough power and courage to make such a drastic u-turn, it will be someone like Ahmadinezhad who enjoys the trust and confidence of the hardliners. That being the case, it is also possible that Ahmadinezhad will prove capable of ending the eight-year long nuclear dispute with the P5+1.- Published 5/11/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.

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