Tehran and Washington: The Marathon Never Ends


Hosam Matar, (originally published in Al-Akhbar newspaper), Watching America.com Translated to english By Jackson Allan, Edited by Bora Mici, 22 March 2013

It is said that U.S.-Iranian relations follow the rules of a marathon and not those of a 100-meter sprint. After 30 years of tension, hostility and rival maneuvering, it seems that this expression certainly holds true.

Has the time come for a resolution to the U.S.-Iranian conflict? We could safely assume that this question deserves the Guinness world record as the most obscure question regarding the Middle East. It goes without saying that the absence of a resolution reflects the severity of the divisions in interests and ideology between the two sides. The Iranians have only experienced the U.S. as an arrogant, hegemonic power that does not respect the principles of domestic sovereignty, international law or even the legitimate interests of regional powers. On the other hand, the “shock of the [takeover of the] embassy” still governs the consciousness of the American people in relation to Iran. In addition, they understand Iran through a “defeated” people, the supporters of the Shah who left the country. Then, there is the ideological contradiction — similar to the one that existed between the U.S. and the Soviets — that prevents peaceful coexistence between the two sides. Martin Hollis and Steve Smith have written that the American and Soviet powers — from this perspective — did not belong to the same world: Each had a distinct form of life; therefore peaceful coexistence was impossible.

When it comes to Iran, the U.S. debates two core questions: Is our strategy containment or prevention? And, if it is prevention, what path must we follow in order to achieve that aim?

The first question has become as conventional as the answers to it. But the remarkable thing is that the second Obama administration has openly announced, through Secretary of State John Kerry (on Jan. 24, 2013) and Vice President Joe Biden (in March 2013), that its policy is “not containment, it is prevention,” which means that allowing a nuclear Iran, in military terms, is out of the question, even if that means resorting to war. [Zbigniew] Brzezinski harshly criticizes the logic of the idea that Iran possessing nuclear capabilities is an impermissible scenario, because “unacceptable is one of those words which means a lot and at the same time sometimes nothing.” According to him an alternative is deterrence: “We are deterring North Korea. We can deter Iran. I think the guarantee from the United States of complete protection … can work in the Middle East …

“We also have to say a conflict is not in our interest because we know if there’s a conflict, we will be hit by the Iranians. ”

But in his July 2012 Foreign Affairs article “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” Kenneth Waltz has gone even further, reasoning that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would create a more sustainable balance of military power in the Middle East, and that this would reinforce regional stability and not detract from it.

Regarding the second question, a U.S. trend supporting the idea of presenting an offer to Iran with the aim of reaching a resolution is growing. This trend believes that the effectiveness of potential military action is doubtful and that the sanctions, despite their ability to inflict damage, are not enough to alter Iran’s behavior, especially “when their objective is to humiliate the Iranians,”** as Brzezinski has said. The sanctions have become ineffective because Washington has not seriously put the question of [the conditions under which] they would be raised on the table. Obama could overcome the errors made by his predecessors if he accepts the limited nature of U.S. military power and puts his trust in diplomatic power, contends Reza Marashi in his Jan. 22, 2013 Foreign Policy article “Obama’s Moment of Truth on Iran.” The latest Gallup poll results, published on Feb. 7, 2013, support the “sterile” sanctions hypothesis: Sixty-three percent of Iranians support the continuation of the nuclear program in their country even though 48 percent said that they are directly suffering from the sanctions. The most important thing is that 47 percent blamed the sanctions on the U.S., while 10 percent blamed the Iranian government, and 23 percent are split between Israel, the Europeans and the United Nations.

In an Oct. 7, 2011 Washington Post editorial, Graham Allison had previously called upon Obama to seize Ahmadinejad’s offer to exchange uranium [for “specialized fuel enriched at 20 percent, for use in its research reactor that produces medical isotopes to treat cancer patients”]. He compared this step to the one Reagan took toward Gorbachev after the latter announced a new era of “openness.” From Berlin, Reagan called upon Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and that is what happened two years later.

Similarly, in his article Jan. 16, 2013 article “Obama, Offer Iran a Generous Deal,” published in The Atlantic, Patrick Clawson has called upon the Obama administration to present a generous offer to Iran that includes softening the sanctions and allowing flexibility on the uranium enrichment issue. Clawson believes that the P5+1 group adopted an old tactic to revive negotiations: “Change the question.” This tactic did not aim to stop enrichment but to guarantee that Iran is unable to manufacture nuclear weapons by [having Iran] ship uranium overseas [instead].

Dennis Ross, for his part, agrees that Iran, under the escalating pressure of the sanctions and given the seriousness [with which Iran’s opponents are considering the] military option, seems ready to accept a diplomatic initiative, especially if it includes acknowledging Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program.

“The proper environment now exists for diplomacy to work. The next few months will determine whether it succeeds,” he concludes in his article.

One of the risks of making this offer, on which Clawson, Allison and Ross agree, is that Tehran will neglect to take reciprocal steps or will execute them slowly to buy time. The most dangerous risk, though, is that any offer to Iran will be seen as an acknowledgment of its territorial aspirations, an idea that must be refuted in front of the Iranians, on one hand, and the allies of Washington, on the other. According to them, if the Iranians reject a generous offer, it would reveal the country’s true intentions and give legitimacy to a military operation, as a “necessary evil,” against it. Therefore, Robert Satloff, WINEP executive director, believes that Obama will probably present a “grand deal” to the Iranians during his second term.

On the other side, the “hawk” contingent, which includes Michael Singh and Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, still calls for more serious consideration of the military option. Going even further, Matthew Kroenig wrote in an eponymous feature, published in the January/February 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs, that it is “time to attack Iran” with a surgical military operation and then absorb the country’s response, quickly making moves to contain the crisis. Otherwise, Washington will be forced to face a greater cost in the future, a cost that could reach the point of nuclear warfare. But the remarkable conclusion came from the RAND think tank, which argues that neither diplomacy nor attempts at regime change will be useful. Therefore, the only thing left to do is to support reform in Iran by encouraging democratic change among its neighbors — a reference to the Arab Spring. Doing so would give credibility to U.S. efforts to support reform in Iran.

Despite these calls for presenting a grander bargain to Iran — a bargain whose features manifested in the round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group in Kurdistan , opening a small window in the deadlock — a grander resolution is still unachievable. This is especially true because “the 30-year-old U.S.-Iran enmity is no longer a phenomenon; it is an institution,” argues Trita Parsi, president National Iranian American Council, in his Jan. 25, 2012 article “How the U.S. and Iran Keep Failing To Find a Peace They Both Want” published in The Atlantic. Parsi concluded that the tendency of diplomats in each country to play on the deviltry of the other, internal complications, regional restrictions and the obscurity that a resolution could create all stand in the way of a grander resolution.

It follows that Iran appears to have extracted partial recognition of its status as a nuclear power and its right, in principle, to enrich uranium. Additionally, it has proven that sanctions and coercion are ineffective against it. The two sides need to cool the conflict, but their capacity to do that is directly tied to what is happening in Syria: The closer the Syrian conflict is to a resolution, the more flexibility the Iranians will show and vice versa. But, in conclusion, it is an issue of institutionalized enmity, in Parsi’s words. The marathon will continue, even if is interrupted by some rest breaks.



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