Obama Should Go to Iran

Recently by Michael S. Rozeff: Wrong Ideas Are Sinking America

George Bush's Iran policy was one blunder after another, beginning with placing Iran on an "axis of evil" list. His policy set out not to resolve the conflict between the U.S. and Iran. He followed through by spurning the opportunity for a settlement in 2003.

Bush's policy was to fight the "evil", which meant getting rid of that "evil". That meant either making Iran do what the U.S. wanted or changing the regime in Iran. The methods were to confront Iran, isolate it, stop it from becoming a regional power, get it to back down, weaken it, get it to abandon any and all its nuclear ambitions, sanction it, and support dissidents inside Iran. Iran would not only be contained, it would be reduced.

Bush's policy was anti-detente. It was neoconservative policy, that is, arrogant, self-righteous, vengeful, spiteful, pugnacious, and warlike policy. It was blind and stupid policy, based on the mistaken beliefs that U.S. military power is supreme and that the dominant and sole superpower will therefore get its way, by bomb or by drone, by threat or by sanction, by U.N. resolution or by war.

After Bush's eight disastrous years, one might suppose that a new administration, a Democrat administration, and a new president who had promised change might change Bush's policy toward Iran. This was not to be. Obama has not altered the anti-detente policy nor, for that matter, other of Bush's policies. To all those who expected that he would change Bush's Iran policy, Barack Obama has been a major and complete disappointment. He changed nothing but the occupants of the White House. He hand picked Hillary Clinton and others who, acting as his lieutenants, continued and expanded Bush's policy. Congress supported him by remaining firmly wedded to anti-detente.

The conflict between the U.S. and Iran has therefore not been resolved. It has been intensified.

Hillary Clinton is going to resign after the next election. If Obama is re-elected, that makes it easier for him to shift his Iran policy 180 degrees, should he choose to. He should do it, because the current policy has failed miserably and will continue to fail. The U.S. has gained nothing from seeking to undermine and isolate Iran. Instead it marches toward war.

The U.S. cannot eradicate the Iran regime, it cannot make Iran go away, and it cannot bring Iran under its control, that is, not without creating a disaster for itself and the entire world. The U.S. cannot change the regime in Iran by anything less than warring on Iran and occupying the country. Doing that entails huge costs and risks to the U.S., all the countries in that region, and the many other countries that would be affected by it, including Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Zbigniew Brzezinski recently said that an Israeli attack on Iran would create a disaster, So would a U.S. attack, possibly igniting the whole region, tying down the U.S. for years, sowing enmity between the U.S. and the major powers, driving up oil prices, undermining economies, and destroying world trade upon which global progress is based. Morally such an attack would be completely wrong. It would set peace back for the world's dominant power to launch a preventive or preemptive war. It would reinforce this doctrine among other nations. Force would become the heart of international relations. The peaceful application of rights in international law would be thwarted.

War against Iran is not a rational option but that fact reduces by very little the chance that Obama or a successor like Romney will make war and be supported by other European powers. If these leaders should have a few moments of sanity, then they may realize that what is rational is accommodation with Iran, a deal, give and take, a quid pro quo.

What is rational concerning Iran is detente.

Obama should "go to Iran" in the same way that Nixon went to China. His policy should be detente. By that I mean quite a bit more, what we might call "ultra" detente – a broad settlement of issues via negotiation. One can also term it rapprochement or accommodation. It has been called a "grand bargain". Naturally, I do not mean that he should go hat in hand to Teheran. I mean that the U.S. and Iran should negotiate the issues and cap an agreement with a symbolic meeting of some kind.

Neoconservatives will immediately object that this is easier said than done. This is a petty and false objection. Of course, it will take skilled diplomacy. But what it really takes is something that the neocons resist, which is a change of directions. Detente means that the U.S. recognizes Iran, treats it with respect, pledges to leave it alone, pledges its security from attack by the U.S., and integrates it into the world. Detente means that Iran settles its differences with Israel and stops using its proxies as threats to Israel. Detente means that Israel changes its policies so as to settle its outstanding differences with the Palestinians. Israel's nature as a state has to be clarified and settled if there is to be peace.

Detente will mean that Iran rises as a regional power and Israel declines, but this can be done diplomatically. The neocons want the U.S. and Israel to thwart Iran and for Israel to thwart the Palestinians. This is a policy of perpetual friction, tension and war. Detente aims for the opposite. If it can be done between the U.S. and Russia and between the U.S. and China, then it can be done between the U.S. and Iran and between Israel and its neighbors.

The neocons will claim that negotiation has been tried already. They will claim that Iran's leaders are irrational ideologues and that negotiation is impossible. These claims are totally false. Dr. Trita Parsi, in his 2007 book, Treacherous Alliance: the Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, debunks them completely. Parsi interviewed 130 American, Iranian and Israeli officials and analysts in order to understand their foreign relations. I recommend this book.

The best proof that Iran is rational, will negotiate, and that detente is possible is simply to read Iran's 2003 negotiation proposal to the United States. It is here and here. An interpretative article, one of many on the web, is here.

To understand U.S. intransigence with respect to Iran (and to understand the misinformation and lies that continually bombard Americans from their government), I quote Parsi at some length concerning the proposal:

"The Iranians prepared a comprehensive proposal, spelling out the contours of a potential grand bargain between the two countries addressing all points of contention between them. The first draft of the proposal was written by Sadegh Kharrazi, the nephew of the Iranian foreign minister and Iran's ambassador to France. The draft then went to Iran's supreme leader for approval, who asked Iran UN Ambassador Zarif to review it and make final edits before it was sent to the Americans. Only a closed circle of decision-makers in Tehran was aware of and involved in preparing the proposal – Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, President Mohammad Khatami, UN Ambassador Zarif, Ambassador to France Kharrazi, and Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. In addition, the Iranians consulted Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador to Iran, who eventually would deliver the proposal to Washington.

"The proposal stunned the Americans. Not only was it authoritative – it had the approval of the supreme leader – but its contents were astonishing as well. (See Appendix A.) u2018The Iranians acknowledged that WMD and support for terror were serious causes of concern for us, and they were willing to negotiate,' said Flynt Leverett, who served as senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council at the time. u2018The message had been approved by all the highest levels of authority.' The Iranians were putting all their cards on the table, declaring what they wanted from the United States and what they were willing to offer in return. u2018That letter went to the Americans to say that we are ready to talk, we are ready to address our issues,' said Mohammad Hossein Adeli, who was then a deputy foreign minister in Iran. In a dialogue of u2018mutual respect,' the Iranians offered to end their support to Hamas and Islamic Jihad – Iran's ideological brethren in the struggle against the Jewish State – and pressure them to cease attacks on Israel.

"On Hezbollah, Iran's own brainchild and its most reliable partner in the Arab world, the clerics offered to support the disarmament of the Lebanese militia and transform it into a purely political party. On the nuclear issue, the proposal offered to open up completely the Iranian nuclear program to intrusive international inspections in order to alleviate any fears of Iranian weaponization. The Iranians would sign the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and they also offered extensive American involvement in the program as a further guarantee and goodwill gesture. On terrorism, Tehran offered full cooperation against all terrorist organizations – above all, al-Qaeda. On Iraq, Iran would work actively with the United States to support political stabilization and establishment of democratic institutions and – most importantly – a nonreligious government. Perhaps most surprising of all, the Iranians offered to accept the Beirut Declaration of the Arab League – that is, the Saudi peace plan from March 2002, in which the Arab states offered to make peace collectively with Israel, recognizing and normalizing relations with the Jewish State in return for Israeli agreement to withdraw from all occupied territories and accept a fully independent Palestinian state; an equal division of Jerusalem; and an equitable resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. Through this step, Iran would formally recognize the two-state solution and consider itself at peace with Israel. This was an unprecedented concession by Tehran."

The Bush administration spurned this offer. I quote Parsi:

"Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, favored a positive response to the Iranians. Together with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, they approached the president about the proposal, but instead of instigating a lively debate on the details of a potential American response, Cheney and Rumsfeld quickly put the matter to an end. Their argument was simple but devastating. u2018We don't speak to evil,' they said."

Will Obama pursue detente if he retains office? The signs are anything but favorable at this time, but political shifts of this nature are always possible – possible but unlikely.

The sooner detente is recognized as the best course, chosen, begun and carried through, the better. If, for example, Bush had engaged the Iranians constructively at the outset, the nuclear issue would have been much easier to handle than it now is, because now Iran has much more knowledge and has built up a greater capability to exercise various nuclear options, should it choose to.

But even before detente, right now, Obama must stop Israel from attacking Iran. He must do so in the strongest ways available to him, like denying airspace to Israel for refueling its bombers. The urgency of this is extremely high. It overshadows anything else in the immediate future. This is because Israel has a preemption doctrine that it has acted on before, and because the rhetoric now coming out of Israel has grown more and more strident, paranoid and open about bombing Iran.

In this regard, the recent reports about Leon Panetta's thinking are extremely troubling. We have been told that Panetta "was concerned about the increased likelihood Israel would launch an attack over the next few months." Concerned?! Is that all? Just concerned? What's he doing about it? If this is what he was willing to leak, it makes the U.S. sound passive and helpless, which it is not. He should already have formulated a strong response that such an action was absolutely not acceptable and that the U.S. would prevent Israel from doing it by preventing their airplanes from flying over Iraq and refueling. Is Obama asleep? Does he not understand the implications of an Israeli attack? I can only hope that the cables being sent to Israel are unambiguously warning off the Israeli government from bombing now or ever.

The foreign policy toward Iran is being conducted so poorly by the U.S. government that it would be better to choose a dozen Americans at random, give them a few weeks to acquaint themselves with the now-secret information, have them educate themselves, have them reach a unanimous opinion and then negotiate with Iran. I have more confidence in a "jury" of this type than in the U.S. government.

A shift to detente requires serious and persistent diplomacy, not threats and not sanctions. In his latest book, A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama's Diplomacy with Iran, Parsi documents that Obama and Hillary Clinton have spurned detente and not given diplomacy a chance.

Behind the suggestion for detente is the assumption that the U.S.-Iran conflict is not fundamentally ideological or religious. It is geopolitical. Parsi makes a case that this is factual. The 2003 grand bargain that the Iranians put on the table confirms this, but there is much other evidence to confirm it.

Going for detente assumes that Iran's leaders are rational. They are. Any kind of thoughtful research that goes below the headlines to examine Iran's policies confirms that fact, including Parsi's book.

Can detente come out of the Republican camp?

The Republican that is now out in front for the nomination is Mitt Romney. His policy on Iran, like that of Bush and Obama, is identical to the Bush-Obama policy:

"Well, it's worth putting in place crippling sanctions. It's worth working with the insurgents in the country to encourage regime change in the country. And if all else fails, if after all of the work we've done, there's nothing else we could do besides mil – take military action, then of course you take military action."

Why? Why is all this worth it? Because, says Romney,

"…the gravest threat that America and the world faced as – and faced was a nuclear Iran…"

Not at all. Iran was willing to limit its nuclear ambitions to peaceful uses and swear off any nuclear arms production. This is rational for Iran because if it produces a nuclear bomb, then the nearby Arab states will want to do the same. If they do so, that will neutralize Iran's current advantage in conventional arms. It's rational for Iran to want to have at hand the option to build nuclear weapons but not actually to build them and set off a nuclear arms race that equalizes them and their neighbors.

Romney's statement is no more useful for establishing a foreign policy toward Iran than the notion that Saddam Hussein was a "grave threat."

At present, the U.S. and Israel threaten Iran. If it did ever arm itself with nuclear weapons, they would be at best a counter-threat and a deterrent to their own country being bombed and destroyed.

The U.S. has Iran surrounded. Israel reportedly has hundreds of nuclear weapons and is prepared to drop them, altogether too readily. Important elements in Israel do not believe in Iran's rationality. This is a very dangerous misconception upon which to base its foreign policy. The U.S. can destroy Iran's infra-structure in a matter of a few months, even without nuclear bombs. The U.S. is making the demands on Iran, it is imposing the sanctions, not the other way around. Iran has no nuclear weapons, in possession, in production, or in development, and everyone agrees on that. Its missiles can go no further than about 1,500 miles.

If Iran did have nuclear weapons or the capability to make them, this would change the balance of power in the region. But Iran would not use them because of the retaliatory power possessed by both Israel and the U.S. The Iranians are not crazy. They are not going to commit suicide and end their own regime by launching a nuclear attack that is met by retaliation that is 500x worse. What do they gain?

It is true that, by definition, Iranian nuclear weapons would be a threat or even a grave threat if Iran developed them, but the weapons of the U.S. and Israel are now a threat and a grave threat to Iran. Iran is going to respond somehow. Iran is not going to remain passive indefinitely. It has responded in rational ways. It has threatened asymmetric warfare if attacked, and not only in the region. It has built up forces to fight such a war. It has threatened to cut off oil to Europe. It has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. It is developing the knowhow to build nuclear weapons. What else can it do?

The ogre that is raised by such statements as Romney's is that the Iranians would use nuclear weapons, if they had them, in a first strike against Israel. The crude idea is that they are ideological nutcases, and we do not want nutcases in possession of these weapons because they might give in to their ideological or religious biases and drop one or two on Israel. These are the false beliefs behind all efforts to paint Iran as some kind of grave threat.

The main reason for such beliefs is the rhetoric of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

"This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history."

He has also questioned the Holocaust. Ahmadinejad's rhetorical excesses are matched by extreme replies coming out of some quarters in Israel and America.

Parsi writes

"Few Iranian Jews take Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel rhetoric seriously, and they point to the fact that little has changed for Iranian Jews under him. u2018Anti-Semitism is not an eastern phenomenon, it's not an Islamic or Iranian phenomenon – anti-Semitism is a European phenomenon,' Ciamak Morsathegh, head of the Jewish hospital in Tehran, explained. Iran's forty synagogues, many of them with Hebrew schools, haven't been touched. Neither has the Jewish library, which boasts twenty thousand titles, or Jewish hospitals and cemeteries. Still, Iran's Jews have not sat idly by. The Jewish member of the Iranian Majlis, or parliament (most religious minorities are guaranteed a seat in the parliament), Maurice Mohtamed, has been outspoken in his condemnation of Ahmadinejad's comments."

Because there is no movement to detente, the U.S., Iran and Israel are having a war of words. Almost every day threats and counter-threats are being issued by all three states. Calculations and mis-calculations are being made as to the effect of these words. Ahmadinejad's comments fall into this category.

The reality is that there is no Iranian policy to wipe out Israel. Ahmadinejad did not say that anyway. Furthermore, he is not the supreme leader in Iran or the only one who would decide such an important matter.

The entire situation, including the misperceptions of extreme elements in all three countries, can be defused by a change in U.S. policy to detente.

This, I am sorry to say, is not in view. The U.S.-Iran story does not have a visible happy ending, not at this time.