The Case for Peace with Iran

Recently the American ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, publicly let the Israelis know that the United States was ready and able to go to war against Iran. He said that a military attack was the last thing that the US wanted, yet the fact that the statement was made publicly and haughtily suggests that Washington is eager to provoke Tehran into making a mistake or two in the nuclear showdown.

Now let me be frank: a nuclear Iran, as the state stands today, would be a big problem for peace not only in the Middle East but throughout the world. If Iran were to get the bomb it would suddenly have much more leverage in international affairs. Not only would a nuclear-armed Iran have the capabilities to deter Western powers, but it would also have the capability to be much more bellicose in its foreign policy. Instead of mere tentacles in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq, Tehran would have power (that loathsome word) to back up its interests in the region. Furthermore, a nuclear-armed Iran would start another military arms race in the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia and Israel would seek to bolster their own capabilities to deter an Iranian threat.

If you think a nuclear-armed Iran is bad, just image a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia. Remember, Persians don’t use suicide bombing as a terrorist tactic. That’s something Arabs (and Sinhalese) do. Additionally, Iran is not really a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. Islamism has been stifled in Iran largely because it is already the state religion, which means that all Islamist activities have been co-opted into the official state apparatus. If you still have trouble following, just remember: state apparatuses are a handy tool used by dictatorships to water down the more radical elements of a philosophy or movement. 

With this being acknowledged, a few clear points need to be addressed in regards to what Iran cannot do with the bomb. Iran cannot dole out nuclear technology to its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Hezbollah and the Assad regime are proxies, but not allies or even official wings of Iran’s state apparatus. If Iran were to give nuclear technology or secrets to these proxies the information may very well end up being used against Tehran. Iran will not be able to use a nuclear weapon, either. Tehran is not suicidal.

What follows, then, is a proposal to work towards an end to the conflict between Iran and the West while keeping the high stakes of what is going on in the Middle East fresh in my mind. Here is what I think our diplomatic corps should do, in three easy steps:

  1. Apologize for overthrowing an unpopular Prime Minister in 1953 and installing an even more unpopular dictator.
  2. End all economic sanctions immediately.
  3. Re-open the channels that Tehran had built after 9/11 and begin working with the Iranians again on both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Step number one should be the easiest to do, but unfortunately it also seems to be the hardest one. Washington overthrew a corrupt but still democratically elected leader and installed a nasty dictator in his place. Everybody knows this except the American people. Because of this, the Iranian people are deeply mistrustful of Washington. Every time something goes wrong in Iran (and something goes wrong often, given that it is a fascistic regime) the people cry out “conspiracy!” Their deep distrust is well-placed, and in post-colonial and post-socialist states (same thing, really) conspiracies very often do play an integral role in politics, but in the Iranian case an extra layer of protection is given to the regime because Tehran can just remind the people that the US is in the neighborhood and it overthrew their government once before.

Since Washington is not apologizing, it gives the nasty regime of the Ayatollah all the justification it needs for its ruthless tactics of oppression.

Indeed, one of the reasons that Ayatollah Khamene’i has been so hardline in his foreign policy is because he feels the pressure of living up to the revolution’s expectations. Many, if not most, Iranian domestic factions have tried to paint Khamene’i as an outsider and a moderate to weaken the power of the office of Ayatollah (think back to Newt Gingrich’s attacks on Clinton for being “soft” on whichever state was in the news that day). In addition, many Iranians were disappointed that Khamene’i was picked. Two things have been brought up by the Iranian Right about Khamene’i: 1) he does not have the religious credentials of a technical Ayatollah and 2) his lack of experience in politics has been perceived as a weakness. Contrary to popular myth the Iranian state is not modeled after the Koran, the hadith or anything having to do with Islam at all. This is an important aspect of US-Iranian relations that needs to really be accentuated: the Iranian state is modeled on Plato’s Republic. The pernicious myth that Iran is actually an Islamic this or an Islamic that is just not true. After seizing power the revolutionaries believed that the Iranian state could be molded to accommodate the qualities of their new philosopher-king, Ayatollah Khomeini. Like the African, Russian, Chinese and Japanese experience, the Middle East’s massive failures can all be attributed to some of the various strains of Western thought that have not gained a significant foothold in the Anglo-speaking world for nearly five hundred years. Ideas matter.

Because of all this domestic pressure and because the state itself was created to cater to his predecessor’s concerns, Khamene’i has taken a much harder line on foreign policy than anybody had anticipated in order to shore up his credentials along his right flank. If Washington were to apologize, the regime in Iran and the people in the US would suffer a major psychological blow. Such an apology would not be a panacea but it would be good for a thawing in relations.

Ending economic sanctions would also ease tensions in the region. Washington has been working hard to get the Europeans, Japanese, Chinese and Russians to cooperate with sanctions on Iran. Policymakers have been doing this for decades, too, not just for a couple of years. So why should Washington end economic sanctions now, especially in light of the fact that sanctions are starting to devastate the Iranian economy?

I can think of four good reasons to end sanctions right away.

  1. The Iranian economy is made up of everyday people making countless decisions about a countless number of things. Most of Iran’s wealth is concentrated in a few key sectors of the economy that are largely unaffected by sanctions. Because of the fascistic structure of the Iranian state these sectors are dominated by military and religious elites rather than corporate shareholders, so the devastation that the sanctions are causing is largely felt by the average Iranian rather than by the regime.
  2. The regime hates personal choice. Ending sanctions would help get goods back into the country and remind Iranians why it is that they have hated the regime in the first place.
  3. Ending the sanctions would remove a key wedge employed by Tehran to keep Iranians under its thumb. Sanctions have never removed regimes from power. They have only strengthened them. Remember, sanctions are largely felt by the people who are unconnected to the fascistic power structures in place, and dictators always love a convenient scapegoat. They can simply say “look at what the imperialists have done to you!” If anybody continues to object to a regime’s policies, well, they are traitors plain and simple. Why else would you be complaining about the regime when the bad economy is so obviously the fault of sanctions placed on a state by a capitalist democracy? How long have the sanctions on Cuba lasted?
  4. The tensions between the US, its allies, and China and Russia would dissipate immensely. It is not easy for the Europeans, the Japanese and the Chinese to impose sanctions on Iran. To do so diverts precious resources away from their energy costs. Nobody likes Iran, but putting up with a nasty regime that is only sometimes responsible for terrorist acts is a trade-off that our allies and business partners have been willing to make. The fact that some US administrations, most notably the Reagan administration, have ignored the sanctions at times themselves doesn’t help our relations with these states either, and Washington shouldn’t be losing trust with our major trading partners and allies because of a single regime in the Middle East.

Ending sanctions would reduce our burdens significantly in a variety of ways, but (perhaps more importantly) doing so would also weaken Tehran as well.

The last key to rebuilding bridges with Iran is to begin working on both Iraq and Afghanistan together again. After 9/11 the Iranians worked with the US to provide military support and intelligence for its operations in Afghanistan. If there is one thing that a Persian Shi’ite state does not want along its border it is Sunni Arab Islamists clamoring for the heads of the wayward unfaithful in Tehran. Likewise, Iran does not need an unstable and violent failed state along its border with Iraq either. Hence the cooperation.

The influence of Iran in Iraq is much over-hyped. From 1980-1988 these two states fought a vicious, nationalist-tinged war of attrition against each other and there is no love lost on either side. To illustrate my point, the Arab Sunnis who lived within Iran’s borders fought with Iranians. The Shi’ite Persians who lived within Iraq’s borders fought with the Iraqis (there are always exceptions, of course, but not many in this case). To suggest that Iran has anything more than a token amount of influence in Iraq is akin to suggesting that Iraqis would hail the United States as liberators once its military rolled into Baghdad.

Sharing intelligence about both of Iran’s neighbors would go a long way towards mending relations and, of course, weakening the case of the regime that they are forced to be cruel in order to protect the national interests of the Iranian state from imperial aggression. If this seems implausible just remember that up until the revolution of 1979 Iran’s intelligence apparatus was being trained and funded by both the CIA and Mossad. Israel has traditionally been an issue with Arab states located next to Israel, and it wasn’t until the 1979 revolution that Iran has had an interest in winning the hearts and minds of the Arab world by verbally taunting Israel.

Would these three steps stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb? It’s hard to say. I think they’d be much more effective than the current strategies Washington has in place. After all, a foreign policy of peace and commerce would weaken the regime rather than lighten the pockets of average Iranians and introduce measures designed to bolster cooperation rather than competition on a couple of regional strategic issues that Washington has unfortunately gotten tangled in.

4 thoughts on “The Case for Peace with Iran

  1. Interesting take on the situation. I was honestly expecting to find a lot of unfounded assumptions and mere peace-nic ideology here, but I didn’t. You’ve really thought this through and really do know a lot about the situation. Your suggestions may very well be extremely feasible – especially about the apology since I know that incident involving the CIA taking out Mossader (?) and re-installing the Shah, had long been something Iran’s leaders have used to rebel rouse against the U.S., thus justifying their own oppression. About Iran’s government being based on Plato’s Republic rather than the Koran, I don’t know about. I never even heard that idea before so it bears more study on my part. However, when I lived there (1982-1983), Islam was everything with nearly everyone I met there. People lived their lives in accordance with Koran, religious figh, and the Najulbalgha and the post-revolutionary laws were very strictly based on that. In fact, there are morals police there that even now patrolling Iran’s streets to ensure that everyone look and behave as Islamically as possible or else…. Also, I heard it in Friday prayers, at street rallies, and on the news there: Iranian’s are NOT against suicide bombing. They’re very much for it. The more religious they are, the more noble they seem to think it is so I was a little shocked when you said they weren’t into that. But who knows? Maybe they evolved from there over the years. One way of the other, this was an excellent analysis.

    • Thanks ampbreia.

      The Iranian state’s classical influence can be found in a couple of books on Iran, notably the anthropologist Michael Fischer’s introduction to his book Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. Another good discussion on Khomeini’s political philosophy can be found in Kenneth Pollack’s The Persian Puzzle (see especially 143-149).

      Basically, there are as many interpretations of “Koranic” law as there are mullahs (Elton Daniel’s book, The History of Iran, has a great section [175-195] explaining the political and religious climate that Khomeini was working in), and Khomeini stood out in clerical circles for his radical argument that the ideal Islamic society should be governed by a philosopher-king. Here you can see Plato’s influence on Khomeini’s thinking (of course, who better to govern as a philosopher-king than Khomeini himself?!).

      On a side note, if you want to better understand the mainstream Shi’ite arguments about Islamic governance (the view that Khomeini’s radicalism directly defied), there is a book in my pile of “to-reads” by Hamid Debashi titled Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest. Although I haven’t read it yet, the basic gist of Dabashi’s argument is that Shi’ite political philosophy is essentially one of protest. This serves Shi’ites very well when their leaders are not Shi’ites, but once Shi’ism gains some sort of political legitimacy, it self-destructs because Shi’ism was a religious doctrine forged in protest and therefore has not yet truly grappled with the question of governance. This, I think, helps to explain why there are so many interpretations of “Koranic” law within Shi’ism today.

      The strict observance of Islamic principles that you observed while living there probably had more to do with the fact that a new regime was attempting to impose its will upon a not-yet-convinced populace. Or, in other words, the Islamic principles being followed weren’t Islamic at all, but rather decisions taken by a populace to avoid any unwanted political repercussions for noncompliance.

      On suicide bombings, perhaps my writing was convoluted. I did not mean to imply that Persians were against suicide bombings, but only that, as a people, they do not engage in the practice. Given what little I know about the ethno-nationalism prevalent in the region, it would not surprise me if Persians did indeed support the tactics of suicide bombers. Why complain about an Arab blowing himself up in a crowd full of Jews, Europeans or other Arabs, especially if no Persians are harmed in the process? It is important to note, though, that while many of the Iranian state’s proxies may practice suicide bombings, Persians do not. Does this make sense?

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