Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Iran Negotiations: Choosing "Best Possibilities" over "Worst Fears"

Yesterday, Israel's television Channel 2 aired an interview with President Obama. It's worth a look. Here is Mondoweiss's coverage of it.  You won't find this in the New York Times or your local newspaper.  It's a perfect example why we need to supplement our mainstream news consumption with special interest blogs.  

Phil Weiss's characterization is on the money: 
President Obama is throwing in the towel on the peace process [between Israelis and Palestinians]; he will not try again in the next 18 months. And he warns Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu to turn away from the politics of fear and his inability to see the “best possibilities” in Arabs and Palestinians. 
This idea of staking our claims for peace on the "best possibilities" rather than "our worst fears" is an idea that also ran through the President's interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, and his subsequent speech to Congregation Adas Israel in Washington D.C. last week. See my prior post here. David Rothkopf followed this up with an interesting interview with Jeff Goldberg in Foreign Policy magazine, wherein Goldberg is quite supportive of the President. You can see why Obama privileges him with preferred access. The exception is Iran. Goldberg, who was a hawk urging us to attack Iraq in 2003, see, e.g., and is a war hawk on Iran today, see e.g. continues to be very skeptical about easing up on sanctions against Iran. 

Here is the Goldberg/Rothkopf exchange on Iran, wherein they contrast their pessimism ("worst fears") with Obama's reported optimism ("best possibilities") on Iran:
JG:     I ... worry that he is unrealistic about aspects of the Iran deal, for a number of reasons — the way they will spend their money, his belief that his negotiators are dealing with rational people — rational in the way that you and I think of rationality — and so on. On Gulf issues, the hardest swallow is that he appeared to be warning Saudi Arabia of the consequences associated with gearing-up its own nuclear program, but he’s attempting to strike a deal with Iran that allows it, in essence, to maintain the infrastructure of a nuclear program. In other words, an ally is being treated more harshly, in this one way, than an adversary. Of course, his answer to this is that Saudi Arabia has America behind it, so it doesn’t need a nuclear program. Still, the optics are strange, and the unhappiness of certain Arab leaders is understandable.
DR:     In conversations I’ve had with several former senior Obama officials, they have all mentioned that he (and some others close to him) seem to believe that Iran is poised to change, indeed, as a country, wants to change, and that Iran’s leaders seek reform. He is an Iran-optimist in a region where everybody from the Israelis to the GCC would argue from experience that they are Iran-pessimists. 
This extends to the view that the Iranians will not use much of any windfall they might receive re: sanctions relief to continue their regional efforts to spread their power and influence. A view which virtually all in the region with whom I have spoken characterize as “na├»ve,” and this includes the notion that the deal will give reformers more traction and thus help them gain sway in Iran’s government (which most Iran experts I’ve spoken  to also view as unrealistic given the very firm grip on power that the theocracy has in Tehran).
In counterpoint, in the recent New York Times interview the president did with Tom Friedman, he spoke much less hopefully about the prospect for reform in Sunni states and effectively distanced himself from their current regimes. (Certainly he alienated himself from them with those comments and others.) Is that your takeaway too? Is it more nuanced than that? How? 
JG:      I’ve heard this theory before, in the Gulf, in Israel, and elsewhere, including Washington, but I have not gotten the impression, in my (limited) direct exposure to the president, that he’s as enthusiastic for a Shia-Sunni-U.S. realignment as his critics argue he is. That said, his frustration with Sunni states is obvious: The Gulf States, he argues, can’t wait anymore for American leadership, Egypt’s government is gratuitously cruel and provocative, and so on. I have also gotten the impression that he suspects the period of the Islamic Revolution in Iran — from 1979 until now — is aberrational, and that Iran will, sooner rather than later, come to its senses. He argues that he’s not banking on internal change as he negotiates the Iran deal, but he’s clearly hoping for such change, and he’s clearly hoping that the empowerment of the Rouhani/Zarif side of the ledger would mean good things for reform. 
To me (like you), he’s overly hopeful on a number of issues.... For one thing, he argued that most of the windfall Iran will see as a result of this deal will be spent domestically. I’m worried, and others are worried, that the radicals will grab a big chunk of the post-sanctions proceeds and redouble their efforts to expand their influence across the region. I believe, based on past patterns of Iranian regime behavior, that my fear is more justified than his hope, but we’ll see. 
Goldberg, unlike Obama, looks at Iran and fears the worst. It's like when U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was riffing on "unknown unknowns" as a reason for launching a "shock and awe" campaign against Iraq.  Goldberg was a cheerleader for that war (2003) which, according to the just released report by Physicians for Social Responsibility (March 2015) has resulted in 1.3 million casualties--and this does not include the casualties from the ongoing Syrian conflict.  The wars in Iraq, Afganistan, and Pakistan have shown what can happen when we act on our worst fears.

The P5 +1 negotiations with Iran, by contrast, are built on "best possibilities" backed up by a verification scheme.

As Goldberg and Rothkopf seem to think, Obama is placing bets that Iran may be at a turning point; that Iran may be able to become a positive force in the region.

Is that crazy?  I think it's a better bet than "unknown unknowns." I look at the Thomas Erdbrink reports from Teheran, I look at Iran's film industry (more than 100 features a year), I look at the Iranian Green Revolution of 2009 (brutally suppressed) and the vibrant population of 77 million, I look at a country with an active politics between left and right, and I see a country with promise.  Looking 50 years out, I see a lot more promise from this country than from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria (combined population of ~83 million).  The challenge of Middle East politics is to fuse Islam and politics in a modern way. Shi'ite Iran looks much better positioned to pull this off than the Sunni states.

Yes, and we'll miss Obama when he's gone from the White House: