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June 01, 2008

Deciding What We Want From Iran - And When
Posted by David Shorr

With apologies to Andrew Marvell: Had we but world enough and time, this coyness, Tom Friedman, were no crime. Friedman's column today says that the US shouldn't negotiate with Iran because we lack sufficient bargaining leverage in the face of Iran's coherent regional strategy and commensurate negotiating strength. His advice, leverage first, negotiations later.

There are many problems with this argument. We don't have time to put this off. We don't have time to wait for Iran to clean up its entire act in the region. Friedman understimates US leverage, Iranian vulnerability, and potential Iranian interest. But mostly, as we keep saying, negotiation is not a favor we do for the other side, but a means -- potentially, not guaranteed -- to achieve objectives and promote our own interests.

The primary objective of a negotiation is to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons. Obviously, the destabilizing (yes, terrorist) acts of "Iran & Friends" that Friedman writes about will also have to stop, if Iran is to become a 'normal country.' But first things first. Friedman is falling into the same we-want-it-all trap that got us into this situation. At the risk of sounding like one of his columns, foreign policy requires choices. If we wait to accumulate leverage (we're really supposed to wait for alternative energy???), or for Tehran to clean up its regional act, Iran could use that time to develop its nuclear program. That's what North Korea did.

Friedman's assessment also deeply discounts the leverage on our side of the equation. To say we have no leverage is to claim that Tehran is heedless to its international outlier status. Speaking of energy, this also ignores the problems in Iran's energy sector. It also denies that significant political segments in Iran want better relations with the West, and the US in particular.

And just as with Iraq, an important source of leverage is Iran's standing with respect to the Nonproliferation Treaty. In the very same section of today's Times, was a piece about the IAEA's complaints with Iran. This is the non-negotiable stuff. Absolute transparency is the core of any deal and the focus of any negotiation. If we believe the moral high ground matters -- for instance to corral international opinion and support -- then there's leverage. In short, Iran has a burden of proof, let's keep it that way. The US, too, has an outstanding high-ground matter: taking regime-change off the table. Interesting that Friedman mentions Bush's negotiations with Libya; an explicit emphasis on policy-change rather than regime-change was crucial.


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I happen to agree with much of this argument, in the abstract. I have never believed that Iran's international position or its internal unity in pursuit of objectives inimical to American interests are as strong as the Bush administration (or at least those elements within the administration with veto power over American policy) think they are. I would certainly proceed, with respect to negotiations with Tehran, on that basis if I were President.

But I am not going to be President. Neither are Richard Holbrooke or Joe Biden, two Democrats I'd have some confidence would not regard negotiations with Iran primarily as venues to demonstrate anew American goodwill or become so committed to negotiations they'd be willing to give away the store just to keep them going. If the Democratic candidate wins this year's election, the next President is going to be Barack Obama, whose experience to date makes him a blank slate in this area and whose public statements on the subject give the impression that he is making up his views as he goes.

So the question is how much confidence I should have that Sen. Obama would end up doing something close to what I think needs to be done in this area, as opposed to (for example) just reversing Bush administration policy as Bush so often reversed Bill Clinton's in 2001. I don't have a lot right now. Frankly, I wonder how much David Shorr and other DA contributors have, given that the great majority of campaign-related posts on this site are attacks on Sen. McCain, many of which do not mention Obama at all.

So imagine someone interested in foreign policy, not angling for a job in the next Democratic administration or overly impressed with Obama's race or academic credentials, who basically agrees with what David Shorr has to say about something like American objectives with respect to Iran. How is that someone to know that what Shorr thinks on this subject is similar to what Obama -- a fairly conventional Chicago reform liberal and a foreign policy novice -- thinks?

If Friedman had any morals, he would have given up writing, considering the outcome of the Iraq war.
But Friedman and the rest of the pro-Israeli crowd don't want the US and Iran to start to get along, and so will do their best to create obstacles in the way of any potential rapprochement, using a variety of half-baked theories. This is no secret. Read Dr. Trita Parsi's book, Treacherous Alliance (Johns Hopkins University) Israel sees improved US-Iran ties as a threat to its strategic value and regional ambitions.

By the way, when will Israel become a "normal country" and admit to the ethnic cleansing of millions of people? When will the US become a "normal country" and abide by its NPT obligations to disarm its nuclear weapons? Give me a break. Iran IS a normal country.

If Friedman is putting his hopes is an imaginary future when we possess some sort of ideal, perfect "leverage" over Iran, he is guilty of an egregious failure of political realism and maturity. It is highly probable that Iran is only going to get somewhat stronger in the coming years. It is a very large and populous country, and even with its growth checked by sporadic US sanctions the trend is upwards. This is just the normal course one would expect from a country that continues to consolidate its post-revolutionary position as a normal state in the international system as its revolution recedes into the past, and that benefits from abundant natural resources, a fairly well-educated and worldly populace, a vital strategic location and the cultural security that comes from a very long national history. The US needs a diplomatic relationship with Iran simply to reflect the facts that prevail in the real world.

To my mind, apart from the special question of "negotiations", about which we hear so much, the most salient negative fact about current US policy toward Iran is that the US has no normal diplomatic relations with the country. That is just an unacceptable situation, and we need to start to address it and move toward normalization. We cannot afford to decline the many benefits of maintaining a regular diplomatic mission in a country of that size and regional impact. I understand that there are a lot of older Americans, and keepers of institutional memory within the US government, that can't quite get past the insult of the 1979-80 hostage crisis. But we really have to get over it, and move on.

Refusing to establish a somewhat normal diplomatic relationship with Iran singles out the Iranians out for special global attention, empowers hardliners, and gives the Iranians undue anti-American street cred on the world stage. This is the same foolishness we have pulled with Castro for lo, these many decades, gifting Castro with the opportunity to style himself chief global nemesis to the US, thus enhancing his prestige and prolonging his rule. The US public posture toward Iran should be that we regard it as just another country with whom we have some issues, not the star performer in some global anti-American pageant.

The chief reason right now for developing a better working relationship with Iran is that we need to get busy on a revamped security framework for that region, with the main emphasis on stabilizing Iraq, and re-incorporating that country back it into the international system as a functioning state. This is a regional task which will require cooperation and mutual understandings on the part of Iraq's neighbors. It will be impossible to move forward on this task without making Iran part of the discussion. This isn't just important for the United States, which needs to extricate itself from its colossally expensive and politically debilitating commitment to Iraq, but should be a priority of the entire international community.

But returning to the issue of going beyond diplomacy and into bilateral negotiations, Friedman seems unaware of the fact that the United States already has an abundance of strengths it can bring to bear as leverage in any negotiations that do occur, and several aces up its sleeve. A large number of these aces are economic, but the US also possesses a great deal of influence with other countries, despite the substantial loss of influence that has occurred during the Bush administration, and so we are in a position to exert a major influence through our good offices on Iran's relationship with large and influential swaths of the outside world.

A further factor to consider is that both Iran and the United States are now identified publicly with their presidents, whom I suspect are viewed as buffoons in most important global capitals. After our election, no matter whom is elected, the US-Iranian buffoon symmetry will be broken, and we'll be in a stronger position.

Nor is there any spreading Iranian "hegemony" in the Middle East, despite the overblown rhetoric we frequently hear to the contrary. Yes, Iran has a few important allies in the region. The United States has more. There is an outright US presence or preponderant US influence all around Iran's borders: in Iraq, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf States. Additionally, the entire region is dominated by Sunni Muslim religious establishments and Arab political powers among whom the Shia Iranians are objects of suspicion and some degree of political resistance, if not outright hostility. In how many countries do we need to maintain occupation forces or possess an abundance of influence before hysterical Iranophobes will recognize that we effectively have the Iranians surrounded by US allies, and that where we don't have outright allies, we have states that are resistant to Iranian power for their own reasons?

The kind of underestimation of the US position vis-a-vis Iran to which Friedman has succumbed is typical of a lot of the neoconservative thinkers whom Friedman usually disparages, but occasionally appears to channel, who seem incapable of keeping track of actual power relations, but oscillate between hysterical and exaggerated fears of much weaker potential adversaries and extravagant beliefs in US mastery and omnipotence.

There is no objective intellectual basis for the procrastination and excuse-making Friedman is proposing. The US has quite sufficient power and leverage to be able to protect our interests by opening up a diplomatic relationship with Iran, and engaging in both multilateral and bilateral negotiations.

Thomas Friedman appears to be completely ignorant of the internal situation in Iran because the current leader of the Iranian parliament is a moderate who would welcome negotiations with the United States.

See how the US media is LYING about the Iran IAEA report at

Putin doesn't believe Iran is seeking nukes. ( If anyone's in a position to know, outside Iran, then he is - and he doesn't have a rep as an appeaser.

Russia has an ongoing wrangle with iran over caspian oilfields that far outways any possible trade with Iran, has several Muslim former-Soviet Republics on its borders where terrorists would love to grab a nuke or dirty bomb, and has large chunks of valuable territory within range of current iranian missiles. Putin is a machiavelian sodt-totalitarian and has more reason to be cautious than the US, but he is instead certain (likely based on Russian intel penetration of Iran's program via Russia's nuclear aid) that Iran isn't seeking the bomb.

So when US pundits pull the old Iraq WMD lie - everyone believes that Iran/Iraq is seeking WMD - remember Putin.

Regards, C

Great comments, thanks everyone. I agree with nearly all of what's here. Just a couple of responses to clarify where I'm coming from. Zathras asks what's the relationship between all this stuff on DA and candidate Obama. There are limits on the extent to which connections can and should be drawn between the bloggers here and Obama. We really have to be careful not to conduct any electioneering or promotion of a candidate in a '501(c)(3) space.' What you see here is a good representation of a significant segment of progressive foreign policy specialist opinion; you can extrapolate from it and/or look at what the candidate and campaign have to say for themselves. In terms of my own ground rules, I try to say things to boost our side of the argument, rather than a partisan side. As to the United States' own NPT obligations, let me say that the thinking I present on Iran has a companion position on the need to reduce the US nuclear arsenal -- both of which will be presented in a forthcoming essay coauthored by DA's own founder, the formidable Suzanne Nossel. Stay tuned.

I thank David Shorr for his response, though in a way it confirmed what I was afraid of.

The question was, how is one to know that views about Iran similar to Shorr's are held (and able to be acted upon if the Democrats win this November, which is another subject) by Sen. Obama? This question appears not to have an answer. We don't know. We have to guess.

I don't have a comment on the 501(c)(3) rules. One could make an argument that citing those rules as a reason for withholding advocacy of one candidate, while continually trashing that candidate's opponent, is rather shifty. From my perspective, though, there wouldn't be much point in that. DA is not Fox News or the New York Times; its readership is comparatively tiny, and its influence on electoral politics close to nil. All the posts here about McCain seem aimed less at impacting the campaign than in advertising the availability of DA contributors for positions in the next Democratic administration. Frankly, I'd advise playing a little hard to get as far as that goes, but you never know.

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