Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Iran and North Korea (to a lesser extent)

Whether one supports the Iraq war or not, it should be clear that things are not going as planned. In fact, there is a great likelihood, if not inevitability, that the Iraq war is going to replace Vietnam in the annals of history as the great blunder in American foreign policy. The long term effects of the president's failed Middle East strategy is likely to make the world more dangerous, especially for Americans.

It doesn't have to be that way, however. One of the key players in the region is Iran. (Syria plays a role as well, but is a lesser financial force and more easily contained.) Iran is, without a doubt, one of the great problems in American foreign policy because of it's hostile leadership, vast natural resources, and the role it plays in supporting terrorist organizations like Hezbollah.

That being said, this report makes clear that there was the very real possibility of US-Iranian rapproachment in 2003. The US and Iran, unbeknownst to the majority of us, had a quiet diplomatic channel open in which they hosted monthly meetings. This process continued for over a year, with only a 1 month disruption occuring when the President famously labeled Iran a part of the "axis of evil" (a clear mistake if there ever was one). After it became clear that the US was unwilling to negotiate with Iran, the process collapsed. This occurred on the brink of the Iraqi invasion and after that point, Iran played an active role in supporting the terrorist insurgency.

Some people, most notably SecState Condi Rice, argue that Iran's role in Iraq, it's drive for nuclear weapons, it's repeated rhetorical position against Israel, it's undemocratic character, and it's president's repeated denials of the Holocaust, makes Iran untouchable. Essentially, they argue for a policy of shunning Iran, not negotiating, and expecting Iran to unilaterally stop all of that behavior. Bizarrely, Sec Rice doesn't seem to realize that Iran is one of the Middle East's only democracies.

To me, this diplomatic and policy position is bankrupt. If one analyzes Iran's foreign policy position, one can easily see the realpolitik being played by their leadership. They initiated a negotiation strategy under the previous government that failed. When their security concerns were not addressed through diplomacy, they shifted toward a more aggressive stance of building up their weapons arsenal and working to undercut US interests in the region. This doesn't make them crazy or even an enemy of the US. This was the logical reaction to what they perceived as a hostile, nuclear armed power that was directly threatening them (and continues to threaten them).

Condi Rice's "we won't negotiate with Iran" position only exacerbates the situation because it's further evidence to Iran's hardliners that the US is hell bent on destroying the Islamic democracy. In fact, the US rhetorical position toward Iran since the beginning of the Bush administration has only served to exacerbate relations between the two nations. In the end, it's clear that we missed a great opportunity to normalize relations with Iran when they had a reformist government. Now, it's not clear if we can make negotiations work, but as former Sec State James Baker III said (and I'm paraphrasing): It's always better to talk, than to not talk.

Sec Rice thinks that Baker and the rest of the Iraq Study Group is living in a pre-9/11 world (or a Cold War world). She thinks that the new Middle East doesn't work like the old and that attempts at negotiation are bound to fail. Thus the support of her, "You change first and then we'll see about normalizing relations" strategy. But with all due (dis)respect, someone said recently, "It's amazing how smart people can say and do incredibly stupid things." Unless Rice believes that the nature of international politics has fundamentally changed in the last 5 years, then her position is ideologically and philosophically bankrupt. And I've got about 4,000 years of history to back me up.

But, it's also completely ignorant of the very real security concerns that a state like Iran (or North Korea) have. Let's face it, states don't just wake up one day and decide to build nukes. They always have legitimate (or percieved as legitimate) security concerns that justify their decisions. North Korea has a nuclear program because we're technically still at war with them and they have little hope of defending themselves in a conventional war. They jacked up their pursuit of nukes after the fall of the Soviet Union because they lost a key part of their security umbrella.

(Interesting hypothetical: If the Soviets had "won" the Cold War, wouldn't Japan be the "rogue" state in Northeast Asia?)

In the 1990's, the US and North Korea had a deal in place (that's basically the same thing they're asking for now) that could have worked. But a combination of a short US attention span, North Korean dishonesty, and a Republican Congress hostile to Bill Clinton doomed the Agreed Framework. (It's quite fascinating actually. The GOP defunded a key part of the US-North Korea deal - fuel oil - as retribution in the Lewinsky scandal. Never has one BJ in the Oval office caused so much global instability.)

The situation in Iran is similar. The Iranian's feel threatened by the US. They've been under harsh economic sanctions since the inception of their state. The last 5 years have seen an increasing volume of US "threats" towards the Republic. And, prior to the destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, they had real regional security threats that provided impetus for their drive for nuclear weapons. Now, those regional threats have been replaced with a global power, but the security dilemna for the Iranian leadership is the same. For them, a world with nuclear arms is a level playing field that equalizes the security imbalance between Iran and the US and forstalls a US invasion, vis-a-vis Iraq.

None of this is news. But what is news is that Iran was, and probably is willing to engage in comprehensive diplomatic negotiations. What's needed, as Mr. Leverett (linked above) argues, is:

"...a “grand bargain” with the Islamic Republic—that is, a broad-based strategic understanding in which all of the outstanding bilateral differences between the two countries would be resolved as a package." (p20)

This "grand bargain" would be a comprehensive package the normalizes relations between the US and Iran, halts Iran's nuclear program, halts Iran's sponsorship of terrorism, and grants security guarantees to the Islamic Republic. (I'm a little unsure what Leverett means by 'security guarantees' but I think probably something along the lines of a non-aggression pact.)

The agreement would have to be verifiable. The UN arms control apparatus could provide verification through inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities, although verifying the end of terrorist sponsorship would be more challenging. Doable, but challenging.

This "bargain" would immediately improve the security situation in the Middle East and could lead to normalization of relations between Israel and Iran (something that would be huge for the peace process). But not only that, the US has a strong economic motivation to settle things with Iran. The Republic, in sum, has the 2nd most hydrocarbon resources in the world (behind Saudi Arabia), the majority of which are untapped. By normalizing relations with Iran, we would immediately open up one of the greatest oil and natural gas reserves on the planet. Oil prices might actually drop and economic gains would be had for both the West and the Iranian people.

In the end, state decisions are always based first and foremost on security concerns. It's this fundamental proposition that is being ignored by the Bush administration. Instead of cooly analyzing the Iranian position, the President found it too easy to label them "evil" and discard any chance of a negotiated settlement. I believe this will prove the fundamental undoing of the war in Iraq. With Iran as an ally (even a tentative one), the Al Queda prescence could have been minimized inside Iraq. Only Syria would have been a legitimate channel into Iraq and patrolling that border would have been a (relatively) easier task. Iran had the right government for negotiation. They had a reformist president, a positive political climate for talks, and a willingness to create a mutually beneficial agreement. Bush and his team blew it.

Whether it's still possible to create a deal or not has yet to be determined. But if there is any recommendation from the Iraq Study Group that makes the most sense it's the goal of US-Iranian rapproachment. At the least, we should give it a legitimate try. If, in the end, Iran rejects the talks or refuses to reach terms we find acceptable, then we can work to contain them. But the idea of shunning Iran indefinitely, as Rice advocated in the Washington Post last week, is a policy that has clearly failed and only worsened our security position in the Middle East.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ronald Reagan negotiated with those people. They scammed and embarrassed him. Bill Clinton tried negotiating with those people, they scammed and embarrassed him at the UN Millenium conference in 2000. It's not that we don't negotiate with the Iranians. We do, on background. It's that we don't go to them hat in hand. Sure they want "grand bargain" negotiations, where they end up in charge of the Persian Gulf and domination of the Arab League states is assured.

Why do you think they are building the atomic bomb? It has nothing to do with Israel.

2:15 PM  

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