Thursday, October 23, 2008

Well, Iran Seems Reasonable

Much has been made of the presidential candidates' differing stances on initiating diplomatic talks with Iran. Obama has held that he would be willing to open discussion - below the presidential level - with Iran without any preconditions. McCain has argued that such a stance is dangerous and would not engage Iran diplomatically without their having met certain conditions precedent.

The WSJ today posted this interesting article about what the Iranian government thought about all this diplomatic talk. They admitted to having two preconditions of their own before they'd consider diplomatic discussions with us. As we might have expected from Iran, those conditions are entirely fair and reasonable:

"Mehdi Kalhor, Vice President for Media Affairs, said the U.S. must do two things before summit talks can take place. First, American military forces must leave the Middle East -- presumably including such countries as Iraq, Qatar, Turkey and anywhere else American soldiers are deployed in the region. Second, the U.S. must cease its support of Israel. Until Washington does both, talks are "off the agenda," the Islamic Republic News Agency reports. It quotes Mr. Kalhor as saying, "If they [the U.S.] take our advice, grounds for such talks would be well prepared."
Yes, well...I think it's safe to say that neither of those two conditions will be met in the foreseeable future (though I am with them on that first one). What's interesting about the article, though, is that it's titled "So Much for Obama's Diplomacy." Apparently, the author of this article thinks he is devastating Obama's stance and winning the debate for McCain. But is that what's happening here? I think not.

Three years ago, my friend Rob and I entered into a debate round against a formidable Harvard team. They proposed that the United States should reauthorize political assassinations of foreign leaders and diplomats. Wow, I thought, this will be easy to defeat - killing is bad! So Rob and I spent a good 25 minutes listing and analyzing the myriad negative consequences of reinstating political assassinations. In their final speech of the round, Harvard dropped a bomb on us. Their argument went like this: "Well...we never said we'd actually USE the assassinations...we just see no reason to indiscriminately take it off the table. We, Mr. Speaker, give you more options than those jackasses!" They blindsided us by shifting the debate. Needless to say, we lost.

Mr. Obama, I will speak to you now. You went to Harvard (law), use their tactic - it's a debate winner! Remember that, because Iran is insisting on these ridiculous preconditions that will never be met, it's likely that this entire policy debate is a wash, because we will NEVER engage in summit discussions with the Iranians! Contrary to the belief of the author of that WSJ article, this fact cuts in your favor because, if the Iranians ever were to reconsider their position, you would give the United States more options than your opponent! You would not categorically reject unconditioned talks. And like I said, it's entirely likely that Iran will never agree to any talks anyway.

Seriously, though...McCain's stuck in the position poor Rob and I were. His only real argument against Obama's viewpoint has been that unconditioned talks would "legitimize" Iran's government. we not recognize the legitimacy of Iran's government? Oh we do, right. Are we really a culture who would believe that we endorse the views of any government we engage in diplomatic discussions with? I can't believe that. Thus, Mr. might as well just move on from this line of argument. Obama has successfully blindsided you with an "options" move. I know, I know...what a Harvard thing to do. Bastard.



Though I partially concur with the point being made about Iran, I disagree with your analysis of this being the infamous "options" scenario. Being an option would be keeping this idea on the table, which is quite different then what Obama has been saying for the last two years, which is essentially that he is attacking Bush for not talking with Iran. This says he just doesn't want this as an option, but rather that we should do it. That distinction is quite important.

However, both Obama and McCain have shifted their positions in Iran quite a bit, at least in rhetoric over this election cycle. In the primary, Obama suggested that unlike Bush, he would make it a priority to have high level or even presidential level talks with Iran as soon as he was in office. This then shifted eventually to leaving it open as an option and then only an option at lower diplomatic levels. McCain in turn, adamantly argued against any level talks without preconditions, which then transformed into simply no high level or presidential talks and now seems to be hinting to be open to lower level talks. The fact is that what both of these men are now suggesting we do actually comes pretty close to the current policy, as Bush has eased his position himself quite a lot and we already have had numerous talks with Iran at 3rd party locations such as the Middle East summit in Baghdad this past year. This seems to not be picked up by anyone. It would appear the media is enjoying letting the campaigns try to paint each other as being extreme.

But with that said, my thoughts. The entire main focus over Iran is obviously their nuclear program. Either way, I think we're in trouble if our goal is to stop them from achieving this. Despite the official Iranian line about creating reactors for electricity, its pretty obvious that no country is willing to absorb major sanctions and diplomatic conflict just for electricity, especially when the country is sitting on a huge oil reserve and the country lacks a tremendous amount of more basic infrastructure. They have their heart set on achieving this, and there is nothing we can really do about this. So a few points:

How we got here: We basically screwed up with this in two areas. First, through our actions with North Korea in the 90's as well as more recently, when they achieved a weapon, we showed the world that a country working towards weapons could use that as leverage to extort aide packages and other giveaways. Dealing with the problem that North Korea was trying to developed a nuclear program, the Clinton administration, via Secretary Albright gave a whole host of aide packages to North Korea as well as nuclear materials if in return they gave up pursuing nuclear weapons. They took our aide and then developed a weapon anyway. The Bush administration in turn, has offered even more aide packages to give up these weapons programs. The result is that the world has seen that nuclear programs are great leverage in getting what you want.

Mix this with the fact that the US is considered by many, particularly in the Middle East, to be very weak and without a stomach. A few examples: a letter between militia groups in the 1983 Lebanon bombings stated, "If we kill 15 Marines, the rest will leave." We did nothing when Saddam kicked the weapons inspectors out in the 1990s. Bin Laden referred to the US military as a "paper tiger." Essentially there is precedent that the US will do little even if it sees a nation as being belligerent.

Second, is where I agree with with both Obama, and presumable JSK, is that yes, the invasion and following [mis]management of Iraq has only intensified Iran's abilities because of fueling a very strong anti-Americanism in the region, while at the same time, we removed Iran's biggest regional rival that kept it in check.

So Now What? So this leaves us in a big jam. I'm not sure what talks are supposed to achieve. I don't buy into the argument that our problems with Iran are simply a "lack of understanding". They want a nuke for the reason already mentioned, but also so they can intimidate and gain power in their region against rivals such as the Saudis. Our larger problem is that we have almost no leverage with Iran. We already largely don't trade with them, so no more sanctions can be placed. The UN won't place more sanctions because Russia and China want access to their oil fields, and Europe won't push too hard because they are worried about Russia, which holds them hostage via natural gas supply. Iran knows that we can not exercise any military action, both because we are logistically bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also because of those two wars, there is absolutely no political will to take action against Iran within the US. And even if there was, what are we going to do? Take over another country, and then we have all the problems we have in Iraq?

So sticks are off the table; maybe we can offer carrots, but that is exactly what one of the goals of trying to achieve a nuclear program is. If we comply, this will further entice more nations to develop weapons, just as our North Korean example likely did. In the past with other nations, such as the Soviets, there were many bargaining chips available. But in this case having high level talks (and give Iran that propaganda tool) is one of the only, even if very limited, bargaining chips we have. Part of this is because we are tied down due to the Bush administration's past insistence on denying talks, calling Iran the "Axis of Evil" and so on. Any policy change now would seem to be a sign of weakness and defeat, which will be used politically within Iran and as propaganda with other countries to bolster anti-American sentiment, strengthen internal power and hurt the US position, and in the end they don't actually and their program. Either way we are in trouble.

The only way in my opinion that we can do anything with Iran is find some way to play the internal powers against one another. Ahmadinejad has little official power, but the theocracy has allowed him much leeway partially because he has been able to bolster the diplomatic position of the country within the Middle East and the perceived leadership role of Iran through feeding on Anti-Americanism (partially due to Iraq). Furthermore, the theocracy fears him, because unlike most past presidents who came out of the theocracy, he has his ties with the military, and if he feels that he is being pressured, as along as he stays relatively popular with the people, he could likely initiate a coup (or at least that's a possibility). The key is to weaken Ahmadinejad's internal position so that the theocracy feels comfortable reining him in. Perhaps some carrot can be offered, for instance helping to refine their very heavy crude that they can't process, so his ability to keep using anti-American sentiment is less convincing. But this leaves open the extortion problems earlier discussed. Quite honestly, the only thing I see working is oil has to come down in price and stay down for a while so that the sanctions on Iran actually become crippling as their export dollars decrease. Other then that, talks or no talks, I don't think this debate has any real positive consequences either way outside of our own election battles. We have basically messed up on this for almost 20 years and talking or not talking isn't immediately fixing it.



Well, the entire last three-quarters of your response is a nice detailing of the history of our relations with Iran and one possible course of action (playing the sides against one another). I'm not going to disagree with the historical part because I think we've all come to realize that once North Korea was able to weaponize their nuclear program, the US lost much credibility in the eyes of other countries looking to bolster their global position. It's interesting, though, that you went with the idea of attempting to get the theocracy to reign in Mahmoud. I would've thought - and would propose as the better or more likely option - that we'd go for the academics and youth culture, who have shown an amazing openness towards Western culture. The theocracy stays in power because they use fear to control the larger population. In reality, it is only a few, very vocal, extremists who are dictating the current anti-American policies of Iran. If we can sell ourselves to the new generation of Iranians, it is entirely possible that they could form the new ruling class and begin to tear down the cultural divide erected by a few religious extremists.

But I do disagree with your observation that this is not an options case. You only mention one real reason for not calling this an option case and that is that Obama would actually utilize the option his side is offering. But that alone cannot distinguish this Iran example from any other "options" example. Obama wouldn't necessarily engage in these discussions (plus, with the Iranian demands in mind, it's unlikely he'll have the chance). But even if he WOULD, it's still an options case - the Harvard team could very well argue that they'd use assassinations and they'd still have a valid options argument. This is because an options case is just simply defined by one side of a debate incorporating all of the other sides' options/benefits, but adding just one more of their own. So Side 1 has A amount of options. Side 2, to pull a successful options argument, would simply argue for A+1. That is what Obama is doing here.

Whether Obama's and McCain's policies are indistinguishable currently is really a mystery. I could sort of see why you'd argue that they're functionally the same, but I don't think this is simply a case of pure rhetoric. The statements of each candidate - regarding this issue - mean more than simply the words they use. The candidates' positions inform people of their general disposition or philosophy in regards to foreign policy. The fact that Obama's plan began with a more open and receptive stance than McCain's allows us to validly assume (for now) that Obama would simply be more flexible in foreign policy. Whether this is a good thing or not is a matter of debate - but their stances do reflect the very opposite world-views they hold. So before we go all consequentialist on this topic and just claim that either 1) both views collapse into one simply because they would likely lead to the same outcome; or 2) this debate is meaningless because the policies share a similar end-goal, let's also realize that the means to the end says as much or more about a candidate than simply looking to and judging their goals.