Iran, Bogeyman

A 2007 book by Trita Parsi on fifty years of Israeli-Iranian-U.S. relations, published by Yale University Press, argues that Iran’s external policies have been more governed by geopolitics than ideology, even when fronted by Ahmadinejad. Numerous occasions for U.S.-Iranian accommodation have been missed, only in part as a result of a political choice by Israel’s Labor government in the 1990’s to build up the Iranian threat to facilitate peacemaking with Palestinians and Arab governments. US policy has been more willful and ideological than that of either Israel or Iran. There are implications for near-term policy toward Iran, and also for an upgrading of American government capabilities for national security policy making.

Some time back on this blog, Harold Pollack modestly proposed a grand nuclear bargain between Israel and Iran. In the current New Yorker, Sy Hersh discusses the possibility that Cheney administration will deliberately provoke a war with Iran via covert ops inside Iran. Recent speculation points to “red lines” that may precipitate an attack by Israel on the known part of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure within the year.

All this is premised to some extent on Iran being a uniquely hostile and irrational regime that is unusually resistant to classical deterrence and liable to release WMD to terrorists. Ahmadinejad’s statements are indeed chilling, but how far do they represent the actual policy of the regime? A 2007 book by Trita Parsi, published by Yale University Press, argues that geopolitics, not ideology, has driven Iran’s policy since 1979 as well as before. Parsi’s thesis is that the U.S. missed key moments when Iran actively sought accommodation (notably ca. 1992 and 2002-2003), and that in part the US lack of acceptance of these strategic openings was driven by the residue of Israel’s Labor Party’s tactic during the 1990’s of building up Iran as an ememy to make peace with the Palestinians and the Arabs more palatable, and to limit the ability of the U.S. to pursue interests separate from Israel’s. You don’t have to buy every twist and turn of Parsi’s argument — particularly he seems to ignore events (see review in Commentary) that point to the messiness of policy as pursued by Iran’s multiple power centers — to accept the gist of his argument that:

1) Until the U.S. failed in subduing occupied Iraq, Iran operated from a position of weakness in the region.

2) Iran has modulated its support for terrorism and its WMD program in response to the geopolitical situation.

3) Iran’s rhetorical hostility to Israel and support for the Palestinian cause has been more tactical than fundamental.

4) Iran’s missile and nuclear programs were aimed at Iraq and other regional powers, and perhaps now at the US, at not at Israel.

5) Since 1979, the US has occasionally looked to what Iran could do for it, but never to what Iran needed in response or to an overall accommodation with Iran.

6) In fact, US policy has been much more ideologically driven than either Israel’s or Iran’s

The primary strategic benefit Iran would get from nuclear weapons would be to shield it from US (or Israeli) conventional attack, freeing itself for more support for proxies should it so desire, rather than for making actual threats or giving the weapons to third parties. Parsi’s account suggests that Iran has conducted its foreign policy in a manner that is at base prudent and rational, driven by national interests rather than ideology. While we may not like Iran any more than we liked the Soviet Union, there is little evidence that it is less deterrable or stable than the Soviet Union was, and thus nuclear weapons in its hands, while bad for the international system for all the reason Harold Pollack mentions, are not really the end of the world requiring the huge risks and costs that any attack by Israel or the US would entail. (The biggest risks are an immediate terrorist response against Israel and the US, further destabilization of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the appearance a few years down the road of a nuclear-armed Iran that is implacably hostile to the U.S.) It also suggests the possibility for a grand bargain, achieved not narrowly on the nuclear front by itself, but by ceding Iran a legitimate role in the security of its region.

However, even if Parsi’s argument is true, U.S. blunders in the region. high oil prices, the advancing Iranian nuclear program and the presence of US forces in Iraq serving as hostages have strengthened Iran enormously compared to when it made its offer for an accommodation of all outstanding issues in 2003 — and so we will be lucky to get anything like the same terms. At this point a quick negotiation cannot be expected; instead a prolonged period of trust building may be required.

See also Peter Galbraith’s review of Parsi’s book in the New York Review of Books.

Note: Parsi has come under attack both for his connections with felonious Republican Congressman Bob Ney and for his connections with organizations that support good American relations with the current Iranian regime. He was born in Iran and raised in Sweden. His narative should be judged on its merits and perhaps should be the subject of Congressional hearings. During the Bush administration, his account reveals another significant area where Cheney and Rumsfeld blocked policies advanced by Colin Powell that would have been significantly better for the country. During the Clinton administration, his account suggests that Tony Lake’s NSC machinery did not have a comprehensive view of Iran’s strategic perspective and as a result excluded it too facilely from the Middle East Peace process, with lasting ill effects. These are big questions that go to the heart of whether the US has a functioning foreign policy system, and that need to be answered before we embark on the next US administration.

Update David Ignatius’s take on the incoherence of America’s current stance toward Iran, here.