Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fareed Zakaria on CNN misreads Iran in a number of ways

From CNN we have a fairly in-depth interview of Fareed Zakaria about current issues involving Iran. I've kept CNN's questions to offer a differing viewpoint. Zakaria's responses are naive and/or misleading in some cases in important ways.

CNN: Iran announced this week that the charge against the three American hikers is espionage. What's the significance of that development?

The October separatist attack on the Iranian revolutionary guards hasn't fully moved into the past yet. So Americans crossing into Kurdish territory are a sensitive issue. I personally do not think US covert operations in Iran are carried out by teams of college-student types, which is how these hikers have been presented to me. But it really isn't fully clear. This is a situation, like many US/Iran situations, where the action is occurring behind the scenes and we don't get any information until one side feels a need to use a public gesture or commitment to send a message to the other.

It wasn't widely enough reported in the West, but after the Balochistan attack, the US and UN with US backing issued very clear condemnations of the attack, including all parties that support or sponsor what it described as a terrorist attack. But that is only words. Iran can use these hikers as leverage for stronger assurances that US support, which clearly had intensified under the George W. Bush administration, has ended. These hikers are bargaining chips over the US program of supporting separatist elements in Iran, including the ones responsible for the spectacular attack in October. The US policy of assisting Iranian separatists probably had not ended under Obama, but may end as a result of post-Balochistan discussions that I assume are going on now.

As before, this is all happening behind the scenes. We'll see that progress has been made in the form of a presidential finding or executive order that support for separatist groups in Iran is no longer to be pursued. If not, at least the change in policy will be reported in the US press. That will probably happen close in time to the ultimate release of these hikers.

Zakaria is just generally too dismissive of the concerns of the Iranian government. Everything Iran says or does is just a ploy. Too many members of the cadre of US Iran-policy experts exhibit this dismissive and condescending attitude towards Iran. This is a problem because when it is time to form expectations of events to happen, making this systematic mistake consistently leads to misprojections.

CNN: It's been reported that Ahmadinejad said the U.S. must abandon support for Israel to move ahead on better relations with Iran.

Well, umm, yeah.

Americans do not understand that most people of the Middle East see Zionist Israel as illegitimate exactly the same way most people of Africa saw Apartheid South Africa as illegitimate. Polls show that the "street" in Iran is in total agreement with the "street" in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Ahmadinejad isn't playing to the Arab "street", or the Iranian "street". Ahmadinejad himself believes that the crimes of WWII did not justify the events leading to the expulsion of the Palestinians. He also believes that justice will require the expelled and their descendants having the ability to return and on a one-vote per person basis, if they are the majority, to vote out of existence Israel's status as a Zionist state the same way Black people voted out of existence South Africa's status as an Apartheid state.

Zakaria supports Israel. He clearly could not win a debate against Ahmadinejad on this issue anywhere in the Muslim world, but that isn't the problem. The problem is that Zakaria cannot even grasp the idea that his viewpoint that Israel is legitimate is a fringe outlying viewpoint throughout the Middle East. Ahmadinejad isn't cleverly pretending to believe this for strategic reasons. Like most people in the Middle East, this is what he believes. Zakaria's inability to see outside of his own perspective is almost universal in children of age 5 or less and in Western analysts of the Middle East when discussing Israel.

CNN: How can the Obama administration negotiate with Iran when it seems their stance on the nuclear issue is constantly shifting?

OK. There is one problem with the deal that can be explained relatively simply. Once Iran ships its uranium out, there is the risk that France will say "now to get it back you have to stop enriching uranium." Iran will not ship its uranium out under those circumstances, but I'm coming to feel as if that, for the West, was the entire point of the deal. Iran had believed that the West was willing to move on and give up this requirement of a suspension that is both unreasonable and unenforceable in practical terms and to which Iran will never submit. Indications were given in October that Iran was wrong and that rather than a gesture indicating that progress has been made away from that requirement, the West sees the deal as a step toward accomplishing Iranian submission to the suspension demand.

So now we have the problem of this window between when Iran ships its uranium and when it gets fuel rods returned. Either the West will have to commit that it will not use that window (and also stretch that window with "delays" as Russia is doing with Bushehr) to pressure Iran to stop enriching, or the window will have to be closed by making any swap simultaneous.

When Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama say the original deal was a good one, they are saying they believe or at least hope Iran is either stupid enough or desperate enough to hand the US leverage to force it to stop enriching. I'm sure behind the scenes discussions are under way to close the window. Once the window is closed, a deal is easy to reach. If the US does not want a deal if it does not include that window, then it will not get a deal. But the alternative is worse for the US, so I expect a deal to be reached.

Zakaria also thinks there are "stirrings of political change in Iran". Iran has a fairly popular government. Taken over all of the people over which the government exerts authority, Iran is easily the most democratic, the most legitimate and probably the most popular government in the Middle East, possibly excepting Turkey. If the people of Iran reach a consensus that Iran should be more accommodating to the West, Iran's government will follow its people. For now, there is no chance of that happening in the foreseeable future. What the West wants from Iran, mainly acceptance of Israel, the people of Iran have no interest in giving the West.

Zakaria goes further and says Obama should give more voice to the aspirations of the Iranian people. Like a 5 year old, he cannot imagine that the Iranian people have different aspirations than his. There are some Iranians who want Iran to be less religiously oriented, and there are some who want Iran to be more religious. Where Iran is today, neither those who want religion to play less of a role or those who want it to play more of a role dramatically outnumber the other group. I'd like Iran to be less religious, but I'm not 5. I can wrap my mind around the concept that there are a lot of Iranians who disagree with me.

CNN: So what are the implications for U.S. policy?

The US really is having difficulty accepting that it cannot prevent Iran from gaining what Juan Cole describes as a latent nuclear weapons capability. Israel is terrified of the idea because having an option to which its adversaries have no response is a core element of its strategic calculations. Over the next ten years the monopoly of nuclear capability that Israel now enjoys will evaporate, which also will mean that the tremendous resources Israel has expended on its own weapons program will be dramatically devalued.

Sanctions are not going to slow Iran's nuclear development, to the contrary, they will speed it up. An Israeli or US attack would cause the US to pay a huge cost and would cause immediate harm to US and Israeli regional interests. There's nothing else. Iran is moving towards a nuclear capability and nothing the US has will work to stop it. But the US wants to put off acceptance of this for as long as possible.

The narrative that Iran is in the midst of some kind of struggle among factions is less true now than it has ever been in Iran. One of the factions thoroughly discredited itself in the aftermath of the elections. Mousavi did make a statement that Iran should not give its uranium away - after Khamenei had said the same thing, after Iran's negotiators made the decision not to accept the terms by the West-suggested deadline. I'm sure nobody in Iran was as impressed by this as much as Zakaria. Rafsanjani and Mousavi are now barely more relevant to Iranian politics than the heir of the Shah. Not only do polls show Ahmadinejad has more support than Mousavi as was reported in the election results, Mousavi now has substantially less support than he had votes in June. I hope Mousavi manages to remain alive and outside of jail long enough to retire in obscurity. In no sense is he or any faction loyal to him battling over any political issue in Iran, much less the nuclear issue or relations with the West.

Also there is an idea expressed by Zakaria and others that whoever accomplishes good relations with the West will be an Iranian hero. The Shah had great relations with the West.

CNN: How serious a factor is the threat of a possible strike by Israel on Iran's nuclear sites?

Iran considers Israel part of the United States for strategic purposes. Its response will be against Israel and the United States and it calculates that the United States will regret either attacking or allowing Israel to attack. It has become public knowledge that Israel asked for permission from George W. Bush to attack Iran's nuclear installations and was denied permission. Every reason Bush had to deny permission is still valid, while Obama was elected to be less belligerent, rather than more.

Worse case for Iran, it will undergo another national test like the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Iran expects that as it came out of that war stronger, it will come out of a war with the US stronger. It is openly admitted that the US does not have the resources to invade Iran. So Iranian volunteers and forces will fight US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. There will also be more missile attacks on Israel than Israel has ever been subjected to, which, since permanently ending Lebanon and Gaza's capacity to rearm is impossible for Israel, it will mean that prospective immigrants to Israel and those considering leaving will consider that Israel will be continuously threatened by these types of attacks. But the US has not faced nationally organized and supported resistance in either Iraq or Afghanistan. I doubt the US will be able to hang onto either at losses acceptable to the American people.

As death rates for soldiers pass 100 per month and reach multiples of that, US voters will pay closer attention than they have so far to the idea that this is a fight over whether or not Iran has the "capability" to create a weapon. Preventing Iran from having the capability to build a weapon in theory is just not worth the amount of killed in action the US will have to accept once a war starts - and with dead soldiers in every newspaper, that argument will become widely understood.

A US or Israeli attack is possible in theory, but Iran is not very afraid of it. Most likely Iran will continue to enrich uranium. Discussions are likely under way now for ways that Iran can enrich uranium and have a nuclear weapons capability but the current atmosphere of confrontation can be reduced. If not, Iran's race to nuclear capability will continue.


Anonymous said...

A good read, Arnold. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

Very well put,great post

Anonymous said...

How much do you get paid to parrot Ahmadinejad talking points? Mousavi doesnt have support? LOL what nonsense.

lidia said...

I usually do not like comparison like "5 years old", but it would be difficult not to use it against the person whose first reaction on the very reasonble piece is "how much Ahmadinejad paied for it" :)

I said...

"How much do you get paid to parrot Ahmadinejad talking points?"

While independent thinking may seem expensive, thanks to the technologies of the Internets, everyone can afford it. All you need is to develop your minds ability to critically analyze information, most notably differentiate between facts and accusations, arguments and policy statements.

Western propaganda media seems more comfortably. You do not need to do any thinking and the only work expected from you is to repeat the one-liners you are taught.

Because of this, when someone has something to say that is not what you have been told to say, there must be a “conspiracy”. Silly you.