Saturday, January 23, 2010

Richard Haass, president of The Council on Foreign Relations wants the US give more support to the Green movement.

The fundamentals of the dispute over Iran's nuclear program remain the same.

1) Israel believes that for its survival it needs to be able to issue threats of catastrophic destruction to its neighbors - and these threats cannot be answerable.

2) Iran having the capability to enrich uranium negates the credibility of Israel's threats because other parties in the region know that in an emergency Iran could construct a weapon it could use to retaliate.

3) It is widely understood in both the United States and in Israel, that military attacks on Iran would carry tremendous costs for the United States, and would not decrease, and in fact would likely overall increase, Iran's capability to construct a nuclear weapon in an emergency.

4) It is widely understood that sanctions will not apply enough pressure on Iran to force Iran to submit to Israeli demands, transmitted through the United States and European countries, that it give up its enrichment program.

These fundamentals impose a kind of cognitive dissonance on US analysts, including Richard Haass, the president of the US Council on Foreign Relations. We see an example of it in his recent Newsweek piece. On the one hand, Israel's survival requires that Iran not enrich uranium. On the other hand, Iran cannot be stopped from enriching uranium. There is nearly a physical inability to conceive that there may one day not be a Jewish-majority state in Palestine the way there is no longer a White-majority state in southern Africa. This inability to conceive of a post-Zionist world is impossible to reconcile with widely understood facts that lead directly to the conclusion that a key element of Israel's security doctrine is not viable over the long term.

Why the idea that there could be a post-Zionist world should be a painful thought to Haass, that he avoids at great logical cost, is a subject that deserves a full post for close examination. In short, I think he's been conditioned throughout his career to reject that entire line of thinking as anti-Semitic. He certainly has had more colleagues who vehemently and intensely identify with the Zionist project than who have opposed it during the period in which his political assumptions and biases were formed and instilled. There has been a subtle but persistent pressure that by now can be seen to completely cloud his judgment by anyone who has, for any reason, not accepted that pressure for the long period he has.

But anyway, Israel needs Iran to give up its nuclear program. Iran is not going to give up its nuclear program. How to resolve that? Haass finds the Mousavi's Green movement to psychologically save the day.

According to the only post-election poll of Iran that has become public in the West, around September, three months after the election, somewhere around ten percent of Iranians believed the election results were not a fair reflection of what the people of Iran decided. Three months later, with no new evidence at all pointing to electoral fraud, we can only surmise that the proportion who believe so is smaller.

Ten percent of the population is enough to hold demonstrations. Enough that on a given corner, protesters may outnumber police, beat them up and burn their vehicles. Ten percent is enough to produce at least one person who chants whatever Haass might hope somebody in Iran may be chanting. Haass shows that ten percent is enough, if a US-based observer desperately needs to believe that Israel will not lose its capacity to threaten its neighbors, to convince that observer that there is a resolution of the problem that Iran poses given an understanding that no action the US takes, sanctions or military, can stop Iran's program.

It is not enough to point out where Haass conclusions do not make sense and do not follow from his or any reasonable premises. What pointing out errors in the article misses is the psychological environment that structurally generates errors of these types. But looking at part of Haass' conclusion:
In this vein, outsiders should refrain from articulating specific political objectives other than support for democracy and an end to violence and unlawful detention. ... Working-level negotiations on the nuclear question should continue. But if there is an unexpected breakthrough, Iran's reward should be limited. Full normalization of relations should be linked to meaningful reform of Iran's politics and an end to Tehran's support of terrorism.
"An end to Tehran's support of terrorism" is actually a specific political objective that has nothing to do with democracy, violence or detention. "Terrorism" in this context means support for Hamas, Hezbollah and other organizations that do not accept the legitimacy of Jewish-majority Israel. This is the core of Haass' dispute with Iran and why he pins such desperate hopes on a movement that every indication shows to be small, politically non-influential and that has never even expressed agreement with him on the issues of Iran's nuclear program or Israel.

If the government of Iran ruled over a nation of people like Juan Cole, Gary Sick, Fareed Zakaria and Richard Haass, it would be in imminent danger of falling. In those circumstances, the best move for the US would be to assist the people of Iran in overthrowing the revolution and creating a government that reflects the wishes of Cole, Haass and the others.

But the people I named, in predicting the demise of the Iranian revolution and projecting their own disdain for Iran's government onto Iran's people cannot understand how different their view of the region is from the mainstream Iranian view. Iran's people do not have Haass' and other US analysts' painful inability to accept the loss of an Israeli strategic advantage over its neighbors. Because of that, Haass cannot be expected to give advice about Iran that is even coherent from sentence to sentence. Unfortunately for the United States, most of the US foreign policy establishment is equally incoherent and thereby unable to map out effective policy in Iran or the rest of Israel's region.


Lysander said...

I think that is a very good analysis of the establishment line of thinking. Another example is Michael Hirsh at Newsweek complaining about how much time the US media spends interviewing the "irrelevant" Ahmadinejad.
Here's the link, but its standard fare.

What I'm curious about is what are the things that could go wrong from Iran's point of view.

Specifically, what might actually lead to a full scale war upon Iran by the US with intent to do to Iran what the US did to Serbia in 1999? An Israeli attack need not be successful in the direct sense, but if it compels the US to enter into war with Iran, then it fulfills Israel's purpose.

The US may simply choose to absorb Iran's retaliation. Or Israel will choose for it.

Because the corollary of Hass' establishment thinking, that something can't happen therefore it must not happen, is that they may take far greater risks than national interest would allow.

I do not believe an attack on Iran is likely, but I'm far from saying it will be impossible.

Keep in mind that the US can cut some kind of deal with the Taliban, that it can speed up its withdrawal from Iraq, that it can take steps and even make sacrifices and accept setbacks in other areas in order to ensure Iran does not gain nuclear capability or economic independence.

It may be that the next 2 years are about reducing US vulnerability to Iranian retaliation so that in 2012 an attack is possible.

Arnold Evans said...

I shouldn't have read that piece by Hirsh. It made me angry. On the other hand, his position is very difficult to defend in the context of either Western values or US strategic considerations, so if he thinks Israelis should more eagerly engage the debate, I think more power to him.

I'm comfortable that the United States is not going to start a war with Iran on purpose.

I also cannot see the US being comfortable in Iraq or Afghanistan to attack Iran by 2012. I think by the time the US is out, even if it is only 5 years from now, Iran will have enough of a nuclear capability that it will be immune to attack.

It is interesting that the US foreign policy community is able to take risks that are larger than rational because of this idea that things you don't want to happen can't happen - and not even realize it is taking them.

It really is muddled thinking that either executed or allowed the bombings in Balochistan, the killing of the physicist and other attacks on Iranian soil.

But these things lead to hostility, a cold war like 2006 when the US was losing a lot of soldiers. Real war can't start without a deliberate act, and I'm pretty sure a deliberate act starting a war by the US is still deterred.

I feel like it is very unfortunate that the situation is going to get much messier this year than it is now. US-sponsored attacks on Iranian soil will continue, Iran-sponsored (or at least not restrained) chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan will escalate. But we just do not have a US foreign policy establishment capable of producing anything better.

I'm honestly not sure the US will ever climb down on the nuclear issue. Iran may enrich some to 20%, and the rest to 3.5% and then stop when it runs out of uranium, which will be only a few years from now.

It is so stupid that they don't just stop it now and come to an agreement that leaves some enrichment capacity and a medium sized LEU stock but oh well, right?