The Obama Administration's stance toward Iran, while at least refreshingly nuanced, remains caught in the overall grip of provincialism and absence of creativity that has characterized U.S. policy since the Islamic Revolution. Recent remarks by General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, reflect this disturbing combination of insights amid blindness.
The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs made important remarks on Iran this Friday which included both realistic caution and continuing evidence of the profound and dangerous degree of self-delusion in Washington. To his credit, General Dempsey supported Panetta's attitude that war is not the answer, but other comments suggested that Washington remains deeply disconnected from reality. Asked if Washington was making efforts to reach an agreement with Iran to avoid accidental incidents that might lead to an undesired conflict, Dempsey said:
We have discussed this but have not come to a decision about opening up links or a hotline to seek an option to de- escalate any incident. It's not our behaviour that's the impediment to progress here.
While this may well have just been a thoughtless and casual response, such lack of sensitivity to a longstanding adversary's perception of reality betrays an astounding degree of provincialism, suggesting that an undesired war is indeed a very real possibility. Evidently the general and, almost surely, the rest of the Administration, would benefit from deeper consideration of which side's behavior constitutes "the impediment to progress."
U.S. and allied behavior includes the following impediments:
- introduction of nuclear arms into the region (Israel);
- threats of aggression;
- establishment of a ring of military bases surrounding Iran;
- highly public economic warfare against Iran;
- sailing of nuclear-capable submarines off Iran's territory waters (Israel);
- a long violent invasion and occupation of Iraq designed to put Iraq firmly in the U.S. camp;
- the belligerent sailing of a powerful U.S. attack fleet in the Persian Gulf.
Iranian behavior includes the following impediments:
- impolite rhetoric demonstrating a lack of sensitivity to Israelis;
- defensive aid to Hezbollah;
- murky nuclear transparency designed to get away with as much as possible without clearly violating Iran's nonproliferation commitments;
- military and financial aid to Iraqi political allies to facilitate resistance to the U.S. invasion;
- a political campaign to promote regional resistance to Israel;
- a political campaign to promote the restructuring of the global political system away from its current U.S.-centric position toward a more "democratic" system that would deny the U.S. its current position of supremacy.
Examine the two lists. While both sides are playing tough, there can hardly be any doubt that U.S./Israeli behavior is vastly more provocative than Iran's. After all, Iran's impediments mostly add up to perfectly legitimate defensive moves and calls for global political reform, while Washington's impediments are focused on the application of force (even if one does not count the appearance of a U.S.-Israeli terrorist campaign to murder Iranian nuclear scientists). Add the overwhelming preponderance of force on the U.S./Israeli side, and the mountain of U.S. impediments to improved relations emerges clearly. Those U.S. impediments may or may not bother Iranian hardliners, who benefit enormously from being able to scare their people into support or submission simply by letting them see what Washington is doing, but they are great cause for concern on the part of anyone hoping for regional peace.
If Washington ever decides that it wants to solve the U.S.-Iranian conflict, at this point, it probably has no effective short-term option; through short-sighted animosity, it has boxed itself into a corner and ceded its freedom of maneuver to the Israeli war party extremists. Over the long term, however, Washington does have an option that would be low-risk since it requires no strategic weakening of the fundamental U.S. power position but which might pull the rug out from under Iranian hardliners: offering Iran a bargain including respect, inclusion, and security in return for cooperation in moving toward a regional nuclear regime based on transparency on the part of all countries either in the region or with military forces in the region. Such words would not ever impress all Iranians (how could they, given the history of U.S. duplicity toward Iranian democratic aspirations?), but over time might well impress enough Iranian national security officials to change Iranian policy. The real impediment is this: as the side with the power, it is up to the U.S. to come to the realization that the first move is up to Washington, not to a weak--if noisy--Tehran that sits nervously in a defensive crouch.