Appeasement, peace or neither?

September 24, 2015

Eric Ruder examines the right-wing denunciations of the Obama administration deal with Iran, along with the liberal celebrations of it--and concludes both sides got it wrong.

THE CROWDED field at the second Republican presidential primary debate, straining to be heard above the thump of Trump, dished out enough red meat to choke an NFL offensive line. And so it was only appropriate that on foreign policy generally and the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran specifically, the Republican presidential hopefuls were all working from the same neocon playbook: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran."

Here are some of the choicest bits (emphases mine):

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz: "This deal, on its face, will send over $100 billion to the Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei, making the Obama administration the world's leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism." (Cruz was referring to $100 billion of Iranian oil revenue that has accumulated in banks around the world, but that Iran has been unable to collect due to international sanctions lifted by the deal.)

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee: "This is really about the survival of Western civilization...This is a government for 36 years has killed Americans, they kidnapped Americans, they have maimed Americans."

The Republican nomination circus in front of the cameras
The Republican nomination circus in front of the cameras

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio: "There is a reason Khamenei refers to Israel as the little Satan and America as the great Satan. In the middle of negotiating this treaty, Khamenei led the assembled masses in chanting 'Death to America'...I can't wait to stand on that debate stage with Hillary Clinton and to make abundantly clear if you vote for Hillary, you are voting for the Ayatollah Khameini to possess a nuclear weapon..."

Not surprising from Republicans. But the other side of this political issue has also been firing up its base with heaping portions of...well, perhaps veggie burgers.

"Thank you for this victory!" read a September 18 email from Peace Action. "Diplomacy won over war." CodePink declared on September 11: "Just yesterday, Senate Democrats blocked the GOP effort to derail the Iran deal and potentially lead us into another war of choice. Diplomacy wins!"

On September 3, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies outlined some of the key talking points in defense of the deal:

[T]he agreement strengthens the U.S. as a diplomatic, rather than solely military leader...It undermines U.S. backers of the Iraq war and others calling openly for war with Iran. It shows that massive popular engagement with Congress can defeat even huge investments of cash by wealthy and powerful individuals and organizations who choose war over diplomacy, including AIPAC, the arms lobby and others.

And on September 8, the Democratic Party political action committee MoveOn wrote:

Today's victory is a testament to both the merits of the agreement and to pro-deal activists' powerful grassroots organizing. Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of MoveOn members have mobilized to ensure the historic deal with Iran won't be sabotaged by Congress, with thousands of members turning out in force throughout August recess--showing up at town halls, contacting their representatives, and holding hundreds of demonstrations to ensure we don't get bogged down in another costly war of choice in the Middle East.

NEEDLESS TO say, the agreement with Iran does not make the Obama administration "the world's leading financier of Islamic terrorism" (though that distinction may well belong to U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, whose King Salman visited the White House on September 5). Or that Western civilization is about to come unglued as a result.

But it's also an illusion to think that this agreement represents the victory of "diplomacy" over "war," as some antiwar voices suggest. In fact, the Obama administration and its supporters see this deal as the best way to increase pressure on Iran to submit to U.S. designs in the Middle East.

But don't take my word for it--just listen to what Obama himself says of the agreement. In an August 5 speech, Obama explained that if "Iran tries to build a bomb, this deal ensures that the United States will have better tools to detect it, a stronger basis under international law to respond, and the same options available to stop a weapons program as we have today, including, if necessary, military options."

And Obama stressed that Iran's failure to comply would free the U.S. to act unilaterally if it desires: "If Iran violates the agreement over the next decade, all of the sanctions can snap back into place. We won't need the support of other members of the UN Security Council; America can trigger snapback on our own."

Republican presidential candidates have the luxury of acting as if GOP primary voters are the only people whose opinions matter, and none of the burden of putting forward ideas that have to be implemented in the real world. The Obama administration, on the other hand, had to confront the fact that the other parties to the Iran negotiations--China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and the European Union--all supported the deal. Already, investors from Europe and beyond are lining up to get a piece of an economy poised for takeoff after years of sanctions.

This reality loomed large for the Obama administration, which understood that American intransigence would only ensure that Corporate America would be shut out of an emerging market--a fact that Republican ideologues still haven't caught up with.

BUT LEAVE it to Bill Clinton's former secretary of state and Obama supporter Madeleine "Yes, the price is worth it" Albright to put the issue in properly bellicose terms in her defense of the Iran deal:

I teach my students that foreign policy is persuading other countries to do what you want. The tools available to accomplish this include everything from kind words to cruise missiles. Mixing them properly and with sufficient patience is the art of diplomacy...Rejection of this agreement would be a strategic setback for the United States, one that our rivals and adversaries would not ignore. In a turbulent Middle East, there is no way to predict what the next decade will bring. But the United States will be in a far better position to shape events in the region with this nuclear agreement in place than without it.

In other words, the Iran nuclear deal is not a victory for diplomacy over war, but a victory for U.S. foreign policy, which variously employs diplomacy and war in the proper proportions to accomplish its objectives.

In an August article titled "The ultimate argument in favor of the Iran deal," Michael Crowley of reported that administration officials were even arguing that "the pact would make it easier to bomb Iran":

In meetings on Capitol Hill and with influential policy analysts, administration officials argue that inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities under the deal will reveal important details that can be used for better targeting should the U.S. decide to attack Iran. "It's certainly an argument I've heard made," said Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "We'll be better off with the agreement were we to need to use force."

Though Republicans might wish otherwise, a military confrontation was not a viable option to achieve U.S. goals in this case. But that didn't stop the Obama administration from using other tools of U.S. imperialism--specifically, an economic war in the form of sanctions--to compel the Iranian regime to bow to its demands.

The poverty and hardship resulting from this form of war isn't regularly reported by a news media drawn to images of gunfire and explosions, but economic sanctions, as Albright's grisly record in Iraq attests, certainly claimed its share of innocent Iranian life.

Obama himself boasted in his August 5 speech that the ability of the U.S. to organize an international sanctions regime resulted in Iran's economy being 20 percent smaller today than it would have been otherwise--and that the hardship imposed on Iran's citizenry helped to influence the 2013 elections and propel moderate Hassan Rouhani to a landslide victory.

No doubt the millions of Iranians whose lives were impacted--or ended--by unemployment, soaring inflation that puts basic necessities out of reach, and shortages of critically important necessities like prescription drugs would find it difficult to appreciate such "kinder, gentler" diplomacy.

The crash in oil prices during the last year has made the situation even worse--and it means that whatever "peace windfall" that Iran enjoys once sanctions are lifted will likely be spent on desperately needed measures to raise the standard of living and repair a crumbling infrastructure.

But here's the kicker: While practically every mainstream news report takes for granted that Iran is feverishly seeking to build a nuclear weapon, many American intelligence analysts don't believe there's any hard evidence that Iran has yet opted to weaponize its plutonium or otherwise go beyond its right under international law to develop a nuclear energy program.

SO IF this isn't about Iran's breakneck rush to build a nuclear weapon, what is it about?

Chiefly, the conflict is the product of a dispute between "hardliners" and "moderates" within the American political establishment--and a corresponding one within the Iranian political establishment.

During their debate, Republican hardliners talked about ripping up the agreement and aggressively confronting Iran, using the threat of military force. Thus, Marco Rubio claimed that "in the middle of negotiating this treaty, [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei led the assembled masses in chanting death to America." Indeed, Khamenei, like the Republicans, is the hardliner on his side of this drama.

Though Rubio offered to give the reason that Iran calls the U.S. the "great Satan," he never did--obviously, the reason was less important to Rubio than connecting, in the collective consciousness of American voters, "Iran" and the "great Satan." But it's a good question to ask: Why do Iranian hardliners who call the U.S. the great Satan get a hearing?

Could it be the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists by Israel, the U.S.'s closest ally in the region? Or U.S. support for the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war that grinded on from 1980 to 1988? Or the shooting down of a civilian Iranian airliner by a U.S. aircraft carrier in 1988? Asked if the U.S. should apologize, then Vice President George Bush said: "I will never apologize for the United States--I don't care what the facts are...I'm not an apologize-for-America kind of guy."

Could it be the U.S.-engineered coup in 1953 that overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddeq and installed in his place the Shah of Iran to safeguard Western oil interests?

If Iran had meddled so aggressively in American political life over the course of the last 60 years, surely American hardliners would be chanting "Death to Iran"--they practically do already.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, like Obama, represents the moderate wing of his political establishment--the wing that seeks rapprochement and reintegration into the world economy. Like Obama, Rouhani must strike a delicate balance to fend off hardline critics, even as he steers Iran toward a closer relationship with the West.

THE U.S. is increasingly reliant on Iran for help in containing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, with its military conquests in Iraq and Syria. Neutralizing the threat of ISIS is critical to freeing up U.S. resources to carry out Obama's pivot to Asia to confront the rising challenge of China and Russia.

Russia's insertion of its military into Syria--which is Iran's closest regional ally--represents a challenge to U.S. dominance in the Middle East, while simultaneously providing a measure of stability that the U.S. desperately seeks. For months now, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has been losing ground to various jihadist forces, especially ISIS. Russia may be better equipped than any other power to buttress Assad's forces, which are increasingly seen by the foreign policy "experts" as the last line of defense against further advances by the Islamist militias.

Finally, many in the peace movement celebrated the nuclear deal as a setback to the "Israel lobby"--in particular, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which expended a lot of energy, money and political capital, but ultimately failed to scrap the deal with Iran.

But talk about the decline of AIPAC should be tempered. The sharp differences between the U.S. and Israel have revealed shifting diplomatic tectonic plates in the Middle East that have opened up space between the two allies--which creates new political opportunities to be sure. But Israel has other ways of preserving its geopolitical standing beyond AIPAC.

Israel failed to kill the deal with Iran, but it did succeed in extracting a pledge of $45 billion in additional military aid from the U.S. by 2028. "In other words, Obama may now wind up signing a deal to increase the Bush administration's commitment to Israel by 50 percent," writes Josh Ruebner of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

In the end, the debate over the nuclear deal with Iran reflected strategic differences within the U.S. foreign policy establishment--and in the Iranian and Israeli establishments as well. The differences led some Democrats--most notably, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer--to join the Republican side, and various Israeli security experts to side with the pro-deal camp. Thus, though he jumped on the anti-Iran deal bandwagon at the debate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he wouldn't immediately rip it up if he won the White House, while he argued for--gasp--working with U.S. allies in Europe.

On September 18, MoveOn's Washington director Ben Wikler presented the deal as an unmitigated triumph and a compelling case that the political power of grassroots activists have led the Democratic Party to embrace antiwar positions:

The success of the Iran nuclear deal marks a crescendo of a politically mature constituency for peace and diplomacy. It's a milestone in the ascendancy of a grassroots movement stirred to action by the Iraq war that has been building steadily since, a force that will shape the politics of war and peace in 2016 and the years beyond.

This is naïve to the point of being dangerous. Let's not fool ourselves about how far the American antiwar movement must go to have an impact on U.S. foreign policy. Let's not be gullible about "peace-loving Democrats" backing down "warmongering Republicans." In his August 5 speech, Obama himself pointed out that he has ordered military action in seven countries.

The Democrats and Republicans are united in advancing the interests of the American Empire, even if they sometimes disagree about the methods to do so. Lining up to cheer for one side over the other will leave the antiwar movement hoarse before we've even started to make a difference.

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