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Opinion

Opinion

Opinion: New Iran leader deserves a chance

August 7, 2013

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The same House of Representatives that just voted to speed up the end of U.S. combat missions in Afghanistan seems eager to embroil America in another war in the greater Mideast — with Iran.

In high dudgeon, House members voted, 400-20, last week for more harsh economic sanctions on Tehran — just before the inauguration of Iran’s president-elect, Hassan Rowhani. The new Iranian leader says he wants to ease tensions with Washington, and has signaled he may be ready to limit Iran’s nuclear program. But rather than test the new leader’s bona fides, Congress chose to greet him with a slap in the face.

Sure, skepticism is called for. But Rowhani’s overtures deserve to be examined, not least because Congress and the White House keep stressing that force is an option if sanctions don’t work.

Sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy badly (which is why Rowhani wants a deal), but they haven’t curbed the nuclear program. Negotiations just might be able to do so now that Rowhani has replaced the nasty, Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Of course, the rationale given for the House bill was that more pressure — applied right now — will force the Iranian regime to make concessions. Given the historic level of mistrust between Iran and America, however, the opposite is more likely.

This move reminds me of conversations I had with Iranians involved in talks with U.S. officials in 2001, when Tehran cooperated with Washington in ousting the Afghan Taliban. Soon afterward, George W. Bush labeled Iran part of the “axis of evil,” which, my sources said, undercut the Iranian factions seeking more cooperation with the United States.

The bill’s sponsors also argue that Rowhani’s ascendancy will make little difference, because real power lies with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But Rowhani has a unique status as a consummate insider (and former nuclear negotiator), with close ties to reformers and conservatives as well as Khamenei.

“He is one of the few who can get authorization from Khamenei” to negotiate seriously, says Roberto Toscano, a former Italian ambassador to Tehran with extensive Iranian contacts. “We should not be overly optimistic,” says Toscano, “but to say nothing has changed is not realistic.”

Moreover, it makes a big difference that the populist Ahmadinejad is no longer in charge of negotiations. He spouted apocalyptic rhetoric that led many, especially in Israel, to believe Iran might drop a nuclear bomb on Israel to hasten the return of the Shiite messiah, or Mahdi.

Whether or not this was Ahmadinejad’s real intention, it helped poison any prospect for talks. Iran’s hostility toward Israel remains unchanged. (At an annual pro-Palestinian celebration last week, Rowhani called the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands “a sore . . . on the body of the Islamic world.”)

But the new leader’s style is very different from his predecessor’s. He is a pragmatist who recognizes that in order to survive, the regime needs to meet the economic needs of its people. And he is part of a regime whose main goal is survival, said Toscano at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. That means not committing certain suicide by bombing Israel, whose nuclear submarines would respond by destroying Tehran.

Still, the Iran vote in Congress was no doubt influenced by Israel’s fear that a centrist Rowhani is really “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” to use the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yet those who are quick to dismiss any new prospects for negotiations should reflect how the Middle East is changing — in ways that weaken Iran. Shiite Iran’s support of Syria’s bloodthirsty Bashar al-Assad — and the involvement of Iran’s Lebanese proxy, the Hezbollah militia, alongside Assad’s forces — has soured the Sunni Arab world on Tehran.

Even Hamas, the Sunni Palestinian movement funded by Tehran in Gaza, has turned against Tehran. Iran’s archenemy, the Shiite-hating Taliban, is making headway in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida and its affiliates, who also hate Shiites, are also making a comeback in Syria and Iraq. On top of those threats, Tehran faces its biggest challenge: falling world oil prices as massive amounts of U.S. shale gas and oil come on line.

Thus, it needs to focus on the home front. The regional threat from Tehran is shrinking; the global threat is overrated. And a strike on Tehran would only delay, not stop, Iran’s nuclear program anyway. Yet, the congressional drumbeat continues for more sanctions, along with a hostile attitude toward negotiations.

If Iran’s enrichment program continues to develop — despite sanctions — there will be growing pressure on President Obama from Israel, and from some legislators, to contemplate military action. So before the Senate takes up the House bill on tougher sanctions, it’s time to rethink their purpose.

Sanctions, says Toscano, “are useful only if they are instrumental in reaching an agreement, which requires compromise. If there are no negotiations, sanctions can lead to military conflict.”

At a time when circumstances are propitious for talks with Tehran, our leaders shouldn’t box themselves into a war with Iran.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Comments

Abdu Omar 1 year, 4 months ago

Our government is so focased on Israel and its survival (they think) they are not mindful of the truth. If Iran dropped a bomb on Israel, which they can't, what is the point? Bringing in the Mehdi? Before that there is much that needs to change according to their beliefs. And dropping a bomb would be the end of Iran, something the Iranians wouldn't like. I think our policy is foolish and will only lead to where we don't want to go. Israel's in charge of us and we need to resist.

jhawkinsf 1 year, 4 months ago

It is less likely that Iran would drop a bomb on Israel than it is that once they achieve nuclear capability, they pass a bit of that material on to one or more of their clients in the region. Those clients would include Hezbollah, Hamas and of course, Syria. Should that happen, potential targets would include a variety of Syrian rebel forces as well as Israel.

It should be noted that the First World War didn't begin with two great powers deciding to engage in an all out war. It began with an anarchist shooting a fairly obscure archduke, away from the major capitals of London, Berlin, Paris. It began with a series of miscalculations. The world basically bumbled and stumbled their way into a world war that killed tens of millions and expanded well beyond the initial combatants.

Tell me, if you know, exactly what Iran will do? Tell me, if you know, exactly how Israel will respond? Tell me, if you know, exactly what will be the response to Israel's reaction of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, etc.? Tell me, if you know, what will every faction, every group, every political entity do in response to all that turmoil? How will Russia react? Will they seize upon this turmoil as an opportunity to challenge U.S. supremacy on the world stage?

Tell me that we've come a long way, that we're better than we were a hundred years ago, that there in no chance at all that we will bumble and stumble our way into another catastrophic world war. I will politely disagree.

jafs 1 year, 4 months ago

It's absolutely possible we'll do it again, and I like your description of "stumbling and bumbling" into WWI. That's a war whose actual cause escapes me.

But, it's been a while, and we haven't done it again - WWII made more sense, and our other conflicts have been more localized.

And, the real problem is given the uncertainties, how do we determine good policies? This column points out that our sanctions may be counter-productive.

jhawkinsf 1 year, 4 months ago

I think an interesting example to look at is Libya. They too had nuclear ambitions. They too had leaders, or more precisely one leader, who many in the west saw as unstable, a loose cannon, someone who with his petrodollars, could support some pretty radical groups, someone who could begin that bumbling and stumbling process. Many countries in the west imposed sanctions, though how effective they were can be debated. Yet when the U.S. decided to invade Iraq, and Khadafi saw a determined force, a force determined to overthrow the brutal Saddam, Khadafi suddenly gave up his nuclear ambitions. I'd guess that U.S. policy makers didn't see that coming, that the invasion of Iraq would cause Libya to give up it's nuclear ambitions. But it happened.

I think it highlights the fact that when we, or any country for that matter, makes policy decisions, there exists a wide range of possible outcomes. That's why I tend to shy away from definitive statements when it comes to these types of foreign policy decisions. I tend to shy away from saying that if we do "A", then "B" will be the result. In any given circumstance, all we can really do is make the best decisions possible, based on the available information, and then be ready for a range of results. And that's why I would shy away from wounded's analysis that if Iran gets the bomb, they would do this and Israel would do that in response. The fact is, we don't really know if Iran will use that bomb, give material to Hezbollah or some such group, maybe give some material to an even more radical group or maybe even to a suicidal lone wolf. We don't know, Israel doesn't know and as the possibilities expand, so too does the possible responses by a wide variety of groups.

average 1 year, 4 months ago

The 'actual cause' of WWI escapes people because the whole 'Archduke' thing was probably the least important part. The whole continent was a powderkeg leading up to then. Multiple reasons, but one of the most important is also the one that should seem the most familiar. The race for Iraqi oil.. same darned thing we fight over 90 years later.

The British and German Navies had recently switched from coal to oil-powered ships (whole lot of advantages), and both countries were using a whole lot more oil in other ways. Neither had massive reserves (that they knew about anyway). So, there was a race to access the Mesopotamian oilfields, the Brits were trying to prevent the construction of the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway (which would have given Germany much more influence).

https://www.e-education.psu.edu/egee120/node/233

jafs 1 year, 4 months ago

Yes, I remember the "powder-keg" metaphor, but I never really understood it.

Interesting idea about the oil part.

tomatogrower 1 year, 4 months ago

Considering that most people in this country keep themselves informed with lies in email and on Facebook, and don't bother fact checking anything, and because they pay more attention to celebrities, this is the only way the President can really communicate with many people. It's a sad reflection of our society, not of the president.

jhawkinsf 1 year, 4 months ago

Ironic in that on another thread today, there are calls for keeping the voting process as easy as possible, presumably so that all those voters who believe the lies, all those voters who get their information off Facebook, all the voters who refuse to fact check, can vote more easily. What could possibly go wrong?

Ron Holzwarth 1 year, 4 months ago

They're talking about yet another war? How is it going to be paid for, considering that the United States is already $16.7 Trillion in debt? That's $52,914.86 for every citizen.
http://www.brillig.com/debt_clock/

The ultimate destruction of the United States as we know it is much more likely to be a debt default than a war. It's easy to talk big, as we have been hearing from Iran and a few other countries, and it's very difficult to pay your bills when the numbers become incomprehensible. And, there is no bankruptcy court for a country to go to. The currency simply becomes worthless, as it did in the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1920s. People's lives became so miserable that they actually took a two bit politician named Adolf Hitler seriously, much to their regret later. About 60 million people were killed altogether, and the world was forever changed.

Dialog should always be the first, second, and third option before a military option is even considered. And, the policy makers in Washington, D.C. should never forget what the United States did in Iran in 1953. With the CIA's assistance, the democratically elected Premier Mohammed Mosaddeq was ousted from power, and the Shah of Iran was reinstated. Basically, the United States effected a complete change in the government of a foreign country. Here in the United States, that is regarded as forgotten ancient history. But in Iran, many are still bitter at the United States about it. It's odd that in articles about Iran, that's rarely mentioned.
http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/cia-assisted-coup-overthrows-government-of-iran

Ron Holzwarth 1 year, 4 months ago

"Why is Israel even our ally?"
Because we are both democracies, and democratic nations tend to form alliances.

"They bombed, tried to sink the USS Liberty in 1967."
In the middle of a war, the USS Liberty was mistaken for an Egyptian ship that was similar in appearance is the major theory. There is another theory that the USS Liberty was acting as a radio repeater to the Arab nations with which Israel was at war with. The USS Liberty willingly sailed into a war zone after Israel had asked the United States to stay away from the conflict. They may have expected the Americans to comply with their request. After the incident, the governments of both Israel and the United States held inquests, and the conclusion was it was a case of mistaken identity. The true cause may forever be lost in the mists of time. That was a long time ago.

"They continually commit espionage against the US."
And the United States doesn't ever collect information clandestinely?

"They have been sanctioned by the UN more times than all other nations combined."
Israel is facing a stacked deck. Of course the Arab nations always vote as a block against Israel. Just recently, Israel introduced a resolution declaring that innovation is the key to economic prosperity. Since Israel had introduced, it, every single Arab nation voted against it.

"They are not a democracy but an apartheid state."
That's a mantra you hear over and over from people who are not well read on the subject. Israel is no more apartheid than the United States is. All citizens of Israel, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze, Hindus, and atheists have equal rights, guaranteed by the Constitution. And so far, 66 Arabs and Druze have been elected and served on the Knesset, which is a unicameral equivalent of the House and Senate of the United States.

"Kissinger says they will cease to exist within ten years and I hope he's right."
So, you hope that democracy disappears from the Middle East. That would be a shame. And if Israel does disappear, where will the Palestinians get their free water, free electricity, free medical care, and jobs?
(Actually, the water and electricity isn't really free. The Palestinians haven't paid their bills in years, so the Israeli taxpayers have to pick up the tab.)

Abdu Omar 1 year, 4 months ago

Always the same mantra, Holswrath, and each post rings of Israeli propaganda from the start. Lebanon, founded in 1935 is a Democracy, but they are not the US's friend. Why not, as you say, the US is bound to be Israel's friend. The reason is simple: Those that back Israel in the US, spend $millions to ensure the US Senate and House vote their way. If they don't, we all have seen the destruction of the candidate that votes against them. In that case, we have a bought and paid for Congress. Why is it that the candidates for POTUS Must, I mean: Must make a speech at the AIPAC meeting so that they can get money for their own campaign? If they don't pledge their support for Israel, then they will never be elected, ie Ron Paul. Stop spreading what you read and hear from Fox News and other Israeli leaning news sources. Try watching some fairminded news for a change or go to Palestine yourself and see what Israel has done to them.

Ron Holzwarth 1 year, 4 months ago

Fox news? What's that? Watch some news? How can I do that when I never turn my television set on? And again, I never mentioned Israel in my original posting.

As an aside, I posted an article from Beirut, Lebanon on June 17, 2013:
News from Beirut, Lebanon about the arrival of the Russian warships: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/May-16/217304-russian-warships-enter-mediterranean.ashx

Ron Holzwarth 1 year, 4 months ago

Why did you bring up Israel in a response to my comment? I did not discuss Israel at all in my posting.

jhawkinsf 1 year, 4 months ago

fmrl - Just for the record, the reason Israel attacked the USS Liberty in 1967 was for the same reason the U.S. bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, though the U.S. had much better technology. The reason, of course, is that in war, mistakes happen. And by the way, both Israel and the U.S. subsequently apologized for their mistakes.

Abdu Omar 1 year, 4 months ago

I know a guy who was on that ship, USS LIberty. He said that when Israel started their bombing runs, the ships captain ordered the largest AMERICAN flag to fly on the highes mast on the ship. They sent up flares, tried to speak the the pilots who refused to speak to them. this was no mistake, it was an attempt to cover up the atrocities that Israel did against the Egyptians. Israel is the largest terrorist organization through its Mosad and Shin Bet. But, you two guys back them 100%. That is a shame.

UltimateGrownup 1 year, 4 months ago

Who requires the LJWorld to print this nonsense? This editorial is as nonsensical as eating a lamp. There has been no change in power in Iran. Ali Khameini continues to be the Supreme Leader and commander-in-chief, as he has been since 1989. Khameini has an abiding, all-consuming, long-term commitment to terrorism annd acquiring nuclear weapons. Israel aside, if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, it will cause a regional arms race as Iran's neighbors will feel the need to protect themselves from Iran's nuclear insanity. Rowhani is not going to be Iran's leader and even if he were, nothing would change. He has been in charge of giving the West the dodge on nuclear weapons since 2003 and he was a close aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Now, if Trudy Rubin publishes an editorial saying that eating lamps is the key to good nutrition, will the LJWorld publish that also?

Curveball 1 year, 4 months ago

I only want to comment on the USS Liberty and have one question. I met a former Sailor who was assigned to that ship when it was attacked. According to him there is no way the pilots could have mistaken the ship for anything other than an American vessel. He said the bombing and strafing went on for at least 20-25 minutes and no crew member will ever believe it was an accident. He also said they were in international waters and had every right to be there, even though they were there to monitor Both sides of the conflict. Even if the US and Israel have stated publicly that it was mistaken identity very few people who were there will ever believe it. Just out of curiosity, why was this Mohammed Mosaddeq removed from power anyway?

jhawkinsf 1 year, 4 months ago

Re: The USS Liberty incident. I have read a couple of reports about that. From what I have seen, there were at least two commanders back on the ground, one insisting that it was an American ship while the other was equally certain it was Egyptian. While it is true the incident happened in international waters, there was also a very hot war going on at that time, making certain ships legitimate targets and obviously, neutral ships should not have been. The Americans had told the Israelis that the Liberty would be more than 100 miles away, and while they had the right to move anywhere they wanted in those international waters, it just lent more credibility to the argument that the ship was not American. Also, the Israelis had recently undergone a change in their chain of command, which added to the confusion.

I mentioned earlier in this thread the U.S. attack on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, 1999. It makes no sense that we would do such a thing, especially with the technology available to us by then. I think by now we've all heard reports of some pretty high numbers of deaths as the result of friendly fire. I think it goes to show that when the fighting gets really intense, mistakes happen. There is really no rational reason for Israel to have willingly attacked the Liberty. What then is the most likely reason? The same as the reason we bombed the Chinese embassy and the same reason we have friendly fire incidents.

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