Monday, March 5, 2012

Tackling the myths about Iran

I will admit that for folks like you and me it can be hard to know much for sure about what is happening in Iran. The reasons are twofold: First of all, the Iranian government abhors sunshine. And secondly, the media in this country is infused with propaganda about that country and so its hard to sift through what's accurate and what's not.

But still, there are a few things that tend to be accepted by the public that are simply not grounded in fact. For example, you'd hardly know it from the discourse here, but Iran is in the final stages of counting votes from a recent election. Its true that real reformists in that country have either been jailed or barred from running and there is no outside oversight of the election process, but the results do signal some important tensions within the leadership. Reuters headline yesterday was Khamenei allies trounce Ahmadinejad in Iran election.

Clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has tightened his grip on Iran's faction-ridden politics after loyalists won over 75 percent of seats in parliamentary elections at the expense of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a near-complete count showed.

The widespread defeat of Ahmadinejad supporters - including his sister, Parvin Ahmadinejad - is expected to reduce the president to a lame duck after he sowed divisions by challenging the utmost authority of Khamenei in the governing hierarchy.

When we hear the GOP presidential candidates talk about Iran, they only refer to the crazed rantings of President Ahmadinejad while completely ignoring that he can do nothing without the blessing of Supreme Leader Khamenei.

Apparently these elections have been viewed as a contest between these two men and Ahmadinejad has been roundly defeated. In addition, he is now a lame duck in that he is constitutionally barred from running for a third term.

When it comes to issues about the Middle East, one of the people I think its important to listen to is Juan Cole. I don't always agree with him, but he does know more about this topic than other folks in the media/blogosphere. Here's what Cole says about who is in charge in Iran.

This puzzling emphasis on Ahmadinejad comes despite the president’s relative lack of power in the Iranian system. The commander in chief of the armed forces is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Who sets nuclear policy? Ali Khamenei. In Iran, the “president” is more like a vice president (think Joe Biden) than a real executive.

Cole is also one of the only people in the media who seems to at least be paying attention to what Khamenei is saying about the country's nuclear ambitions. He quotes from a speech Khamenei gave a week and a half ago.

The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.

Whether or not you believe Khamenei is open to interpretation, but as Cole says, shouldn't we at least be hearing what he has to say?

What we know is the President Obama paid attention because he mentioned this in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think the question here is going to be: What exactly are their genuine interests? Now, what we've seen, what we've heard directly from them over the last couple of weeks is that nuclear weapons are sinful and un-Islamic. And those are formal speeches from the supreme leader and their foreign minister.

GOLDBERG: Do you believe their sincerity?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: My point here is not that I believe the sincerity of the statements coming out of the regime. The point is that for them to prove to the international community that their intentions are peaceful and that they are, in fact, not pursuing weapons, is not inconsistent with what they've said. So it doesn't require them to knuckle under to us. What it does require is for them to actually show to the world that there is consistency between their actions and their statements. And that's something they should be able to do without losing face.

In the end, all of this goes to reinforce what President Obama said in his speech to AIPAC yesterday.

Moving forward, I would ask that we all remember the weightiness of these issues; the stakes involved for Israel, for America, and for the world. Already, there is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program. For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster. Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built. Now is the time to heed the timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: Speak softly; carry a big stick.
(Emphasis mine)

I would suggest that its time for the left in this country to get its act together and, as BooMan said, engage in some serious conversation about Iran.

I've been fairly disappointed with the level of discussion in progressive circles surrounding the issue of Iran's nuclear program. For me, nuclear non-proliferation is one of the most important issues facing mankind. And America's role in preventing nuclear proliferation is critical. It's nice that we can send aid to tsunami victims in Sumatra and earthquake victims in Haiti and flood victims in Pakistan. It's important that we can provide peacekeeping forces in the Balkans or in the Sinai. But preventing a nuclear war is our biggest responsibility, and that's why, for me, our hegemonic role within the United Nations system is never more justified than when we are working on nuclear issues.

One of the things I found most alarming and destructive about the lead-up to the Iraq War was the way in which this serious responsibility was treated unseriously and was actually used as a false pretext for war. It not only undermined our credibility, it undermined our ability to carry out our real responsibilities. It eroded our moral standing in the world, but it also destroyed progressive support for a robust anti-proliferation policy here at home.

So, now, when the president is trying to avoid war and avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, the progressive left is so jaded and cynical that it tends to not acknowledge the legitimacy of the effort at all. I see more effort put into defending Iran's right to a nuclear weapon than I see concern about the consequences of a nuclear Iran.

Regardless of how you feel about the Obama administration, we cannot cede this issue to the neo-cons and their drumbeats for war and/or our own complacency about nuclear proliferation.


  1. Great piece. Most of the right's fear-mongering enemies list as far as I can tell contains fairly rational actors. Of the "Axis of Evil," Iran far and away was the most rational and least threatening in a geopolitical sense. I have no love for the government, having a few fairly close friends who, having begun degrees in the US in the 1970's, were not and have not in one case been able to return to Iran because of political reasons. That said, like you point out, while Ahmadinejad makes for good TV, he really has no power. He is, literally, a tool.

    With the fundamentalist right in the US, we need on the left to acknowledge that there is a lot of very genuine religious sentiment there, and this is likely even more true when dealing with the Iranian government. The statement the President referred to was likely one of those combinations of political convenience and genuine belief. Nuclear weapons are among other things an abomination. Anyone interested in non-proliferation and, better still, disarmament, can work with that.

    Much like there's a lot of work the left can do with (some portions of) the fundamentalist right on ameliorating poverty that's not being done. Really, the President understands that and his approach has always been to get those temporary coalitions formed to get things done.

  2. Smartypants, you are such a great role model for dealing with your angst in such a calm, rational fashion. You didn't give into your concerns, you informed yourself about the issue and allowed clear thinking to dictate your response. And then you shared it with us! Bless you and Thank you.

    1. Absolutely. One of the things Thich Nhat Hanh encourages his students to do is to always ask, "am I sure?" OK, looks like war is coming. Am I sure? Well, investigate what is actually happening. You add up the facts and it helps keep things calm, mentally as well as geopolitically.

    2. What a wonderful compliment.

      Thank you Tien Le!

  3. I'd say you are spot on. The President and your words need repeating over and over. Thank you for expressing this vital issue so eloquently.

  4. Just wanted to recommend Robin Wright as another informed, sane reporter writing about the middle east.

    I'm sure there are cspan/Charlie Rose extended interviews floating around. Well worth seeking out. I always learn more about the complexities of various countries.

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  6. The notion of "pre-emptive war" is about as morally bankrupt as one can imagine, and I think we can say with some self-assurance that knowing powerful nations are willing to undertake attacks when they have not been molested would provoke any sane nation into arming itself against such an eventuality. Who can realy blame Iran for wanting an ultimate weapon after we invaded countries on both their Eastern and Western borders?

    Nevertheless, while you make some valid points, you ignore some disturbing signs as well. The senior IAEA expert team returned from Iran after two days of discussions with Iranian officials held on 20 and 21 February 2012. The Agency team requested access to the military site at Parchin. Iran did not grant permission for this visit to take place. Efforts were made to reach agreement on a document clarifying unresolved issues in connection with Iran's nuclear programme, particularly those relating to possible military development. Agreement was not reached on this document. As you should know, Parchin is a hardened underground site, immune to the G28 bunker busters we provided Israel along with the F15Es to carry them. Sabotage, taking the facility by force, or a precision nuclear strike are the only avenues to insure this facility is destroyed if that decision is taken and Iran surely knows this, hoping to raise the bar so high in political cost that the US will not undertake to destroy the facility.

    It seems possible at least that Iran has drawn the same conclusion North Korea's Kim Il-Sung drew in concluding that the survival of his regime against outside threat would depend on having nuclear weapons, as much to extort his neighbors as to defend himself from outside threats. The same is probably true for the Iranian Mullahs.

    The point we should be making is that with an estimated 40,000 warheads, the Soviets never used them. With an estimated 300 warheads, the Israelis have never used them. The South Africans gave theirs up. Britain, France have never used their warheads, and neither have India, Pakistan, China or the craziest of all, North Korea. This is what the CJCS meant when he called Iran a "rational actor." Not that they aren't vicious, extreme and funding what they call "liberation armies" around the mideast, but that they aren't seeking their own annihilation. It seems certain they will build nuclear weapons now, if they haven't already, but there is no reason to believe they will employ them and risk retaliation, and thus, in my mind, no valid grounds for a pre-emptive stirke.


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