Iran’s Dilemma with Obama: Of New Hopes & Old Dangers

Obama has indeed done the right thing to initiate diplomacy with Iran.
Most Iranians, government officials or not, welcome it. However, the present historical moment is still fraught with danger even as it represents the greatest opportunity to date to resolve longstanding US/Iran bilateral issues.
1.    To begin with, Israel does not favor lessening of tensions between the US and Iran.
Heightened tensions serve Israel’s strategic objectives well by helping it avert the world’s gaze from it’s own criminal actions against the Palestinian people including the construction of the illegal "Wall" in the West Bank, the expansion of the illegal settlements on the internationally recognized Palestinian territories, the continued Judaization of East Jerusalem, the illegal occupation itself, and the criminal assault on and the continued brutal blockade against Gaza.
This is why Israel is trying hard to establish a policy link between the Israeli/Palestinian and Iran issues in Washington. Predictably, aside from the official channels, the rightwing policy think tanks are in on the game as well. For instance the Heritage Foundation will host a gathering on June 3, 2009, in Washington to deal with the "significant differences on policy approaches [between Obama and Netanyahu] regarding Arab-Israeli peace negotiations and how to block Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons." The conference will address: "Are there linkages between these two issues? How does Iran’s growing power affect Israel’s security needs and its strategy for peace negotiations with the Palestinians and other Arabs? What are the implications for American policy on these issues?" The rightwing senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) is scheduled to give the keynote speech, which will be followed with commentaries by the likes of Major Generals Yaakov Amidror (former Commander of Israel’s National Defense College) and Giora Eiland (former head of the Israeli National Security Council), the retired U.S. Army Brigadier General James Hutchens (President and Chairman of the Board, Jerusalem Connection International), the infamous Daniel Pipes (Director of the Middle East Forum), and R. James Woolsey (Co-Chairman of the Committee on the Present Danger and former Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency).
Israel is thus putting maximum pressure on Obama (1) to limit Washington’s engagement period with Iran to several months at most, (2) to make the whole endeavor as fragile as possible by continuously beating the drums of war, and (3) to win from Obama a commitment to hard power politics immediately following the hoped-for failure of the diplomatic option.
2.    Furthermore, inside the US, the deservedly ill-reputed neocons and their friends may be out of power but are not out of ideas.
As hawks, they still favor "doing" Iran the old-fashioned way — if you don’t mind the canonization of the Bush II’s first term. True, the 2008 US elections have limited their power reach inside Washington. But they remain unrepentant in their strategic aims, especially when it comes to Iran. And today’s unfavorable political circumstances present them with as yet another challenge to overcome. Need I note that as a group they are not strangers to challenges nor are they known to be challenge-averse?
They acknowledge that Bush II was by and large crippled politically post-Iraq invasion and thus unable to implement sufficiently muscular policies toward Tehran in his second term (as hoped for). Reportedly, the Bush II administration even rejected an Israeli offer of strike on Iran late into its second term. Certainly this ought to be recognized as one of Bush II’s wisest decisions to date owing in the main (a) to the less ideological approach of Bush II’s second term in office, (b) ironically to the administration’s growing crisis of legitimacy, and (c) its will to not disrupt the fragile security gains in the post-civil war Iraq. Clearly, the more pragmatic policy makers understood that "escalation deterrence" simply favored Iran at that time: there was (and is) little guarantee that an Israeli military strike against Iran would not pull the US into the conflict at a time of scant support at home and abroad for another military confrontation and a fragile stability in Iraq.
Obama on the other hand enjoys unprecedented legitimacy at home and internationally and thus say the hawks: "Yes, He Can" take on Iran in a manner that Bush II implied rhetorically but was never able to carry out in deed. All that is needed for the fury of Washington to be unleashed against Iran, however, is the much anticipated failure of the diplomatic route. Then, once more, the hawks believe, powerful ears in Washington will have little choice but to become more receptive to the counsel of the neocons and their allies.
3.    The Iranian government too is problematic in this respect. It wants normalization of relations with the US but fears that it will weaken its hold on power.
This is a real dilemma (for the regime), but one that is holding a nation and its future hostage, and we must be clear on the outset that no person, group, party, or ruling group has the right to hold a people hostage for fear of losing its grip on power. Having said this, I am not aware of any rule in international politics which requires democratization as a prerequisite to the establishment of relations with the U.S. nor do I think that such a relation is a sine qua non of later democratization. In fact, the U.S. has many times acted to undermine democratic states with which it either had or could easily have had good relations. The Anglo-American coup in 1953 to topple premier Mossadeq’s government is a case in point among many others. Elsewhere we can still find states where democracy has made serious inroads into their political culture while they have at best rocky relations with the U.S. Here recent developments in Latin America, such as in Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, etc. come to mind. And, of course, the documented history of U.S. relations with many dictatorships around the globe (such as those in Saudi Arabia and Egypt today, Iran under the last Pahlavi shah in the past) is too well-known to require commentary here.
However, all the above does not mean that Tehran’s concerns are not real. The reason for this is not to be found in any imagined regularity in the international domain of politics concerning the establishment of relations with the U.S. and the democratization processes. Rather Tehran’s fears are rooted primarily in its inability to subdue political activism among students, women, and workers, who have increasingly made their presence known through greater activism and organization. It is their collective desire for peaceful democratic change that concerns the rulers the most in Tehran. They fear that moving towards normalization of relations with the U.S. could open the floodgates of change and begin to undue their hold on power.
Ironically, in retrospect, it is the Bush II years that may be viewed by Tehran as less challenging to their rule than what may lie ahead for them with Obama. During the Bush years Washington and Tehran militarized their policies at home and abroad while they cooperated tactically with less fanfare in Afghanistan and Iraq where their interests converged. The advent of the Obama factor however has destabilized Tehran’s policymaking milieu. Tehran needs to know how far Obama will go to give diplomacy a serious chance to resolve bilateral issues.
But this is the mere statecraft aspect of the problem (and the less interesting part of the evolving situation) and as stated above not in itself the main source of the worries by the Islamic Republic’s leaders. The main worry is that normalization will spell an end to the atmosphere of crisis (its oxygen) and thereby deprive the state of its long-cherished managerial discourses and practices. Without the latter the state needs to quickly come up with other reliable means and ways to perpetuate itself. If only the theocratic elite were guaranteed that they and only they would be the agents of the changes to come. Perhaps, some among them think they can negotiate this right with Obama: we give you X and you look the other way when we suppress dissent.
But waiting in the wings are the politically "other" Iranians who after long years of exclusion are eager to act as agents of democratic change and who will no longer easily accept monopolization of power by any segment of the population. Indeed the surreal years of Washington-Tehran Axis of Neoconism did bode ill for all concerned and especially for advocates of democracy in Iran. However this macabre dialectic seems to be in a state of suspension for now pending further developments and clarification of positions. The years of hardship did take their toll on activists but failed to quell the thirst for justice and rights.
Indeed just this week some of the most prominent among Iran’s opposition personalities and groups including some current political prisoners joined together to announce the creation of a new political formation called Solidarity for Democracy and Human Rights (hambasteghi baraye democracy va hoghough-e bashar). It seeks non-violent changes based on the adherence to democratic principles and rights including those expounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
At any rate, Tehran is ill-advised to think that the status quo of "no-war-no-peace" is a viable option. This may prove to be a costly illusion. When and if the brief period of diplomacy ends without "success," Washington policy is sure to swing towards hard power choices, and only this time it will be backed by the legitimacy afforded to Obama owing to the historic 2008 US presidential election and by then the appearance of Washington having had exhausted the diplomatic option.
Logic demands that before its too late Tehran prod Obama to take bolder and more substantive steps towards rapprochement with Iran (like unfreezing of Iran’s assets, easing of unilateral sanctions, stating that the military option will no longer be on the table, etc.). This should become the number one national security priority of Tehran in the post-presidential elections of June 2009 (regardless of who wins the presidency, as macro-policies of the state under the Islamic Republic’s constitution are set by the leader and not by the president). Tehran ought to note as well that Obama is a centrist politician who is facing a growing pressure from the right on Iran policy and that he is likely to heed more hawkish counsel of those around him like Dennis Ross and even the Sec. of State Hillary Clinton if the window of opportunity that exists today shuts owing to lack of decisive action from Tehran.
This is a challenge that demands far more farsightedness from the leadership of the Islamic Republic than ever before. For in the longer view what is at stake is the state of Iran itself and whether its people will live together in peace and prosperity under a democratic polity. In the short term Tehran needs to respond to Obama in ways that deepen his commitment to diplomacy and weaken the position of the hawks in Washington and Tel Aviv. Tehran should not wait for more substantive gestures from Obama before making its move. It can act decisively now and push Obama in the desired direction. Little steps (such as a temporary freeze on the enrichment of Uranium process) may be useful as negotiating tools and confidence building measures. But breakthrough moves, a game changer, a departure from the rules of the little-steps playbook of conventional negotiations, are what the times call for.
Everyone knows what these consist of. Tehran ought to retreat from its repressive policies of exclusion of others from politics. No policy change would be more welcome by ordinary Iranians than an official embrace of democratization and the inclusion of those so unwisely marginalized by the powerful for decades. Normalization of relations with the U.S. under the present conditions of rising discontent inside Iran will threaten a state that is keen on maintaining its monopoly control over the same people. It won’t threaten a state that initiates serious moves towards democratization of politics and culture. The chance for a national reconciliation of various forces still may exist today, but who knows what the future may bring and whether conditions amenable to compromise and understanding may continue to exist.
If as cosmopolitan progressives we work to change the mindset that leads Washington to ruinous wars we must also join in solidarity with those inside Iran who demand that Tehran too retreat from its exclusionary and repressive political practices and open the system to rule of law based on respect for universal human rights.
These are times that call for boldness on all sides.

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