Monday, October 6, 2008

Foreign Policy: Missing a History Lesson on Iran?

The recent vice presidential debates had me cringing at some of the answers from both sides, particularly on the issue of marriage rights. But there were other areas where I am not so sure that any of the major candidates seemed to be very strong - one of those things is with regard to Middle East foreign policy, particularly as it relates to Iran. Here is a segment from the Biden/Palin debate last week:

IFILL: Let's move to Iran and Pakistan. I'm curious about what you think starting with you Senator Biden. What's the greater threat, a nuclear Iran or an unstable Afghanistan? Explain why.

BIDEN: Well, they're both extremely dangerous. I always am focused, as you know Gwen, I have been focusing on for a long time, along with Barack on Pakistan. Pakistan already has nuclear weapons. Pakistan already has deployed nuclear weapons.

Pakistan's weapons can already hit Israel and the Mediterranean. Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be very, very destabilizing. They are more than - they are
not close to getting a nuclear weapon that's able to be deployed. So they're both very dangerous. They both would be game changers.

But look, here's what the fundamental problem I have with John's policy about terror instability. John continues to tell us that the central war in the front on terror is in Iraq. I promise you, if an attack comes in the homeland, it's going to come as our security services have said, it is going to come from al Qaeda planning in the hills of Afghanistan and Pakistan. That's where they live. That's where they are. That's where it will come from. And right now that resides in Pakistan, a stable government needs to be established. We need to support that democracy by helping them not only with their military but with their governance and their economic well-being. There have been 7,000 madrasses built along that border.

We should be helping them build schools to compete for those hearts and minds of the people in the region so that we're actually able to take on terrorism and by the way, that's where bin Laden lives and we will go at him if we have actionable intelligence.

IFILL: Governor, nuclear Pakistan, unstable Pakistan, nuclear Iran? Which is the greater threat?

PALIN: Both are extremely dangerous, of course. And as for who coined that central war on terror being in Iraq, it was the General Petraeus and al Qaeda, both leaders there and it's probably the only thing that they're ever going to agree on, but that it was a central war on terror is in Iraq. You don't have to believe me or John McCain on that. I would believe Petraeus and the leader of al Qaeda.

An armed, nuclear armed especially Iran is so extremely dangerous to consider. They cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons period. Israel is in jeopardy of course when we're dealing with Ahmadinejad as a leader of Iran. Iran claiming that Israel as he termed it, a stinking corpse, a country that should be wiped off the face of the earth. Now a leader like Ahmadinejad who is not sane or stable when he says things like that is not one whom we can allow to acquire nuclear energy, nuclear weapons.

Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il, the Castro brothers, others who are dangerous dictators are one that Barack Obama has said he would be willing to meet with without preconditions being met first.

And an issue like that taken up by a presidential candidate goes beyond naivete and goes beyond poor judgment. A statement that he made like that is downright dangerous because leaders like Ahmadinejad who would seek to acquire nuclear weapons and wipe off the face of the earth an ally like we have in Israel should not be met with without preconditions and diplomatic efforts being undertaken first.

I honestly don’t think that either the Democratic or the Republican candidates, or, for that matter, most of the people in the American foreign policy establishment, have a real grasp of the issues that Iran poses toward stability in the Middle East.

Indeed, the single most destabilizing presence in the region is the presence of the American military in Iraq, and the single most destabilizing event was the ill-conceived and catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq. The result of the American invasion has been the destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure and the balkanization of that nation as competing mostly-sectarian interests, previously held in check by the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein, have erupted into violence.

No one seems to take into account the history of the region, and the fact that the United States has since 1953 succeeded to the colonialist mantle in the region previously held by the British, dating back to their “great game” diplomacy in which there were twin goals of (a) exploiting resources in the region, and (b) denying Czarist Russia, and later the Soviet Union, access to a warm water port to maintain a powerful navy fleet.

Both Iraq and Iran have suffered from American interventionism, and Americans, sadly, do not seem to have maintained a proper historical perspective. Essentially, we seem to suffer from a collective amnesia when it comes to politically expedient short-term “solutions” that have turned into long-term nightmares.

First, let’s look at some truly “ancient history.” Iran is one of the few nations in the world to have had an independent existence that goes back to ancient times: the Persian empire, the Parthian empire and Persia, with some intervening occupations by Macedonian Greeks, Mongols, and some others, have evolved into modern Iran. When Islam swept across the region, Iranians developed their own version of Islam, Shi’ia, which has doctrinal differences with the Sunni Islam that prevails in much of the rest of the middle east (excepting, notably, southern Iraq, which has a Shi’ite majority).

More recently, Persia/Iran has been humiliated by British colonialism in its “great game,” much in the same way the Brits humiliated the Chinese empire. Unlike the situation in which China was opened up to Western exploitation by British foisting of opium on the Chinese in trade for Chinese goods and the auctioning of areas of Chinese influence to other western powers, the Brits forced the Persian government to accept British control of its tobacco and petroleum industries, in return for nearly nothing.

Smarting from the abuse of the British, the Persian government developed close ties with Nazi Germany, prompting an allied (pre-American involvement in World War II) imvasion and occupation of Iran – the British military forces smashed the Shah’s armies in a month.
After World War II, Iran emerged with a constitutional monarchy, and a democratically-elected government, headed by the dormer sha’s son as monarch, and led by a Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh.

In 1953, spurred on by false reports from the British that Mossadegh was going to transform Iran into a communist country, President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sent the CIA in to effectuate a coup d’etat against the democratically-elected government. Iran had already nationalized its oil industry, giving the boot to the British control of its petroleum industry. In 1953, the American-sponsored coup succeeded, leading Iran into a brutal dictatorship under the leadership of Shah Reza Pahlavi. America succeeded to Britain in the exploitation of Iranian oil resources during this time, and as long as the Shah was an American friend, the United States looked the other way at the brutality of the regime.

During the time of the Shah’s regime, the only freedom existed in the mosques, and even so, many of the Shi’ite religiousl leaders ended up in exile, including the Ayatollah Khomenei, who spent many years in France.

When the revolution came in Iran, it was led by the religious elements, and the Ayatollah set up a religious theocracy in the country – a development that was not forseen by the Eisenhower administration when it engineered that coup in 1953.

During all that time, while the government of Iran was America’s friend, it was clear that America was not the friend of the Iranian people. And when the Iranians took American embassy workers hostage, and painstakingly reconstructed shredded embassy documents that showed the extent of Americn complicity in the Shah’s regime, American amnesia took hold.
President Jimmy Carter declared that the 1953 coup was “ancient history,” during a February 13, 1980 press conference:

Q: . . . Mr. President, do you think it was proper for the United States to
restore the Shah to the throne in 1953 against the popular will within Iran?

PRESIDENT CARTER: That's ancient history, and I don't think it's appropriate
or helpful for me to go into the propriety of something that happened 30
[actually 27] years ago.

(See the analysis published by the conservative Cato Institute in 1991 .) The Cato Institute paper covers a lot more than just the Iran situation – and all of what it does cover is relevant.
What is clear to me is that since 1953, the United States has consistently messed up in the Middle East. Support for Israel, while an important part of our foreign policy, has only played one part in the drama.

Right now, Pakistan already has nuclear weapons. China has nuclear weapons, as does India and Israel. Iran may well develop them, regardless of the further efforts the United States makes to alienate the Iranians.

While Senator Barack Obama’s avowed willingness to meet with the Iranian government “without preconditions” has met with hostility from the MaCain/Palin camp, it may well be that going to Iran with an olive branch and an acknowledgment of the wrongs done to Iran by America in the past, and acknowledging Iran’s interest in the region, including as a part of the solution to the Iraq crisis, will go far to help create an atmosphere in which relations can be repaired over time.

Of course, this is farther than even Barack Obama is openly willing to propose.

In the debate on this point, Senator Biden gave a better answer – that Pakistan is perhaps a greater danger in the region at this point than Iran. The best intelligence estimates has the Al Qaeda leadership in the ungovernable mountain region of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan – and points out the numerous anti-American Islamist Madrassas schools that have sprouted like mushrooms in the border areas of Pakistan, training potential future Al Qaeda militants.

Of course, all one has to do is look at the legions of “home-schooled” American kids whose parents espouse a different sort of religious fundamentalism, and the many public school systems in the United States that still teach thinly-veiled Christianist mythology as if it had any scientific validity. In many regards, these are no better than Madrassas schools, yet they are tolerated and even encouraged.

If America does not change our own course into the future, if we do not learn from the mistakes of America’s past foreign policy and present military policy, the future of our foreign policy looks as bleak as the dystopian vision of the “social conservative” Republican Orwellian nightmare does for domestic policy.

As our own “home-schooled” and ill-educated children grow up into future Sarah Palin clones, America will have a lot more in the way of collective amnesia, when dealing with the products of Madrassas schools where a great deal of the hatred instilled in the students is actually based on things that Americans don’t learn about in our own history.

We have an opportunity with this presidential election, to stem the tide of the “social conservative” dystopia that had its roots in the Reagan administration and has only begun to flower under the regime of George W. Bush.

Still, the road ahead isn’t guaranteed to be bump-free. It is going to take a decade to repair the economic damage the Bush Administration has wreaked on the American people with its “asleep at the switch” oversight of the mortgage lending market, antitrust, and wall street investment firms, combined with the economic devastation the cost of its ill-conceived and disruptive invasion and occupation of Iraq. The destabilization of the Middle East caused by the invasion and occupation, and the ignorance of the Bush Administration’s “lone cowboy” foreign policy has damaged America’s leadership role, prestige and honor in the world.

I don’t see the Obama/Biden ticket as a panacea. They’re wrong on important issues like marriage, but even on that, they’re less wrong than McCain/Palin. They’re better on every other foreign and domestic issue as well.

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