The National Review recently published an article called “Five Middle East Blunders,” by someone named Victor Davis Hanson. I don’t usually respond to articles in the National Review. It’s just another hyper-partisan, ‘blame Obama for everything’ publication, not worth any sensible person’s time or attention. But this particular article was fairly well-written at least, and I thought I might respond, to at least the first of Mr. Hanson’s charges, regarding this President’s policy towards Iran. (Which, of course, in NR‘s mind, is horrible. Bad. Wrong). Please, as always, bear in mind that Mr. Hanson has credentials here that I probably can’t match. He’s, like, a Fellow at some conservative think tank. (I could look it up, but that would require that I care). Me, I’m not a Fellow, I’m just a guy. I’m a playwright with wi-fi. That’s all.
It is the policy of the Obama administration, stated many many times without equivocation, that Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. I agree that it would generally be better for the world if Iran did not have nukes. But just for grins and giggles, let’s go through what we might regard as the worst kind of nuclear-armed-nation-nightmare. What would define a country that really, seriously, shouldn’t have nukes? Let’s see: a nation without democratic traditions, in which military forces are not really under the control of civilian authorities. A poor country, a country without much of an economy, or a middle-class, a country with an easily radicalized population. A nation with a recent history of supporting terrorism or harboring terrorists. A country that has no particular love for the US, or much connection to the West. And a country with a nearby neighbor with a majority religion hostile to its majority religion. That sound about right? Does that sound like a country that honest-to-Pete should not be allowed to have nuclear weapons? Because I just described Pakistan. And Pakistan is a nuclear power. Yikes.
Why on earth does Pakistan even want nuclear weapons? Well, one answer is as a deterrent to India, its neighbor, which is likewise a moderately terrifying nuclear power. But there’s another answer. Having a nuclear capacity puts you in the major leagues, nation-wise. It’s popular with the population, because it signifies something; it means, by golly, that we’re a country that gets up every morning and puts on its big boy pants. That’s why pathetic, awful North Korea wants them. It feeds a kind of national insecurity. To me, it’s like why cities want professional sports franchises. It’s why otherwise sensible municipalities ruin their local economies, spend massive amounts that otherwise would pay teachers and cops and firemen so they can build stadia for their local (privately owned, rich-as-heck) teams. It’s about ‘civic pride.’ It’s a matter of national/local pride.
I’m not saying that the President shouldn’t pursue, as a high-priority foreign policy initiative, the goal of preventing Iran from having a nuclear capacity. I am saying that it may not be the end of the world if Iran got them. I would add that this is not actually a matter we get to decide. Iran is a sovereign nation, capable of managing its own affairs. We are not the boss of them. The US does not actually get to have a veto over which other countries get nukes. And Iran is far more stable, more prosperous, and more Western-friendly than Pakistan, or, for that matter, India.
There’s also not a lot we can do. There are two ways we could proceed; a carrot approach and a stick approach. The ‘stick’ involves international sanctions aimed at preventing other nations from trading with Iran. The ‘carrot’ involves making diplomatic overtures reducing tensions and working to include Iran in the fellowship of nations. I like carrots, honestly. Respect the richness of Persian culture, admit that we were wrong to assassinate Mohammed Mossadeq back in ’53, apologize for the Shah’s excesses and our propping up that vicious creepy thug for so long. Which we were, you know, honestly, wrong for killing Mossadeq, wrong for the Shah.
The fact is, though, decisions about things like their nuclear build-up are made by the ruling Iranian mullahs, and especially the Ayatollah Khameini. He’s Supreme Leader, and has been since 1989. And he’s not really someone we can pressure effectively; he’s essentially immune from electoral pressures, and even internally, his power base is the Iranian military. And remember, the nuclear build-up is popular in Iran. It’s in his interest to keep up with it, because the general population is not really all that supportive of some of the religious restrictions that have been imposed. Iran leads the world in satellite dishes, remember, and an Iranian friend of mine points out that their favorite program is re-runs of Baywatch. Part of what keeps the people tractable is their ‘big boy pants’ national pride in their nukes.
Up to recently, the ‘stick’ was what we mostly tried. Economic sanctions against Iran were imposed, and did some damage to Iran’s economy. We were able to make that work because Iran’s President, until recently, was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He became the public face of Shi’ite extremism. He was, frankly, kind of a nut. And so it wasn’t difficult for our allies internationally to support sanctions aimed at any regime (titularly) headed by him.
But things have changed. First, of course, for our allies, those sanctions were not really in their own nations’ interest. Iran can supply something for which there is huge international demand. Black gold, Texas tea. Oil.
And there are other factors. Ahmadinejad is out. Hassan Rouhani is the new President, and he’s much more Western-oriented, much more democratic. He’s a much more favorable candidate, in other words, for a ‘carrot’ approach. It would have been massively irresponsible for any American President to engage with Ahmadinejad, but equally irresponsible not to engage with the new guy. Most of the ‘thawing’ in US-Iranian relations are past overdue anyway, and with Rouhani in control, much easier to implement.
And there’s also Isis. And Isis is a specifically Sunni group of murderous thugs. Their main attacks have been against Shi’a communities. In fact, check this out. An article from the Times of India, about the literally life-or-death questions Isis asks captured prisoners. Sunni are released, Shi’a summarily executed. So why wouldn’t the US want to invite the largest Shi’ite power in the region to work with us in the war against Isis? We do, in fact, need allies there. And in fact, Iran has been helpful.
So yes, it’s absolutely true that the economic sanctions we once imposed on Iran have been relaxed, as part of a larger diplomatic engagement. Those sanctions weren’t viable anyway, internationally, once Ahmadinejad left office. And yes, it’s true that Khameini can accurately be described as rabidly anti-Semitic, or at least, anti-Zionist. Israel is very concerned about the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. They have reason for their concern. We should too; Israel is our loyal ally, and will remain so.
It’s also true that American conservatives have been rabid in their opposition to the current Iranian regime, and that many in the neo-conservative press have called for the US to bomb and then, eventually, to invade Iran, if sanctions didn’t succeed in disarming them. And that among the voices calling for precisely that option, was Victor Davis Hanson. So: he’s another nut.
Ali Khameini is 75 years old, and in poor health. Iran is under new leadership, one we can actually engage with diplomatically. It’s time for a new course. This President, wisely and sensibly, is pursuing that course. An apoplectic National Review is welcome to weigh in. And the rest of us, equally welcome to ignore their particular brand of reflexive anti-Obama hysteria.