The United States, Iran, and the Middle East / Persian Gulf Tango: Past Blunders, Unavoidable Collaboration

By: HASSAN FARAZIAN

SUMMARY:  This is the third essay – in a complementary four-part series – to the previous two posts (first post second post) followed with the next and last post in this series titled – EPILOGUE: Nuclear Proliferation, American Strategic Thinking And Iran Nuclear Deal, on the question of Iran nuclear deal. Here, American foreign policy toward Iran and the Middle-East / Persian Gulf region, and its perspective and prospects under President  Trump’s administration, with the attempt to capture in a nutshell the history, obstacle and the pragmatic alternatives for the US / Iranian relationship will be examined. Through analyzing the underlying factors in a complicated rapport that has evolved substantially in recent years, it is revealed that the realities of  various exclusive factors have forced the two adversaries to search for mutually inclusive grounds of  interests, by moving forward jointly — behind the scenes — and out of the public eye, in consorting a politically explosive but necessary force majeure pragmatic liaison.

As the loud spectacle of the U.S. presidential campaign has ended with its race to the bottom, marking a new low in American politics — surpassing any satire by Saturday Night Live — the reality of a melting Middle East and a failed U.S. foreign policy will persist into the President Donald J. Trump’s term . Hence, it is only pertinent to take a look back at the tremulous relationship between the United States and Iran, a foe that has become a viable, de facto ally in this ever unstable region only by default, in an attempt to analyze its horizon.

At the core of the failure of American foreign policy towards Iran has been the absence of realpolitik. The article by Professor Robert English (The Nation: February 19, 2016) clearly captured the Realist view of the world order and how this relates to American interventionist perceptions within the current debates, and past failures.The key dates which mark the intrusion of the U.S. into Iran, and which have left a significant scar, are, of course: the infamous 1953 Anglo/American-backed coup d’état, which became a blueprint for future Anglo/American interventions in South and Central America, as well as the Middle East and other continents; and the fall of The Shah in 1979, which — although no one wants to admit this fact — was precipitated because of a botched CIA plan to topple him, in an attempt, detached from reality, to quell the communist and youth upheaval in Iran, in anticipation of an effort to channel the energy of an “Iranian Spring”, three and a half decades in advance of its Arab counterpart.

American foreign policy, from the announcement of the withdrawal of British military forces — the traditional imperial power — from the East of Suez in 1968 (eventually implemented in 1971), up to the fall of The Shah in 1979, relied on Iran as designed by President Nixon’s administration. The Shah, and therefore Iran— exactly in that order — became pillars of American strategy and stability. The consequences of a leadership vacuum in Iran were then catastrophically misread by Washington — a mistake repeated again and again during later unwarranted interventions in Iraq, Libya, and now Syria as Iran was plunged into chaos by the Carter / Brzezinski team, following the plan that had been left by Ford / Kissinger. Much as the Bay of Pigs debacle had been planned and  handed over to Kennedy by Eisenhower; this was the start of the suicide spiral of Iran, and gradually the entire Middle East region.

For his part, The Shah, through the accumulated wisdom of a 37-year reign, and his experience of Iranian foreign policy, the region, and the domestic sociopolitical forces of Iran’s diehard radical left and religious zealots, together with the country’s institutional weaknesses, warned the U.S. and the West both privately and publicly about the “Alliance of the Black and Red” — i.e., the mullahs and the communists — and the consequences of their plan to overthrow him, to no avail. In fact, he emphatically stated that: “If I leave, Iran will go down. If Iran goes down, the Middle East will go down. If the Middle East goes down, the world will suffer.” But then, as now, all voices of reason, and consideration of the long-term ramifications for U.S. foreign policy, were lost in the hysterical wishful thinking and short-term views of inept foreign policy buffs under the heavy influence of Kissinger and his accomplices: Carter, Brzezinski, and Cyrus Vance, the Secretary of State, who were eager to be more Catholic than the Pope.

This historical background should set the stage for an examination of a new U.S. foreign policy perspective with Iran and the region moving forward — through the prism of three essential factors relevant to the conduct of a Realist foreign policy: Interest/s; Power Politics; and, of course, the foreign policy tools that many analysts and pundits either ignore or underestimate in their assessments.

 Interest/s: In the words of Hans J. Morgenthau, the father of modern day Realists, “The main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power. This concept provides the link between reason trying to understand international politics and the facts to be understood . . . . Realism assumes that its key concept of interest defined as power is an objective category which is universally valid, but it does not endow that concept with a meaning that is fixed once and for all” (emphasis mine).As Jefferson confirmed over two hundred years ago, “We believe no more in [Napoleon] Bonaparte’s fighting merely for the liberties of the sea than in Great Britain’s fighting for the liberties of the mankind. The object is the same, to draw to themselves the power, the wealth and the resources of other nations.”

 Power Politics: Since according to a Realist perspective power defines interest, it is crucial to understand that the most important notion of any foreign policy — including that of the U.S. towards Iran — is Power Politics. Morgenthau underlines this point in a very lucid manner. Unfortunately, policymakers have often misunderstood the clear distinction between political and physical power, and application of this grave error has repeatedly been the source of the greatest distress by many decisions, failing to properly take this vital point into consideration, causing significant negative repercussions. According to Morgenthau:

“Political power, however, must be distinguished from force in the sense of the actual exercise of physical violence. The threat of physical violence in the form of police action, imprisonment, capital punishment, or war is an intrinsic element of politics. When violence becomes an actuality, it signifies the abdication of political power in favor of military or pseudo-military power. In international politics in particular, armed strength as a threat or a potentiality is the most important material factor making for the political power of a nation. If it becomes an actuality in war, it signifies the substitution of military for political power. The actual exercise of physical violence substitutes for the psychological relation between two minds, which is of the essence of political power, the physical relation between two bodies, one of which is strong enough to dominate the other’s movements. It is for this reason that in the exercise of physical violence the psychological element of the political relationship is lost, and that we must distinguish between military and political power.” (Emphasis mine).

U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and Persian Gulf should clearly correspond to the Realist propositions of interest and Power Politics described by Morgenthau. In fact, by the use of physical violence, the U.S. and the West have abandoned the psychological element and their incoherent, confused policy in the region is in desperate need of strategic re-orientation. However, if the relationship of the U.S. with Iran continues en route to normalization after the nuclear deal, perhaps Washington can finally concentrate on a more realistic policy.

Iran, for all practical purposes, is the powerhouse of this unstable area of the world as it has been repeatedly and unbiasedly underlined in factually analytical manner throughout the previous posted essays on this blog. Iran as an entity and not necessarily the regime, must therefore, be reckoned with in that perspective, if there is to be any kind of realistically applicable American foreign policy and reconciliation. During the past decade, as all other foreign and regional actors have lost their dominance and melted away into politically and militarily regional irrelevance, Iran has inexorably become the only significantly relevant player from Afghanistan to Iraq, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, Syria, and even the Central Asian republics, in line with its long history of Persian cultural and religious influence in the region; not to mention its economic leverage as the biggest oil and gas reserve in the world, and its more diversified economic base and educated youth. Briefly, Iran is indispensable to any regional calculus of power brokerage.

The bitter reality is that the United States stands alone in its Middle East or any other global endeavors for that matter. America’s Arab “allies” are in practice liabilities, since they are grappling with their own domestic socioeconomic and political problems, and grass roots discontent reminiscent of an “Arab Spring” scenario. Moreover, Israel, a self-declared ally of America, has become a black sheep which continues to entangle U.S. foreign policy by imposing its own interests to the detriment of those of the U.S., having snubbed the previous administration — and particularly President Obama — in an attempt to exploit a divided Washington by diverting the conversation and the political narrative in order to build more settlements — a strategy it has pursued relentlessly over the past three decade. The frustration of former President Obama, calling America’s partners “free riders” in a statement, causing the resentment of Saudis, vindicates this point. But it should be remembered that this is also true of all NATO members. The reality is that NATO, in its political, military and economic context, is in effect — only — the United States; and President Trump’s criticism of it is not entirely baseless.

But the tacit alliance between the United States and the West with Iran — the only country that has put boots on the ground in both Iraq and Syria — to help halt ISIS, is one endeavor which promises a more Realist approach in the overall accord with Iran on the nuclear deal. The handing over of Billions of dollar to the Iranian regime was part of a bigger U.S / Iranian entente in sealing a larger common regional strategic objective so that it could facilitate Iran’s financial burden in accomplishing it’s end of the bargain. A quiet collaboration in Afghanistan for some time now during recent years has been another –  discreet and discrete –  but undisclosed cooperation between Washington and Tehran. Just one aspect of a once-tarnished relationship that finally yielded a deal on Iran’s nuclear negotiations along with the realization of realpolitik and pragmatism in the wider regional strategy for the two adversaries. President Trump and his foreign policy appointees must be prudent, and probably have been, after the initial debriefing by the national security team and consultation with the Russians, that a greater regional cooperation with Iran is essential for the long-term strategic maneuvering of both parties. As America continues to become more caught up in the South East Asian challenges presented by China and North Korea, which have been neglected and minimized over the past two decades because of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, it cannot afford any longer to pursue a haphazard and unilateral foreign policy anywhere else.

Israeli far right led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ultra- right wing defense minister Avigdor Lieberman; together with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and their counterpart American neo-conservative surrogates not to mention their Saudi strange bedfellows, all oppose any proposition that includes a U.S. / Iranian rapprochement, and are certainly much less open to the idea of any kind of collaboration that would include Iran in finding a common solution to the current Middle East / Persian Gulf region problems. Yet, they have failed to present a viable foreign policy alternative to almost two decades of ongoing wars, which have cost U.S. taxpayers an  estimated eight trillion dollars (and counting), along with massive human tragedy both overseas and at home. But there is a Realist litmus test to help prevent further disaster: the tools indispensable to the conduct of foreign policy.

Here too, Morgenthau’s perspicuous roadmap helps to guide us through the murky waters of international relations. His model has three aspects. First, reiterated from the above writing, there is the threat of military force and the consequences of its wrath. Second, there are economic incentives, which he has very elegantly spelled out in his “Political Theory of Foreign Aid,” categorizing its various form as : i) humanitarian foreign aid; ii) subsistence foreign aid; iii) military foreign aid; iv) bribery — such as Winston Churchill’s attempt by using bribery to keep Spain out of the Second World War; and, finally, v) prestige foreign aid. Finally, his overall theory of Realism prescribes logic as the ultimate underlying application of foreign policy within a Realist approach.

Let us examine the current challenges to the United States, specifically regarding Iran, within the above context of threats, bribes, and logic as the available tools to the American administration and the West.

Threat: Consecutive American administrations — including that of President Obama — over the past decade and a half have consistently asserted that the military option has been on the table. But the undeniable truth is that the enormous cost and potential consequences of a military confrontation with Iran have been major deterrents. All American foes are able to do the math, and Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and now Syria, are testimony to the fact that America is unable to achieve a meaningful military strategic objective. In short , the psychological element of realist Power Politics has long been removed from the American foreign policy shelf — including the occasional irrational threats of carpet bombing. Therefore, the regime in Iran is not impressed, and doesn’t lose sleep over America’s saber rattling. As Hashemi Rafsanjani the recently deceased former two time President of Iran had  once noted during the Bush’s administration, “Condi Rice talks tough but she cannot be tough herself.” Along the same line, Ali Khamenei the supreme leader and regarding the military threat had once announced at a prayer meeting to the public that ” ….don’t be worried and sleep comfortably they [the US and Israel] will not do anything, if they could, they would have done it by now.”

Economic / Bribery Paradigm: The proper understanding and application of this important foreign policy tool has been well explained by Morgenthau, and yet the United States has failed miserably in distinguishing its proper framework, effect and application. America has continued to throw away money and resources like a drunken sailor for short-term goals with widespread negative effects. As for Iran, even sanctions worked only to a degree; ultimately it was the geopolitical realities of the regional and international politics — and a good measure of mutual self-interest —  on both side — that finally made the nuclear deal materialize.

Logic: Eliminating the prospect of any meaningful psychological, military, or economic mechanism for a realistic foreign policy towards Iran, leaves America with the need for a reasonably formulated, rational policy based on its own interests and capabilities, in the context of a hostile international landscape, as well as to put it mildly, a volatile domestic American political environment. Logic dictates that a clear cut rapprochement towards Iran — no matter how cautious — without preconditions, should be formulated and implemented with some urgency. The U.S. and the West must accept the reality that they no longer enjoy serious leverage, psychologically or otherwise, to force Iran into acceptance of their unequivocal – one sided – national security demands.

The question of morality must also be part of a Realist consideration. However, the Anglo/American actions of invasion under the false pretext of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), kidnapping, torture etc., along with the recent presidential debates on foreign policy and the new administration’s intent to rekindle past breeches of international law through waterboarding,torture and Black site prison, have not set an example of anything other than raw Power Politics, pure and simple; that would give further credence to American adversaries as evidence of lip service on the question of law and ethics. Further, in the good old capitalist terminology, America has already “outsourced” all the above to the dungeons of its “allies” such as Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, CIA backed Libyan militias etc., and of course Israel who collaborates directly with all of them and is the ruthless  master and monster of it all as far as psychological and physical  torture, interrogation, Black sites,kidnapping and even assassinations , physical or character is concerned and who collaborates with all of them.

As appalling as the domestic Iranian tragedy is on human rights, torture and suppression, and there are many, it must be left up to Iranian social forces to bring about the necessary changes. In the current situation, the most likely scenario is that realistic but gradual and meaningful alteration in the regime will occur only with the change of guard. Now that Hashemi Rafsanjani a close confident of Khomeini has died and exited Iran’s political landscape,, Ali Khamenei  the supreme leader and  the last vanguard of the Islamic republic from Khomeini era is the final step toward a perspective domestic Iranian political shift. Analogous to China and the former Soviet Union is pertinent, where, after the passing of Mao / Brezhnev, and their associated old guard, the center could no longer hold against the brewing social forces, and collapsed largely  by being forced to a change of direction due to its inherent decay, despite its ruthless tactics and politico-military machine.

Iranian revolutionary guards few months after the nuclear deal — and just very recently,  have defiantly tested more short- to medium-range ballistic missiles. These testing should not be taken out of its context, however, as Iran is only continuing to develop further its strategic geopolitical policy in the face of an increasing regional threat – not part of the nuclear deal but the UN Resolution 2231 passed after the nuclear deal. Much like many other UN resolutions that goes unheeded, including the UN Resolution 2334 demanding Israel to “.. immediately and completely…” halt all settlement activities on Palestinian lands passed during the last days of former administration – to no avail. Therefore, American policymakers would be well advised not to consider Iran’s rising power as a threat to wider global stability; rather, attempts should be made to construct a workable strategy. In that case, the U.S. posture may very well look much as it did with respect to pre-revolutionary Iran at the time of The Shah. It is important to keep in mind that regimes might change, but Iran’s strategic interests will remain exactly the same as it was under The Shah in the Persian Gulf / Middle East region, no matter how antagonistic or harmonious the changing Iranian domestic or regional environment. The only question is: can American policymakers under the new administration perceive this all-important point of view by approaching it realistically, as was seen and practiced by the Obama administration and not allow itself to be either intimated and/or manipulated by the shameless Israeli lobby and its surrogates, that is only receptive to an American posture that would be beneficial solely to the Israeli attentiveness and not in any way, American national security interest in the light of U.S / Iran policy?

President Trump has been very conspicuously silent on the question of Iran prompting the Israeli Prime Minister to speculate that he will be breaking his silence. However, it is doubtful that President Trump would advance any substantive reactionary stance publicly towards Iran as he is fully aware of critical US-Iran stealthy collaboration in the Middle East / Persian Gulf region. A cartoon by KAL in The Economist of March 2nd, 2013, page 8, captures perfectly the state of US / Iranian relationship where two gorillas are pounding their chest, eyeballing each other and at the end lift up their mask revealing an American and a Mullah agreeing to continue the political masquerade in few weeks. Much like “Bibi” Netanyahu that continues his deceptive intentions en route to building more settlements and  torpedoing any chances of a peace agreement and Palestinian state, long overdue, all to the detriment of American interest in the region. But he may be in for a surprise, that President Trump, like his predecessor, and probably even more, would be pressing him hard for the implementation of two state solution in no uncertain way,Trump style.

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