Tag: Iran

A Step Forward in Afghanistan, If We Are Willing to Take It

The Washington Post reports the Obama administration has revised its Afghan war strategy to include “more energetic efforts to persuade” Afghanistan’s neighbors—including India, China, and the Central Asian republics—to “support a political resolution.” Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that the administration was also relying on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency “to help organize and kick-start reconciliation talks aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan.”

This is good news, but also déjà vu. The administration called for “pursuing greater regional diplomacy” back in 2009. It also said it would ask “all countries who have a stake in the future of this critical region to do their part.” Countries in the region do have a stake in Afghanistan’s future; America, however, has few effective instruments for submerging the differences among competing powers.

Take our relationship with Iran. It has made significant inroads with Afghanistan’s Hazara and Tajik communities and is well-positioned to be a key player in the region. But Tehran and Washington seem neither close to engaging in direct talks nor willing to make reciprocal concessions for the cause of furthering peace. The irony is that after 9/11, American and Iranian interests initially converged in Afghanistan: Tehran cooperated with Washington to overthrow the Taliban regime, and during the Bonn negotiations helped broker a compromise between President Karzai and the Northern Alliance.

America’s complicated relationship with Iran is one reason why what U.S. officials perceive to be in America’s best interests may not be synonymous with the pursuit of peace. Isolating Iran, or even Pakistan for that matter, will hurt the substance of negotiations, increase the incentive for these countries to sabotage peace, and hinder Washington’s ability to shape a coherent regional strategy. Even if Washington were to engage Tehran and Islamabad, they may very well decide to protract the bargaining process to convey that time is on their side (it is). One reason why the administration’s 2009 effort may have faltered was that Pakistan—a major player in Afghanistan’s internal affairs (to the consternation of many Afghans)—has come to feel that it can manage the terms of reconciliation. In fact, it is this belief that tempers Pakistan’s eagerness to be more accommodating toward the United States, which is why the case for American humility is key when it comes to the subject of negotiations.

Peace will not be perfect. Problems will rise when competing interests collide on certain core issues. Nevertheless, all parties must be sufficiently dedicated to reaching a consensus on what constitutes a manageable settlement. After all, some countries will seek to stymie their enemy’s provision of assistance to Kabul (i.e. Pakistan vis-à-vis India). Getting these countries to think otherwise will necessitate a shift in said country’s perceptions of others’ intentions.

As I wrote last week, U.S. officials understand the enormity of problems they confront in this vexing region. Proponents of peace are not blind to these difficulties. Unfortunately, much like the current nation-building effort, when it comes to regional engagement, U.S. officials could be making yet another ambitious commitment that is beyond their ability to carry out.

Cross-posted from The Skeptics at the National Interest.

Cillizza on Cain and Know-Nothing Foreign Policy

Asked on Meet the Press this weekend whether the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador was an act of war, Herman Cain gave the following response:

After I looked at all of the information provided by the intelligence community, the military, then I could make that decision.  I can’t make that decision because I’m not privy to all of that information… I’m not going to say it was an act of war based upon news reports, with all due respect.  I would hope that the president and all of his advisers are considering all of the factors in determining just how much, how much the Iranians participated in this.

That struck me as a refreshingly reasonable position. Yet the Washington Post’s election handicapper, Chris Cillizza, decided to make that quote the centerpiece of an article on Cain’s “know-nothing foreign policy.” He then presents a poll showing that Republicans don’t care much about foreign policy this year, only to conclude that foreign-policy ignorance could be a fatal handicap for Cain. His evidence for that conclusion is a quote from Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, who specializes in arguing for wars and imperialism. Boot, as it happens, just wrote a blog post for Commentary titled, “Iran Plot Goes Straight to the Top,” where he attacks those willing to question the evidence against Iran’s leaders and vaguely supports attacking them.

Cillizza’s article makes clear that foreign-policy ignorance is far preferable to the Washington Post’s idea of expertise. The worst part is that Cain, who claims not to know what neoconservatives are, seems likely to become one, call Boot for advice, and win the Post’s respect.

Tehran v. Riyadh

The alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, has served to underscore that Washington and Riyadh view Tehran as a common enemy. This plot has already heightened both parties’ persisting anxieties over Iran, but the U.S.-Saudi partnership has often tended to reinforce, rather than diminish, each side’s most hawkish tendencies.

After the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, Iran developed far greater influence among its allies and co-religionists in Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and the Gulf States. Demonstrating the fear that Iran’s expanded Shia influence has inspired among Saudi leaders, in February 2007 Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal encouraged the United States to strengthen its naval presence in the Persian Gulf, telling a U.S. diplomat that the Saudis would supply the logic for America’s deployment if Washington supplied the pressure.

Of course it is the Kingdom that is alarmed by the possibility of an Iranian SCUD missile attack on Saudi oil facilities; it is the Kingdom that is petrified by the possibility of Iran’s nuclear program posing a threat to the House of Saud’s regional prestige; and it is the Kingdom that has claimed that Shia-Persian Iran has been stage-managing the massive, popular uprisings sweeping the region in order to undermine Sunni Arab regimes. If the United States moves to increase the scope of its political, economic, and military sticks against Iran, it will only serve to invite further Iranian and Saudi intrigues. It may also encourage Iran and other states like it to seek a nuclear deterrent. Responding swiftly to this alleged plot, as some political pundits have encouraged, will further entangle the United States in an intra-Islamic, Shia-Sunni, Arab-Persian rivalry divorced from America’s vital interests.

As an aside, to shed some new light on the scorn currently being heaped on Iran’s odious regime, let us remember that it is America’s strategic ally—the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—that remains one of the most oppressive regimes in the Middle East. And as much as folks are fulminating over Tehran’s support for terrorism, in reality it is donors in Saudi Arabia who constitute the most significant source of funding to terrorist groups worldwide.

Cross-posed from the National Interest.

Tuesday Links

  • A bombing campaign by either Israel or the United States would rally the Iranian people to support an otherwise unpopular and incompetent regime.
  • What else will it take to rally the so-called fiscal hawks to the cause of reducing spending, balancing the budget, and averting national bankruptcy?
  • Senator Franken’s Pay for War Resolution is a superficially a step in the right direction; but when it comes to war, the Senate could probably easily rally a 60-vote supermajority to override any offset requirements.
  • It should be easy to rally around Paul Ryan’s Medicare choice plan, since seniors will lose benefits in the long run anyway.
  • Tax reform proposals are rallying back on both sides of the aisle–will any of them stick?


What’s Wrong with Imported Oil?

In a speech today at Georgetown University, President Obama called for a goal of cutting America’s oil imports by one-third within a decade. Like all efforts to wean Americans from big, bad imports, such a policy will mean we will all pay more than we need to for the energy that helps to power our economy.

I’ll leave it to my able Cato colleagues to dissect the president’s proposal in terms of energy policy, but in terms of trade policy, this is about as bad as it gets.

We Americans benefit tremendously from our relatively free trade in petroleum products. Like all forms of trade, the importation of oil produced abroad allows us to acquire it at a price far lower than we would pay if we had to rely more heavily on domestic oil supplies.

The money we save buying oil more cheaply on global markets allows our whole economy to operate more efficiently. Oil is the ultimate upstream input that virtually all U.S. producers use to make their final products, either in the product itself or for shipping. If U.S. manufacturers and other sectors are forced to pay sharply higher prices for petroleum products because of import restrictions, their final goods will cost more and will be less competitive in global markets. If households are forced to pay more for gasoline and heating oil, consumer will have less to spend on domestic goods and services.

The president talked in the speech about the goal of not being “dependent” on foreign suppliers, but most of our oil imports come from countries that are either friendly or at least not in any way an adversary. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, one third of our oil imports in 2010 came from our two closest neighbors and NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico. Another third came from the problematic providers in the Arab Middle East and Venezuela (none from Iran, less than one-third of 1 percent from Libya.) The rest came from places such as Nigeria, Angola, Colombia, Brazil, Russia, Ecuador and Great Britain.

Even if, by the force of government, we could reduce our imports by a third, there is no reason to expect that the reduction would be concentrated in the problematic providers. In fact, oil is generally cheaper to extract in the Middle East, so a blanket reduction would probably tilt our imports away from our friends and toward our real and potential adversaries.

In one speech, the president has managed to state a policy goal that is bad trade policy, bad security policy, and bad foreign policy.

Does the Internet Cause Freedom?

That will be the subject of a Cato on Campus session this afternoon entitled: “The Internet and Social Media: Tools of Freedom or Tools of Oppression?” Watch live online at the link starting at 3:30 p.m., or attend in person. A reception follows.

The delight that so many felt to see protesters in Iran using social media has given way to delight about the use of Facebook to organize for freedom in Egypt. But this serial enthusiasm omits that the “Twitter revolution” in Iran did not succeed. The fiercest skeptics even suggest that the tweeting during Iran’s suppressed uprising was mostly Iranian ex-pats goosing excitable westerners and not any organizing force within Iran itself. Coming to terms with the Internet, dictatorships are learning to use it for surveillance and control, possibly with help from American tech companies.

So is the cause of freedom better off with the Internet? Or is social media a shiny bauble that distracts from the long, heavy slog of liberating the people of the world?

Joining the discussion will be Chris Preble, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at Cato; Alex Howard, Government 2.0 Correspondent for O’Reilly Media; and Tim Karr, Campaign Director at Free Press. More info here.

Heightening the Contradictions in Iran

This, it seems to me, is a sign of a brittle, weak government that is fighting time and surviving exclusively on its nationalist credential:

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran will not allow its universities to begin teaching certain disciplines it deems too “Western,” and existing courses will be revised, a senior Education Ministry was quoted as saying Sunday.

“Expansion of 12 disciplines in the social sciences like law, women’s studies, human rights, management, sociology, philosophy….psychology and political sciences will be reviewed,” Abolfazl Hassani was quoted as saying in the Arman newspaper.

“These sciences’ contents are based on Western culture. The review will be the intention of making them compatible with Islamic teachings.”

Hassani said Iranian universities will not be allowed to open new departments in these disciplines and the curricula for existing departments would be revised.

Link via John Sides.