Multi‐​thinking about Iran: Let’s Be Realist

February 2, 2010 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Huffington Post on February 2, 2010.

I’ve been following with great interest the many heated exchanges online and elsewhere over Council on Foreign Relation (CFR) President Richard Haass’s call in a Newsweek commentary for “promoting regime change” in Iran. Haass is a self‐​described “card‐​carrying realist” and a former official in the administrations of Bush I and Bush II (he was director of policy planning for the Department of State under Secretary Colin Powell) who after retiring from government has been expressing strong criticism of the neoconservative‐​driven policy in the Middle East under Bush II, including in his book, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars.

In fact, in his Newsweek article Haass compared President Barack Obama to George W. H. Bush, suggesting that the current White House occupant unlike Bush 43 and very much like Bush 41, “whose emissaries met with Chinese leaders soon after Tiananmen Square is cut more from the realist cloth.” (Interestingly enough, a leading CFR scholar, Walter Russell Mead has compared Obama to the more Wilsonian President Jimmy Carter.) Haass who for a long time seemed to be in agreement with Obama’s pursuit of diplomatic engagement with Iran, explained in Newsweek that against the backdrop of the stalled nuclear talks with Iran and the rise of the Green Movement in Iran, he “changed in mind” and he was supporting now of a policy “promoting regime change” in Tehran. His position is also shared now by many neoconservative intellectuals as well as by some of the fans of Iran’s pro‐​democracy opposition on the left and among Iranian‐​Americans who like Haass tended to back U.S. engagement with Iran just until recently.

That a “card‐​carrying realist” seemed to be calling for the launching of a U.S.-led Democratic Crusade against Iran helped cheer‐​up Iran watchers like author Barbara Slavin who used to be an advocate of engagement with Iran but who has written that (in a post quoted on journalist Laura Rozen’s blog) that when “an arch realist like Richard Haass says the time has come to change U.S. policy toward Iran from engagement to supporting regime change, the Obama administration should take notice.” At the same time, it was not surprising that Harvard University professor and blogger Stephen Walt who prides himself as being “a realist in an ideological age” has argued — in a post on his blog titled, “Nothing More Dangerous than a Recovering ‘realist?’ ” — that Haass’s policy prescriptions are not very, well, realist. Reflecting the extent to which Haass’s policy metamorphosis has ignited a somewhat nasty debate among foreign policy wonks, the Washington Post’s Al Kaman reported that Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, two of Haass’s former State Department colleagues and long‐​time realist proponents of engagement with Iran, “blasted Haass for his new position, skewering him for his central involvement in Powell’s ‘now‐​infamous’ February 5, 2003, U.N. speech, which helped garner support for the invasion of Iraq, ‘one of the biggest debacles in post‐​World War II American foreign policy.’ ”

As a member of the Realpolitik “Machiavelli Club” I can understand why a foreign policy realist who believes that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons could pose a direct threat to U.S. national security interests would support recent steps taken by the Obama Administration to increase the anti‐​missile capabilities by the United States in the Gulf and consider them more of defensive than an aggressive maneuvers (there are now Patriot batteries in four Gulf states — Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar and U.S. anti‐​missile ships are also being stationed in the Gulf. I understand but disagree with that view and agree with the Leverrettsthat President Obama has failed to devise a coherent strategy for engagement with Iran similar to the one that created the conditions for Nixon Going to China. In fact, I had made the same arguments in a long article published in The American Conservative in November 22 2004. From that perspective, the Obama Administration’s military moves in the Gulf could help ignite tensions between Tehran in Washington instead of achieving the goal of pressing Iran to make a diplomatic deal with the West.

But as someone who is “card‐​carrying realist” I find Haass’s recommendation to “promote” — he does not actually call for “doing” — regime change in Tehran as running contrary to any sensible realist viewpoint. As Machiavelli (or your dad) cautioned you, never start a fight -especially with a bully — you are not sure you could finish and win. There are so many “what ifs” involved in any scenario under which the U.S. pursues a policy of regime change in Iran: What happens if Iran retaliates by destabilizing Iraq? What happens if tensions between the U.S. and Iran degenerate into full‐​scale war? And what happens if the political upheaval in Iran evolves into a bloody civil war?

Indeed, the third scenario should raise doubts about the morality of trying to intervene in a complex foreign internal political conflict. As demonstrated by the crushing of the pro‐​democracy movement in Hungary in 1956and the uprising by the Shiites and the Kurds in Iraq in 1991 (after Desert Storm) — in both cases officials in Washington expressed support and even encouraged the opponents of the regime to take action against it — unless Americans are willing to use the full force of their military power to do regime change, promoting it could end‐​up destroying the opposition and strengthening the power of the current regime. In that case, Washington is perceived — and rightly so — as sharing moral responsibility for that outcomes.

And after the failed U.S.-backed Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and even more significant, the victory of Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary election in the Palestinian territories — which the Bush Administration had promoted in the name of democratizing the Middle East — how is it that Haass and the other advocates of regime change in Tehran so, so confident that the Ayatollahs would be replaced by a regime whose interests and values will be more in line with those of Washington? How about some sense of humility when it comes to predicting foreign policy outcomes?

I am aware that after a realist makes these and similar arguments, critics counter with the accusation that for all practical purposes, he or she is providing support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the other despicable characters that control Iran. Wrong! Those of us who oppose the notion that promoting regime change in Tehran is in the core national interest of the U.S. recognize that such a policy could risk a war with Iran that under the current diplomatic, economic and military conditions could have devastating effects on American interests — which the U.S. President and Congress are obligated to protect — as well as on Iran and the entire Middle East.

From a Realpolitik perspective, Washington and Tehran need to resolve their policy differences, which include Iran’s alleged nuclear military program, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Israel/​Palestine. Washington should strive for some sort of a “grand bargain” under which Iran would put a freeze the Iranian development of nuclear military capability as part of a diplomatic deal that will also respond to some of Iran’s concerns. If such an effort to reach a deal fails, Washington should work together with other regional and global powers in pursuing a policy of containment vis‐​à‐​vis Iran. In that context, Israeli nuclear bombs serving as deterrence against Iran’s potential nuclear military capability.

And if the democratic opposition in Iran has so much public backing as many observers suggest (again, that is a questionable assumption), there is no reason why this movement could not continue mobilizing its supporters if and when the U.S. (and the West) make a deal with Iran. If anything, U.S. diplomatic ties as well as trade and investment with Iran should be in the interest of the westernized and educated pro‐​democracy activists in Iran (which explains why the Ayatollahs do not like the idea).

In any case, President Obama and U.S. Congress as well as various non‐​government organizations and the media will continue — as they should — to have an opportunity to express their disapproval of the human rights conduct and other domestic and foreign policies of the Iranian regime — without using American diplomatic and military power to replace it. After all, this is the same kind of policy that we apply today to our relationship with, say, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, or China and Russia. To paraphrase a familiar saying, the degree of a government’s diplomatic intelligence is directly reflected by the number of conflicting attitudes it can bring to bear on the same foreign policy. Or as poet Walt Whitman once said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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