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No Movement Towards Iran - US Diplomatic Rapprochement

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Response to Gary Sick Interview

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

Prof. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, the Chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London, asked by Tehran Times Daily about Dr. Gary Sick's interview regarding "Obama and the Nixon Doctrine". The following is the full transcript of his response which has been published in Tehran Times' front page on January 14, 2016:

In his interview, Prof. Sick makes a range of very good points. In particular, he rightly stresses that stakeholders in the region, such as the United States, got directly involved in the Persian Gulf due to regional crises sparked by (primarily) Saddam Hussein. I would put the emphasis on taking the opportunity to do so, however, rather than the obligation to safeguard regional security. In other words, successive US administrations took advantage of regional turmoil in order to maximise what they defined as the national interest of the country. If there would not have been the prolonged Iran-Iraq war, Prof. Sick is correct to point out, the Reagan administration would not have had the opportunity to become a party in the war, primarily in support of Saddam Hussein, as he rightly observes. With the benefit of hindsight that support was tactical, of course, but it was not geared towards ending the war, so that the US could disengage again. The main goal of the Reagan administration was not to end the war. US foreign policy during that period was opportunistic, and that opportunism created several tragedies that continue to haunt US-Iranian relations. I don’t think that history should be used as a weapon, but one has to add that without the diplomatic cover given by the Reagan administration, the chemical holocaust of Halabja would not have been possible. I am making an analytical point, not a political one. The systematic support of Saddam Hussein, especially after 1984, lowered the threshold for further conflict. If someone like Saddam Hussein gets away with one invasion, you would expect him to embark on another one. Undoubtedly, Iranian foreign policy after the revolution did not make it particularly difficult for the world to support a tyrant such as Saddam, but support him they did and the US was at the helm of it.

Similarly, the invasion of Kuwait was taken as an opportunity by the Bush administration to further militarise the country’s involvement in the Persian Gulf. In 1990/1991 the global context was radically different to 1980 when Iran was invaded. The end of the Cold War ushered in a new era of world politics. The political elites ruling the United States felt increasingly emboldened to play a rather more hegemonic role in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. The idea of a unipolar world order led by the US developed out of this political context. It was quickly adopted by neoconservatives in their doctrine of pre-emption which delivered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which had disastrous consequences, both for the US itself and the people of the region. Again, then, I think that Prof. Sick is correct to point out that regional events made it possible for the United States to intervene. But this involvement was not nuanced, diplomatic or benign. In the end, the US intervened with a heavy hand, favouring military solutions over diplomacy. This approach exacerbated existing insecurities and did not deliver a Pax Americana. There was never a Marshall Plan for the so called “Middle East,” just an iron fist.

The resistance to the garrison state mentality, encapsulated in the idea of an unending “war on terror” proclaimed by the George W. Bush administration, was one of the main factors for the election of President Obama. This presidency was partially delivered by the global peace movement and the opposition of mainstream US civil society to more wars. President Obama’s Noble Peace Price in 2009 institutionalised that expectation. Without that global context, the political acumen of the Obama administration and the election of President Rouhani in Iran, the nuclear agreement would not have happened. I agree that this President is interested in a regional security architecture that is largely self-sufficient, not at least because world politics shifted towards a complex muti-polar order where American hard power is less effective.

However, I differ with the analysis of Dr. Sick with reference to the period after President Obama. I am certainly less optimistic that in the future the United States will continue to “disentangle” from the region in the way Obama envisaged it. This President will always be unique, exactly because of his personal biography, the global political context that I outlined above and his will to diplomacy. Obama is the product of a cosmopolitan, hybrid and global struggle for social and political emancipation. This biography has had an impact on his philosophy of peace and brings out some of the best qualities of contemporary American society. Within this conducive global context that delivered his Presidency, he managed to partially de-militarise US foreign policies, against all odds.

Yet, I don’t think this trend will continue with his successor. Worst case scenario, we will have a right-wing bigot in the White House. Even if it is unlikely that someone like Donald Trump wins the elections, his right-wing politics have already radicalised the positions of other candidates which will have knock on effects. For instance, even the moderate candidates of the Democratic Party are forced to talk tough on Iran. The memories of the Iraq war have dissipated from public memory. US public opinion is once again rather more amenable to foreign wars. The United States is among the very few countries where “being tough” repeatedly wins votes among influential strata of America society. This has been dangerous for the world in the past because candidates become hostage to fortune to their tough rhetoric.

Having said that, it is probably true that most Presidential candidates are likely to honour the nuclear agreement (not Trump in my opinion); but the accord is only worth something, if it delivers a genuine diplomatic rapprochement between Iran and the United States. I don’t see movement in that direction in Washington. The Obama doctrine will only yield strategic results, if Iran and the United States can forge a diplomatic alliance within a wider regional security architecture which would pacify Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. If not, it will simply postpone the next period of Iranian-American antagonism. If the agreement does not yield more trust-building measures, implementing it may become a source of misperceptions and insecurity. This would encourage the destructive forces in Iran and the United States. Especially from the current Iranian perspective, the nuclear agreement is meant to deliver a strategic yield. This long term positive outcome for the country can only be delivered if the agreement is viewed in equally strategic terms in the United States, and not merely as a tactical move. Certainly, Europe is willing to start a rather more strategic dialogue with Iran. It remains to be seen if the United States is willing to give impetus to that trend.

More By Arshin Adib-Moghaddam:

*How to Ease Iran-Saudi Arabia Crisis: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/How-to-Ease-Iran-Saudi-Arabia-Crisis.htm

*US Realizing Iran Holds Many Keys to Regional Problems: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/US-Realizing-Iran-Holds-Many-Keys-to-Regional-Problems.htm

*Renewed Iranian-American Relations Stabilize World Politics: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Renewed-Iranian-American-Relations-Stabilize-World-Politics.htm

*Photo Credit: CNN

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints. 

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