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Pure Onsense

The Iran Nuclear Deal: Pros and Neocons

Scott Zuke

(4/2015) After 18 months of meetings, March finally brought a crucial deadline on the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the United States and other world powers. The precise deadline is later than my own, and at the time of writing the Los Angeles Times is reporting a deal may be reached two days early while the Wall Street Journal says talks could be extended by another two weeks. This level of mystery in high-level negotiations is often a good sign. It shows that the parties are working with each other and not attempting to sabotage the talks by leaking details that ignite public debate and make deal-making all the more difficult.

Nevertheless, the lack of information on the specifics of the deal didnít prevent an intense display of political theater as the talks approached the finish line. The main event of course was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuís controversial, State-of-the-Union-like speech before Congress, in which he warned against making any concessions to Iran and said the deal under negotiation, "will inexorably lead to a nuclear-armed Iran whose unbridled aggression will inevitably lead to war."

Many of us surely watched that speech with either a sense of nostalgia or familiar unease. Netanyahu is employing the same neoconservative rhetoric and thinking that characterized the Bush administration, seeking security through force, nationalism, and a maximalist "with us or against us" attitude. He was taking an especially far-right line because he was in the middle of a tight campaign for reelection and calculatedócorrectly, as it turned outóthat bluster and fear-mongering would help turn out voters back in Israel.

However it also had the effect of resurfacing old wounds of Americaís experiment with neoconservatism and turned Israel, which has long enjoyed broad bipartisan support here, into a new front in the Culture War. Thatís a risky move. Under Netanyahuís leadership, marked by relentless and provocative settlement construction in the West Bank and a flareup in Gaza with a disproportionate casualty count that caught the attention of the International Criminal Court, Israel has gained no new friends and internally divided its one reliable ally. Unlike the United States, Israel does not have "indispensable nation" status and should be deeply concerned about any actions that further isolate it within the global community.

Just ask Iran. While it has had strained relations with the West ever since the 1979 revolution, its last exercise in far right ideological foreign policy under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad resulted in damaging economic sanctions as well as domestic political unrest that posed a significant threat to the Islamic Republic. Hassan Rouhaniís rise to the presidency was not a ruse by Iranís supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to lull the West into naively trusting its intention to reform, but rather a necessary experiment in using moderation to avert economic disaster.

As it is only a cautious test, Rouhaniís mandate only really covers his role in pursuing a nuclear deal in order to relieve the economic sanctions. If we want to see moderation applied to other aspects of Iranís foreign and domestic policy, Khamenei must first see it pay off in the nuclear negotiations. If the talks fall apart, the opportunity for a significant rapprochement could be lost for the foreseeable future.

The value of moving toward a normalization of relations is clearer than ever as both Iran and the United States are committed to combating the regional threat of ISIS. In Iraq they are essentially on the same side, but when the United States recently launched airstrikes on ISIS positions near Tikrit, some 10,000 Iran-backed Shiite militia fighters withdrew from the ground offensive to boycott American involvement, putting the whole operation at risk.

Iran will also have an important role to play in reaching any kind of negotiated political settlement in Syria, where it has defended and bankrolled the Assad government out of fear that a Sunni regime could arise in its place if he falls. Tehran exercises significant control on Israelís border in Lebanon, and has some influence in the developing crisis in Yemen, so despite the pariah status often attributed to it, Iran is an established regional power and stakeholder. As I heard one analyst put it recently, the United States and Iran may not have shared values, but they certainly have shared interests, and that may be sufficient to establish a pragmatic working relationship over time.

However for anything to move forward, we need to better understand Iranís internal political dynamics, which are too easily ignored in the West (especially by neocons who absurdly are still arguing that the United States should bomb Iran despite the negotiations still being in progress). Like most nations, Iran has its own sense of nationalist pride. It is simply unreasonable to expect it to swallow a humiliating deal in which it doesnít receive significant concessions that allow its leadership to save face.

It also matters who in Iran gets the credit for a nuclear deal. The political schism in Tehran between hawkish hardliners and the moderates is very real, but the moderates have more to prove. This means yes, we will have to accept a "bad deal" from the nuclear talksóthat is, one in which we make tough concessions in exchange for those that donít come easy to Iranís negotiatorsóbut as long as itís made with the right people, the West may yet seize the bigger prize of reopening relations with an old enemy. This approach should look sensible to all except those who hold a dogmatic certainty that Iran would risk anything to destroy Israel.

To be sure, however the nuclear deal turns out, there is a long way to go before Iran can be trusted as a responsible regional stakeholder. But after Netanyahu effectively ended hopes for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in order to seal his reelection, it now stands as perhaps the last prospect for a major Middle East policy win during President Obamaís remaining time in office. However itís not for his benefit, but for that of the people in the region, including the Israelis, that I hope this effort succeeds.

Read other article by Scott Zuke