Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, January 24, 2014

Thoughts on Iran, US-Iran ties, and Middle East Politics

With Iran in the news so much these days (the seeming change in Iran's political image, Rowhani's appearance at Davos, the nuclear deal, warming U.S.-Iran ties, Saudi Arabia and Israeli concern about Iran's nuclear program and U.S.-Iran ties, etc.), I've been doing lots of thinking on Iran's politics and foreign and strategic policy as well as Middle East foreign relations. Below are some of my thoughts.

1. It doesn't make sense for the U.S. Senate to pass further sanctions on Iran right now. Why not wait until we observe the results of the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1? If they lead nowhere, with Iran stalling and taking uncompromising positions, then the topic of sanctions and other punishment can then be broached. But at this point, more sanctions only sabotage the implementation of the interim agreement and negotiations on a final, comprehensive nuclear deal. Such moves will prompt the clerics to walk away from the bargaining table. Furthermore, slapping on additional sanctions now risks showing the world that the U.S. isn't negotiating in good faith, thereby generating sympathy for Iran, both inside and outside the country. And of course, there's this little point: the negotiations could succeed. Let's give it some time.

2. I'm not quite sure why more analysts don't voice the idea that tying Iran gradually into international institutional cooperation with the West is a very good thing? This type of cooperation can become routinized. It can also lead to expanded multilateral and bilateral cooperation, as Iran feels more comfortable dealing with foreign institutions and Western diplomats and bureaucrats.

3. Dialing down tensions and seeking a thaw in the cold war with Iran can be good for the U.S. Anytime the U.S. can move a foreign country from foe or enemy to, say, rival or competitor, that's a very good thing. A reduction in tensions and hostilities means a lower likelihood of an Iran-U.S. war and a reduced chance of reckless Iranian policies, at least those directed toward the U.S. It can also provide the foundation for gradual confidence building exercises between Tehran and Washington. And over time, perhaps, just maybe, this can lead to Iran being more productive on issues that matter to the U.S., like events in Syria and Afghanistan and international terrorism. The trick is for Team Obama to convince Israel and Saudi Arabia that a deal is in their interest as well.

4. It appears we're at a favorable moment. Iran has a leader in Rowhani who seeks better relations with the U.S. Iran is dire economic straits and wants relief. And the Ayatollah has given Rowhani long enough rope to work more productively with the U.S. and the West more generally than he has in years. All of this doesn't mean that Iran is about to capitulate to Western demands and interests, but it does seem like conditions are increasingly favorable--though not probable--for Iran to meet the West half-way on a final nuclear deal (if not more than that).

5. To the critics and hysterics out there, Iran-U.S. ties aren't going to change overnight. Iran still says and does things that frustrate and anger Washington. Critics see this as evidence that Iran isn't genuine, that it's really playing a double game with the West. For instance, according to Maseh Zaeif, of the American Enterprise Institute:
"While Secretary Kerry was reprimanding Congress for its effort to increase the credibility of future pressure against Iran and declaring that “this is the time for statesmanship,” his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, was in Beirut offering praise for and laying a wreath at the tomb of Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. Mughniyeh was responsible for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, among other attacks."
 Okay, but please keep in mind that there are lots of things going on inside Iran, including pressure from hawks and hardliners, especially those in the Revolutionary Guards. The hawks and hardliners are threatened by major changes in Iranian foreign policy. So if Iran warms up to the outside world, or, if it heads in that direction, it will, from time to time, act up and lash out so as to appease these folks. Iranian leaders have to throw them a bone occasionally to muffle their dissent. They must show the hawks and hardliners that changes aren't coming too fast or deep and that they are still valued members of the Iranian state. Otherwise, opening up to the West carries the grave risk of massive political instability, which then would throw the entire project of international engagement into jeopardy.

6. What's the alternative to the current roadmap ? Ramping up political pressure? More sanctions? Threats of war? The use of force--either by the U.S. or Israel? None of these options are particularly good. The first three have already been tried and probably have gotten the U.S. probably about as far as it can go in coercing Iran to make concessions; and the latter one is completely terrible. As pointed out by self-described Iran hawk Jeffrey Goldberg:
Such a strike might end in disaster. While it could set back (though not destroy) Iran’s nuclear program, it could also lead to the complete collapse of whatever sanctions remained in place. In addition, it could unify the Iranian people behind their country’s unelected leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- a particularly perverse outcome. And in some ways, an attack would justify Iran’s paranoia and pursuit of nuclear weapons: After all, the regime could somewhat plausibly argue, post-attack, that it needs to defend itself against further aggression. A military campaign should be considered only when everything else has failed, and Iran is at the very cusp of gaining a deliverable nuclear weapon. 
 7. There's even been criticism that Obama has made a risky bet on Iran playing a role in Middle East security cooperation. The U.S., certainly, would welcome such actions by Iran, but it doesn't expect anything like this anytime soon. Critics are reading more into the administration's comments than is really there. Statements by Secretary of State John Kerry, who suggested that Iran might be able to play a productive role in Syria, were speculative at best. I don't see any evidence that Obama or Kerry, or anyone else on Team Obama, sees or is betting on Iran quickly becoming a source of peace and cooperation in the region.

8. Better relations with Iran, even marginally so, will require Obama  to walk a fine line with Israel and Saudi Arabia, America's longstanding allies in the Middle East. Arguably, reassuring these two countries will be just a tough a task as getting Iran to come in from the cold. Obama will have to show--in word and deed--that the U.S. isn't abandoning Saudi Arabia and Israel, that it has both their backs in times of trouble, and isn't helping to position Iran as the regional hegemon. If this task isn't done or is done in an unconvincing way, both countries are likely to see U.S.-Iran ties as a net strategic loss and will work on their own (though perhaps collaboratively), without the U.S. to enhance their security and standing in the region. Should this happen, the U.S., in effect, would be trading  Israel and Saudi Arabia for Iran. On many counts, this wouldn't be smart foreign or domestic politics for Team Obama.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Little Spying Among Friends?

Some of the English language’s most famous maxims could easily include a bit about the shadowy world of intelligence. “All’s fair in love, war and espionage," one may say, or “There are only three things certain in life: death, taxes, and that other countries will try to steal your state secrets”. However much we may hate to admit it, espionage is an integral part of international relations; it has been around since time immemorial, and it is documented in ancient histories (including the Bible). I am certainly not endorsing or condoning stealing secrets, and am a big supporter of a rigorous counterintelligence infrastructure for my country. But the fact of the matter is that recent revelations about espionage carried out by the US, while certainly embarrassing and damaging to our credibility, should not be over-dramatized or blown out of proportion.

Edward Snowden recently said in an interview that “the mission is already accomplished”, referring to the changes and re-assessments in US surveillance policy against targets both foreign and domestic. His revelations have drawn the ire of many world leaders, which highlighted US espionage against allies such as Germany, and relatively friendly countries such as Brazil. This is of course completely understandable- no country wants to be spied on any more than an individual wants people to know their credit card or social security numbers. Just this weekend, President Obama gave a personal pledge to Angela Merkel that there would be no ore US spying on Germany, describing previous actions as “a mistake.”

In terms of international relations theory, I personally adhere to what is known as the English School, which is essentially a middle ground between the poles of Liberalism (the idea that countries can and will cooperate for the common good) and Realism (the notion that countries will act only in their own self-interests and that one state’s gain is another state’s loss). Insofar as I adhere to this balanced view, I do tend to lean more toward the Realist side (in spite of some of my previous writings, such as calls for greater Russia-US cooperation). My belief in this theory is based upon the conclusion that I’ve reached that there are some areas in which countries will often cooperate, such as development and human security. Espionage, however, is one of those areas in which is really and truly is every country for themselves. In this there is no honor, and everything is fair.
In the same vein that President Obama apologized to Germany for American espionage against its major ally, Obama nevertheless stated that the US will continue to gather information of interest to know what other governments’ intentions are. "There is no point in having an intelligence service if you are restricted to the things that you can read in the New York Times or Der Spiegel" the President said. (Note: there is a branch of intelligence-gathering known as “open source” intelligence, or OSINT for short, that entails things like reading other countries’ newspapers, etc., and the CIA does hire analysts for this specific purpose. Needless to say, this type of intelligence is rather limited, but it is still a part of the intelligence process).
Some of the US’s strongest allies have engaged in espionage and intelligence gathering against the US. My guess as to why Hebrew is listed as a critical language by the FBI (which is the organization tasked with the bulk of US civilian counter-intelligence operations) is because of the vast Israeli espionage operations against the US, famously personified by former Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard, and more recently exemplified by Israeli eavesdropping on US telecommunications. Technically speaking, the US does not spy on Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Yet the truth of the matter is, I have often wondered if, in the shadowy, darkest and most profound depths of the CIA or MI6, there is a tiny cadre of people tasked with spying on even these most important allies.
France’s main civilian intelligence agency, the DGSE, was also found to be conducting corporate and economic espionage against the US in the 1990’s, particularly against firms such as Texas Instruments and ABM. (There is a famous case when a young US Marine tackled a French minister at an arms show when the minister tried to wipe his hand against a US stealth aircraft. Had the minister been allowed to touch it, he could have collected a sample of the coating which gave the fighter jet its stealth quality). Of course the biggest targets of intelligence-gathering and espionage for the US are China and Russia--and this intel-gathering goes both ways. The latter want our trade and technology secrets, while we in the US want to know what they’re up to, what their capabilities are and how much of the dirt they already have on us, etc.
The aforementioned points highlight the other side of espionage known as economic or industrial espionage. Many may be more inclined to associate this term with Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko using an ambitious Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) to gather insider information on stocks. But this is not simply an issue of Wall Street hotshots and the SEC. Corporate espionage is a very real part of current international espionage, and its execution is not limited to other companies (for more details, check out Luke Bencie’s 2013 book Among Enemies). Governments are just as prone and privy to corporate, economic and industrial espionage as are private companies. In fact, one of the major concerns Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff had was that the US government was conducting such espionage against Brazilian energy company Petrobras; while it’s not, strictly speaking, the same thing as Mobil Oil or Total trying to get inside information on a prospective deal on upstream development operations, it is an example of government espionage and business espionage blurring the lines. Foreign governments are just as interested in the activities of foreign corporations and their subsidiaries as they are the activities of other foreign governments.
As long as there are corporations, countries and governments, there will be spying among them as well. This is not to say that “everybody’s doing it, so it’s okay.” Nevertheless, revelations that the US has conducted espionage against treaty allies is not the absolute worst thing that could happen. It may be a breach of trust, but it is not a direct, vicious assault on another country, either. Revelations that the French government conducted espionage against the US have not unduly damaged the France-US relationship. Those who may point to the less-than-smooth Franco-American saga should note that, from the French side, one does not need to be in lock-step with their friends or partners 100% of the time in order to still be friends. My guess is that sooner or later this embarrassing revelation about US espionage against allies will blow over, and that it will not likely cause irreparable damage to our relationships with our cherished allies.