Natural allies

In an interview with CNN correspondent Christianne Amanpour (hat tip: memeorandum), an Iranian official has characterized the U. S. and Iran as “natural allies”:

TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) — As I sat down recently with a senior Iranian government official, he urgently waved a column by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times in my face, one about how the United States and Iran need to engage each other.

“Natural allies,” this official said.

It was a surprising choice of words considering the barbs Washington and Tehran have been trading of late.

“We are not after conflict. We are not after crisis. We are not after war,” said this official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But we don’t know whether the same is true in the U.S. or not. If the same is true on the U.S. side, the first step must be to end this vicious cycle that can lead to dangerous action—war.”

That’s certainly what we thought until the antecedents of the present regime seized our Iranian embassy, held the people there hostage for a year, killing some of them. The regime then used their oil revenues to organize groups of thugs in other areas of the Middle East to spread Khomeinism (one of those groups organized an attack that killed a number of our soldiers), impeded traffic in the Gulf during the war with Iraq, publicly announced that they were at war with the U. S., continually over a period of a generation right up to the present day convened rent-a-mobs screaming “Death to America”, threatened a neighboring state with which they had no quarrel with destruction, and conducted a clandestine nuclear weapons development program.

Right up to the seizing of that embassy we had cultivated relationships with two of the Gulf’s major powers: Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We bolstered their military capability to enable them to keep the peace in the region and, otherwise, maintained a pretty “hands-off” policy with respect to the region (unlike the Soviet Union which had inveigled its operatives into the very highest levels of nearly every government in the region). The policy was called the “Twin Pillar of Defense” policy and is now referred to as “support of repressive regimes”.

So, yes, Iran as the region’s major power is our natural ally. Unfortunately, it’s ruled by an intolerable regime.

Kevin Drum is of mixed minds on this. While acknowledging that the Iranian regime is really reprehensible he dismisses the last 30 years as ancient history and notes that Iran has cooperated with the United States in dealing with Taliban:

But the weird thing is that this senior official is right: there really aren’t any fundamental geopolitical reasons that Iran and the United States need to be enemies. Iran isn’t territorial, they’re happy to sell their oil to the highest bidder, and they really do hate al-Qaeda.

Let’s consider these claims one-by-one.

Is Iran territorial? Well, there are nationalists in Iran who long for a Greater Persia which, in its full extent, stretched from the Dardanelles to the Indus. I’m not sure they’re to be taken seriously. However, that the Iranian regime is spreading Khomeinism, a version of Shi’a Islam in which clerics take a much more active role in politics than has traditionally been the case, is undeniable. Hezbollah and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army are clearly Khomeinist and, equally clearly, are creatures of the Iranian regime. There are probably similar if less prominent Iranian-funded groups all over the Middle East.

I agree that they’re happy to sell their oil to the highest bidder. It’s practically their government’s only source of revenue and, particularly, foreign exchange.

Do they hate Al-Qaeda? It would be easier to tell if they’d stop harboring the members of the Al-Qaeda leadership they’ve been playing host to for the last 5 years. I think they’re fully capable of identifying the greater threat and making common cause with a putative enemy to oppose that greater threat. Right now the United States is the greater threat.

Still, I have no argument with holding talks. I’ve heard Madeleine Albright say that the Iranian regime repeatedly snubbed the advances of the Clinton Administration. I guess that’s ancient history, too.

Talks are good. They don’t necessarily mean that you’re willing to surrender anything nor does it mean that they will be allowed to be used as a stalling tactic.

8 comments… add one
  • Iran reportedly offered a “Grand Bargain” to the US in 2003. See here:

    Context provided here (additional links at these sites):

    Interesting the offer was reportedly made in May, right after we had crushed what was left of the Iraqi military and before the insurgency really got started – in other words, at the zenith of our strength in the region, perceived or otherwise.

    The whole situation reminds me of Nixon and China and the phrase, “only Nixon could go to China.” Perhaps “only GWB could go to Iran” but I see little chance of that happening.

  • Rick Moran Link

    All critiques of that 2003 offer leave out the fact that the Clinton Administration made several similar overtures to the Iranians in the 90’s – all spurned out of hand as Dave points out.

    And suddenly we’re supposed to take this offer seriously in 2003?

    Plus, the 3 power talks between Iran and the EU weren’t going anywhere in 2003 and Rice felt (correctly I believe) that the offer was meant to drive a wedge between us and the Europeans on the nuke issue. At least that explanation makes more sense than believing in the mullahs sudden change of heart.

  • PD Shaw Link

    1. Territorialism is so last century. Iran seeks to be a regional hegemon, but so long as it seeks to do this on the basis of ethnicity (Greater Persia, superoirity to Arabs) or religion (Shi’i revivalism), it will simply breed conflict with its neighbors. If it adopted a modern system (some sort of pluralistic democracy with strong market-based growth), Iran could be a regional hegemon without the conflict.

    2. The 9/11 Commission did not fully exonerate Iran from aiding al-Qaeda in the operation, but concluded that the matter needed further study.

    I believe Kenneth Pollack explained that the Clinton administration really thought they were going to get a breakthrough with Iran (for which they held back the Khobar towers iniquiry), but at the end of the day he had to conclude that Iran simply wasn’t that interested. Ambivalence — the first obstacle to meaningful talks.

  • Rick,

    Glad to see you here btw!

    It’s not even clear that offer was completely endorsed by the highest levels of the Iranian government. The same could be said with the CNN interview – one bureaucrat does not a policy make.

    Even so, I’m still a believer in Reagan’s “trust but verify” doctrine and negotiating through strength, which is why I thought it curious the 2003 offer came at the height of perceive American influence in the region.

    The EU-3 is a good strategy, but I doubt if it will work at this point. Sadly, the Bush administration’s non-proliferation strategy only encouraged countries like Iran to pursue a weapons’ capability. Iran believes, with some justification, that the only way to get recognition and secure their interests is by actually possessing the technology and/or weapons themselves. Case in point is India and our recent deal with them. Even the Iranians admit as much. Here’s what Hassan Rowhani, one of Iran’s primary nuclear negotiators, said in 2004:

    “As for the question of what we can do now that they all disagree with our having the fuel cycle, I submit to you that we require an opportunity, time to be able to act on our capability in this area. That is, if one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice, that we do possess the technology, then the situation will be different. The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold.”

    Just replace “fuel cycle” with “nuclear weapon” in that sentence. If anything has become clear in the past five years, it’s that threats, including threats of attack and all of GWB’s stupid rhetoric, have not dissuaded Iran – if anything it’s made them more obstinate. The EU-3 process shows promise but I wonder if it and the sanctions will ultimately be enough to turn Iran when they believe that obtaining a capability will make the west negotiate on its terms. The Iranians understand negotiation through strength well it seems.

    So the 2003 offer was probably at least partially as you describe (but there is much we don’t know about it), but regardless that time-period represented the best opportunity to coerce Iran into terms favorable to us and we squandered it. The nuclear deal with India amply demonstrated that you can eschew the NPT and other non-proliferation regimes, build and test nukes, and then get a very favorable nuclear technology agreement and recognition as a nuclear “have.” What does this lesson teach Iran and North Korea (and other proliferators)? Perhaps nothing can coerce/entice Iran away from its nuclear program at this point – we’ve done much to cement it in the minds of the Iranian leadership as a strategic necessity – and I personally believe the EU-3 process will ultimately fail. When/if that happens, our range of options are exceedingly small and unpalatable.

  • Elbaradai’s view on the effect of nonproliferation double-standards:

  • It’s utter speculation on my part but here are some reasons I can come up with for the Bush’s lack of response to the Iranian “Grand Bargain”:

    1. Like nearly every administration of my memory, they’re unable to walk and chew gum at the same time.

    2. It’s part and parcel of the Administration’s (rather bull-headed IMO) refusal to talk to bad regimes, North Korea being the rather puzzling exception.

    3. From the very start the Administration has been absolutely determined to serialize the conflict. This is something that baffles me, too. I think it should be exactly the opposite. If “net-centric warfare” has any meaning whatever I would think it would include the ability to fight on many fronts simultaneously.

    4. They thought they could get a better deal later. This could be part of the Administration’s perceptions of risk and reward that I’ve been wondering aloud about for some time. These certainly differ from my life experience but it may seem quite natural to George Bush.

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