Sometimes the Best Deal Is No Deal At All

I actually found Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column, an attempted explication of the situation with respect to Iran, pretty interesting. He has a succinct assessment of the problem:

Iran is too big to invade; the regime is too ensconced to be toppled from the outside; its darkest impulses, to dominate its Sunni Arab neighbors and destroy the Jewish state, are too dangerous to ignore; and its people are too talented to be forever denied a nuclear capability.

with which I materially agree except in one particular but it’s an important one. I think that Mr. Friedman is doing something I’ve complained about frequently. I don’t think he’s taking the religion of the Iranian mullahs seriously.

All of the following is just how I understand things. In Islam the entire body of those who profess Islam is the Ummah, analogous to what is called in Catholicism the “community of the faithful”. After Mohammed’s death the Ummah was governed by a caliph and it is soon after that the great division in Islam began. Sunni Muslims believe that any Muslim may be made caliph. Shi’ite Muslims believe that only a descendant of Mohammed may legitimately be caliph. In other words they believe that all caliphs after the death of Ali and, indeed, all other rulers of Muslims countries are, in effect usurpers. The mullahs of Iran hold to a specific version of Shi’a Islam dubbed “Khomeinism” (and considered a heresy by some other Shi’ite Muslims) under which government of the Ummah by Muslim clergy has a sort of legitimacy.

That’s where I think that Mr. Friedman doesn’t appreciate the problem. Iran’s mullahs aren’t just interest in dominating “its Sunni Arab neighbors”. They believe they have a religious obligation to spread their version of Islam not just to Sunni Muslims but to everyone. That they would happen to rule that world-spanning doamin is just a coincidence. What must be kept in mind is that they can’t be dissuaded from it and they won’t negotiate it away. I suspect that the mullahocracy’s antipathy towards Israel is a device to rally other Muslims, particularly Sunni Muslims, to their side.

Mr. Friedman goes on to provide what I think is a pretty fair assessment of the status quo:

None of this will change as long as these ayatollahs are in power. And, if we are being honest, not only have they been consistent for 42 years, but so, too, have U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers. Their strategies can be summed up as this: Always try to get the best deal with Iran that money can buy.

also with one proviso. Since the mullahs won’t negotiate their core beliefs away and those beliefs are diametrically opposed to what we and Israel might want to accomplish in the Middle East, the expectations from negotiations with them should be pretty darned limited. In fact I don’t honestly think they’re worth negotiating with at all.

Also, keep in mind that should the Israelis genuinely feel threatened by Iran they won’t hesitate to use nuclear weapons against them. They don’t believe in showing mercy to their enemies and they have their own religious motivations. Not to mention survival. It wouldn’t take much to render Israel uninhabitable.

Here’s his description of the Biden Administration’s position:

It’s not only that Biden won’t grant Israel’s new prime minister his every whim the way Trump did Bibi. It is that Biden is tightly focused on securing what he thinks is America’s primary strategic interest in the Middle East — preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon that would force Turkey and all the Arab states to get nukes, thereby blowing up the global nuclear nonproliferation order and making the region a giant threat to global stability.

The Biden team believes that Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign did not diminish Iran’s malign behavior in the region one iota (it will show you the data to prove it). So, Biden wants to at least lock up Iran’s nuclear program for a while and then try blunting its regional troublemaking in other ways. At the same time, Biden wants to put more focus on nation-building at home and on countering China.

while here’s his proposal for moving foreward:

I have an idea: One way to defuse the tension between the U.S. and Israel would be for Biden to attempt a radical new diplomatic initiative — a leveraged buyout of the Iranian presence in Syria.

Syria today is effectively controlled in different sectors by three non-Arab powers — Russia, Turkey and Iran. Russia is not enamored with having Iranian forces in Syria alongside its own, but it needed them to help crush the democratic and Sunni Islamist enemies of its proxy, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Biden and the gulf Arab states could go to the Russians and Assad with this offer: Kick out the Iranian forces from Syria and we will triple whatever financial aid Iran was giving Syria, and we’ll tacitly agree that Assad (though a war criminal) can stay in power for the near term.

I agree with him that negotiating with Russians and Syrians is more likely to be productive than negotiating with the Iranian mullahs.

The news isn’t entirely bad, however. The history of radical revolutions like the Iranian Revolution is that they don’t tend to outlive the revolutionaries by much. The “students” who overthrew the Shah are now old men. In twenty years or so they’ll be dead and their successors will be bureaucrats without a great deal of revolutionary fervor sp things are quite likely to change.

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