Iran, America, and the Negotiating Table

As I write this, news is breaking that a nuclear deal with Iran has been struck. The content of the deal is available online through news outlets like Mother Jones.

Negotiating with Iran has been a controversial decision and I’m sure there will be pundits on the left and the right that will have issues with the deal. As we analyze the deal and think about its implications for foreign policy and global security, it’s vital that we remember why the negotiations themselves are important.

First, as Obama pointed out in his address this afternoon, we should not forget that at the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union struck arms agreements that “may not have been perfect but they made our world safer.” Meeting with an adversary is not weakness as Obama critics love pointing out. Meeting with an adversary is a strategic choice that can mitigate future disaster. Open lines of communication during the Cold War played a role in preventing nuclear war between rivals. There is no reason to think this will not hold true in the contemporary era.

Second, talking to Iran may be a fruitful endeavour because, as I argued in a previous blog post, the Iranian regime is more pragmatic than many of its critics acknowledge. Just this morning Peter Beinart wrote a very good article describing the Iranian regime as despotic, tyrannical, and oppressive but not totalitarian. He offers excellent insight into this crucial distinction.

Keeping that in mind, it’s time to parse the specifics of the deal and see where things stand. Let the punditry begin.

Blustering Bibi

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress yesterday and spoke primarily of the on-going negotiations between the United States and Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear program. His speech forcefully reiterated his position that a nuclear deal with Iran is a “bad deal” that poses significant risk to the survival of Israel and to international peace. He was warmly received by Congress and his speech was interrupted several times by applause and a few standing ovations. However, many commentators – including a White House official – felt that his speech was heavy on rhetoric and light on substance. As the title of this blog post suggests, I agree.

As I watched the speech yesterday morning I was often distracted by how gimmicky it sounded. Alliteration, metaphor, a misinterpretation of a Robert Frost poem, and various cliches were used unsparingly as Netanyahu painted a picture of Iran as a messianic, terrorist regime. His characterization of the Iranian regime is not wholly inaccurate as Iran has indeed supported non-state actors in conducting terrorism and has a horrendous human rights record. But once Netanyahu began his long tirade of how “Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam” complete with – I kid you not – a Game of Thrones reference it all began to feel more like a performance piece than a genuine contribution to the debate on how best to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Because that’s the thing. Whatever the acrimony between Obama and Netanyahu, neither of them wants Iran to possess nuclear weapons. And both agree that Israel and the international community has much to fear from an Iran with that capability. The sticking point, therefore, is not whether or not it is dangerous for Iran to possess nuclear weapons but rather how best to prevent it from obtaining such capability. Netanyahu made it clear during his speech that the current negotiations are not his preferred method, but there are several reasons why engagement with Iran is the best way forward. It’s easy to get caught up in Bibi’s bluster and deem this position naive or overly optimistic but this type of dismissal ignores empirical evidence that suggests that the negotiating table may be a stronger weapon than punitive disengagement.

First, the Iranian regime is more pragmatic than many appreciate. That is not to say that they are always reasonable or ever a-religious. It is simply to suggest that as a regime Iran is not driven solely by religiosity but also by a pragmatic understanding of the political calculations it must make in order to retain power and/or achieve its political goals. For example, in the late 1980s the Supreme Leader issued a fatwa encouraging Iranian women to use birth control and making contraception widely available. His decision was motivated by a desire to slow the baby boom that was burdening the economy. This position has since been reversed as the country’s fertility rate has dropped below replacement level. If the Iranian regime were purely messianic, contraception would never have been made available in the religiously conservative country regardless of the consequences of demographic shifts. This example is highlighted not to endorse the Iranian regime’s policies on contraception but rather to illustrate that the regime practices pragmatism where necessary. Even the rise of Rouhani and previous reformers like Khatami indicate that there is some room in Iranian politics for moderation. There is thus room to incentivize cooperation and more palatable behaviour. This point seems obvious and yet if one were to judge the character of the Iranian regime based on Netanyahu’s speech alone one would be left with the opinion that Iran is devoid of rational thought and incapable of restraint.

Second, the unfortunate reality is that Iran is a sovereign state that can, and will, pursue a nuclear program without cooperating with the United States, the United Nations, or any other members of the international community. Short of declaring war on Iran (which Netanyahu seemed to hint at but most everyone else agrees would be a terrible idea) there is little that Israel, the United States, and their allies can do to physically prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear program. That is, of course, a very scary thought. It’s also why engagement with Iran is necessary. Further isolating and sanctioning of Iran may only stoke its ambitions while leaving the international community in the dark.

Finally, the Iranian regime relies on the narrative of an evil America to consolidate its conservative base and retain power. Harsh American rhetoric (like Bush labelling Iran part of the “Axis of Evil”) and sanctions only validates the Iranian regime’s position. By negotiating with Iran in good faith, the United States helps undermine a key pillar of the regime’s legitimacy.

Engagement with Iran makes many people in the United States, Israel and beyond wary and this is understandable as there is a lot at stake. However, such discomfort should not stand in the way of meaningful negotiations as, for the reasons outlined above, they are much more likely to promote stability than isolation or sanctions. As Netanyahu himself said yesterday, “If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country.” Well, negotiating and communicating with international partners on security issues is part of acting like a normal country. No matter the outcome, these nuclear negotiations are not a silver bullet to reform in Iran or even guaranteeing that the country remains free of nuclear weapons. But they are an opportunity to challenge Iran to prove itself as a responsible member of the international community.

I’m Back – with President Underwood and PM Netanyahu

Oh hey, it’s been awhile. I had a few big things on my plate recently that I’ve finished with so it’s back to regular blogging. I really finished up with my stuff late last week but then House of Cards premiered so…

^ That was my weekend. We binge-watched Season 3 of House of Cards with embarrassing swiftness. A more thorough review is forthcoming but right now I’m waiting to watch another, real-life politician address Congress.

Everyone has been talking about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress for a ton of reasons. His invitation to speak says a lot about the current state of relations between the Democrats and the Republicans, and Israel and the United States (or at the very least the leaders of these two countries). Throw into the mix on-going negotiations with Iran about their nuclear program and we’ve got ourselves a real mess. I have some thoughts on everything so plan on another blog entry post-Netanyahu speech.

Obviously the stakes involved in each of these topics are very different (i.e. one is incredibly fictional and the other is definitely not) but there’s a lot to tease out with each of them.

So, until then.

A Most Graceful Chairman

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the new Chairman of the African Union and the latest Internet meme Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe falling down:

His klutzy moment as he walked toward a podium to deliver a speech has spawned much ridicule. Now normally I would be opposed to making fun of a 90-year-old man falling but… it’s Mugabe. The “democratically elected for life President” (as one of my African Studies professors liked to call such leaders) Mugabe has overseen the collapse is his country’s currency (I once held 50 billion Zimbabwean dollars in my hand – it was basically worthless), spent international aid money intended for AIDS programs on who-knows-what-but-not-AIDSengaged in rampant corruption, and demonstrated little regard for human rights. And he has recently been elected Chairman of the African Union, much to the disappointment of those of us who would love to see the AU evolve into a legitimate example of “African solutions to African problems.”

If that isn’t enough to convince you that I’m not completely heartless for laughing at an old man’s stumble, the Zimbabwean government’s response to the incident might convince you of its ridiculousness. As reported by The Zimbabwe Herald:

Information, Media and Broadcasting Services Minister Prof Jonathan Moyo stated: “The misrepresentations and morbid celebrations of the incident by malcontents is the real news here and not the alleged fall as there was none. What happened is that the President tripped over a hump on the carpet on one of the steps of the dais as he was stepping down from the platform but he remarkably managed to break the fall on his own. I repeat that the President managed to break the fall. Nobody has shown any evidence of the President having fallen down because that did not happen. The hump on which the President tripped was formed by two pieces of the carpet which apparently had not been laid out properly where they joined. And to be honest with you, even Jesus, let alone you, would have also tripped in that kind of situation.”

Even Jesus! So there you have it. Mugabe may not have fallen down but that hasn’t stopped the Internet from capitalizing on the moment. Some of my favourite “morbid celebrations” appear below:

Sometimes the Internet is a really awful place. But then there are days like today when I’m so glad it exists.

Good Job Everybody: Cuba Edition

Yesterday, President Obama announced that the United States will begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba. This is a significant foreign policy shift away from more than 50 years of isolation.

Here is a run-down of what will change, as published by The Globe and Mail:

– “the U.S. will soon reopen an embassy in the capital, Havana

– the U.S. will ease travel bans to Cuba, including for family visits, official U.S. government business and educational activities, but will not lift its ban on tourist travel

– licensed American travellers to Cuba will now be able to return to the U.S. with $400 in Cuban goods, including tobacco and alcohol products worth less than $100 combined

– the amount of money Americans can send to Cubans will increase from $500 to $2,000 every three months

– the U.S. will unfreeze the U.S. bank accounts of Cubans who no longer live in Cuba

– U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will launch a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror”

I am not an expert on American-Cuban relations but my pro-diplomacy bias has me thinking that normalized relations are a good thing. There has been a distinct Cold War vibe to Cuban-American relations that feels awfully outdated and I disagree with pundits (ahem, Charles Krauthhammer) who suggest that talking to adversary states is tantamount to capitulation in the face of tyranny. It’s not clear if the embargo will be lifted (the President cannot do so without Congress) and the positive or negative effects of this thawing of relations remain to be seen. However, I think an experiment with rapprochement is worthwhile and long overdue.

How did this all happen? As it turns out, the United States and Cuba have been engaging in secret talks for the past 18 months – in Canada! In June 2013, delegations from both countries traveled to Canada for discussions and met seven more times in Toronto and Ottawa, according to The Globe and Mail reporting. Canada played the role of host rather than mediator but the importance of relatively neutral ground during tough negotiations shouldn’t be underestimated so I think we can give ourselves a little pat on the back here. Apparently Pope Francis and The Vatican also helped spur the reconciliation. It’s not clear to me how much of a role The Vatican played in the actual mediation, but the Pope did personally appeal to both Obama and Castro so he gets a pat on the back as well.

We can only wait and see if the consequences of this policy shift are positive but it sure seems like a small victory for progress. So good job everybody – here’s to the next 50 years of Cuban-American relations which, if nothing else, should be interesting.