By Alan Brody
America’s military-industrial-security complex can’t be happy with developments of the last month. Russian diplomacy tripped up a promising rush toward getting mired in Syria’s civil war. Now prospects of using up ordnance on Iran also have notably dimmed.
A lifting of sanctions on Iran combined with America’s burgeoning oil production also could put a damper on oil prices. The Koch brothers and their fellow travelers won’t be happy about that. Look to President Barack Obama getting hit with lots of criticism that he’s being weak, and let’s see if he’s strong enough to withstand them.
I believe the “difference maker” that allowed us to step back from war in Syria was a step back by the White House a month or so ago from its previous insistence on Bashar al-Assad’s removal as a precondition of any settlement. We thus signaled our recognition that other countries also have strategic interests that we will have to respect if we want cooperation to forward our interests.
The developments in Syria seem in turn to have sparked a novel thought in Iranian minds: What if America might just be ready to drop its regime-change agenda and move toward diplomatic solutions based on mutual respect?
The slow but steady economic attrition brought about by tightening economic sanctions has contributed to this new Iranian receptivity, of course. Iran’s income from oil fell by half to $50 billion in 2012 and foreign investment has been fleeing the country. Thus the sanctions are now seriously biting and creating hard times for average Iranians.
Nevertheless, no one should doubt that Iranians are willing to make deep sacrifices where matters of national interest and independence are concerned. They have a sense of history and identity that predate America’s by thousands of years.
Iranians recently elected President Hasan Rouhani (yes, I said elected) on a platform to seek international engagement and lifting of sanctions. Ruling Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly given the go-ahead to him to negotiate, in a comment talking about “heroic leniency.” In Ayatollah-speak, that appears to say: “We can even make up with the Great Satan so long as they don’t disrespect us.”
The West is taking an approach of hopeful skepticism to see just how far the Iranians are willing to go toward giving up presumed aspirations for nuclear weapons. It may go nowhere.
Still, we are in a hopeful time. The Iranians must be feeling less beleaguered militarily today than in the past, with the position of their ally Assad strengthening in Syria and American troops no longer present just across the border in Iraq. Iran has proved it has the will and technical capability to produce a nuclear weapon. Perhaps without loss of face it can now put aside the idea of producing such bombs whose actual use would seem more like suicide than statecraft.
America’s rapprochement with Iran only will occur, however, if we are prepared to approach negotiations in a spirit of mutual respect. That was not possible with the Bush administration, nor was it possible when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held the presidency in Iran.
It still may be impossible if America insists on asserting a holier-than-thou exceptionalism that rankles the countries we engage with. Russian President Vladimir Putin in his New York Times op-ed this month criticized this claim of American exceptionalism.
America always has been an exceptional country in many ways. Unfortunately, we’ve failed to recognize that, like every other country, we have positively and negatively exceptional characteristics. We would do well to stop crowing to others about our exceptionally good qualities, and instead quietly set about ameliorating some of our exceptionally bad ones. (We have the world’s largest percentage of inhabitants under incarceration, for example.)
As for our exceptionally good qualities, we would do well to let them speak for themselves, without trying to drop bombs to serve as exclamation points. We need to recognize that the more we pound our chest and bully others to try to impose our views, the more hollow we sound to the world. People elsewhere already recognize America is different and special, but what they really want to hear from us is what kind of heart beats underneath the chests we are too prone to pound on.
Alan Brody worked overseas for more than 30 years with the Peace Corps and UNICEF. He lives and writes in Iowa City. Comments: email@example.com