Good Will Hunting in Iran: The Nuclear Deal, The Committee on the Persian Danger and Strategic Reality

by David M. Faris
3 April 2015

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Geneva

I SALT gets in your eyes

The last time Lausanne was in the news, it was for hosting the negotiations that finalized the post-WWI territorial settlement in the Middle East that appears to be breaking down today – a settlement that infamously deprived the Kurds of a state and distributed them destructively across multiple international frontiers. Today, as those same Kurds serve as a critical military actor in the fight against ISIS, a different kind of agreement was announced in Lausanne – a political framework that should lead to a comprehensive settlement about the Iranian nuclear program by June 30. And from the tenor of recent criticism of this deal, you would think the United States handed over the codes to the U.S. nuclear arsenal to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. While no agreement should be above criticism, the one recently concluded between the so-called P5+1 powers and Iran should be applauded. Not only does it substantially decrease the likelihood of introducing another nuclear power into the Middle East, it also provides a potential atlas to navigate Iran out of its pointless global isolation. Furthermore, it offers the U.S. an opportunity to begin extricating itself from decades of ruinously expensive Gulf policies that have brought neither security nor stability to the region.

Yet a loud contingent of war fetishists seems incapable of treating an agreement with Iran as anything but a way-station to an Iranian nuclear weapon. Charles Krauthammer wrote that the deal “means the end of nonproliferation.” Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin wrote that the negotiations are likely to end in “Western surrender” at Lausanne. The American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin, one of the architects of the Iraq disaster, has been waging a campaign against negotiations for years, and wrote earlier this month that “Obama’s headlong rush into a deal with Iran will be disastrous.” Again and again we are told by neoconservative intellectuals who seem to have learned nothing from the Iraq fiasco that the road to war is paved with agreements.

The mantra that peace-means-war is remarkably similar to the arguments deployed against Cold War-era strategic arms treaties between the US and the USSR. In some cases these are literally the same people who went ballistic when the U.S. signed Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT) with the Soviets. SALT I and II and its successors should have been the least controversial international agreements ever signed. In a world with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, the first agreements merely called for limitations on ‘strategic arms’ rather than reductions. Instead, they were savagely attacked by deranged think-tank savants who hadn’t seen sunlight in months and believed that we needed enough nuclear weapons to end life on Earth fifty times over to be safe from the Soviet menace. It is certainly worth remembering that many of people howling about an Iranian nuclear deal believe that the U.S. can win a nuclear war. Eugene Rostow, a former Democrat who helped found an influential clan of professional paranoiacs called the Committee on the Present Danger, once told Congress that nuclear war was survivable because “the human race is very resilient.”

Image by Rob C. Croes.

Image by Rob C. Croes.


Eugene Rostow testifying before Congress, 1981

SALT, of course, did not lead to war between the great powers. On the contrary, it served as a critical trust-building instrument that allowed the U.S. and Russia to de-escalate their destructive global struggle. Conservative hawks opposed these deals from the outset, most memorably in Rostow’s 1979 attack on SALT II in Commentary, in which he declared, “There is no case, then, for SALT II as a step toward peace.” Less well known is how hawks continued to oppose nuclear arms deals into the 1990s. Conservative gadfly Frank Gaffney, who you may remember from his call to “take out” the headquarters of the news station al-Jazeera during the Iraq War, memorably opposed the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) negotiations with a dying Soviet Union. Gaffney called the arms treaty being negotiated at the time by President George H.W. Bush a series of “unverifiable, strategically dubious agreements” and asked instead for the U.S. to pursue a policy of Soviet regime change. And wouldn’t you know, Gaffney himself and his Center For Security Policy are on the front lines of opposition to the deal with Iran. In a recent post he argued that, “the disastrous accord now being finalized all-but-guarantees a new and devastating war.” He does not, of course, explain how an agreement with Iran means that war with Iran is inevitable. These charter members of the Committee on the Persian Danger will simply never accept an understanding with Iran that doesn’t include regime change.

This rapprochement could end decades of counterproductive policy, during which the enmity unleashed by the 1979 Iranian revolution has produced nothing of real value for either side. For Iran, its support for the genocidal regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and its assumption of a leading and not entirely positive role in the new Iraq have done nothing to stem an American military presence in the region that has grown inexorably since the 1980s. Once upon a time, the U.S. had nothing but a “show the flag” force with a handful of ships headquartered in aging facilities in Bahrain. Today the U.S. is in the midst of a $580 million expansion of its Bahrain home for the massive U.S. Fifth Fleet. Iran is surrounded by U.S. military bases, and the asymmetry in conventional forces is profound. The United States maintains its “all options on the table” stance, posing an ongoing threat to the regime and its interests. Iran’s extensive support for Hezbollah in Lebanon has achieved little other than drawing that group into repeated conflict with Israel, the price of which has typically been paid by the civilians of Southern Lebanon. The regime has always assumed wrongly that international resolve would eventually crack, and that fatigue and business interests would outweigh concern over an Iranian nuclear program.

For the United States, the insistence on isolating Iran has failed to bring about either the desperately hoped-for revolution from below or any substantial shifts in Iranian grand strategy. After watching the Saddam Hussein regime survive comprehensive sanctions for 12 years after the Persian Gulf War, there still seem to be those who believe that sanctions will lead to regime change. Even those neoconservatives with enough sense to oppose war with Iran believe with no evidence that more sanctions will either kill of the regime or lead it to capitulate completely on the nuclear question. They seem not to understand that there are other sources of Iranian power. The American misadventure in Iraq effectively delivered that country into Iran’s hands, a completely unsurprising outcome that was predicted by more or less anyone who understood Iraq’s demographics. The Iraq War removed any counterweight to Iranian influence in the region except the U.S., an outcome long ago foreseen by Gulf experts skeptical of America’s ‘dual containment’ policy of the 1990s. In 1993, F. Gregory Gausse warned against the dangers of U.S. Gulf policy in the pages of Foreign Affairs. He argued that “a bloody struggle for power in Iraq that draws in other regional actors, is the worst-case scenario for American policy and the one dual containment is least able to address.” Worst of all, though, the U.S. continues to spend billions every year on a grand strategy that has done nothing to stabilize the Gulf – instead, its preferred allies in Riyadh and Doha pursue policies that are every bit as destructive as the fantasies of Iranian hardliners.

Yet at the same time, this unhappy series of events appears to have led both the U.S. and Iran to conclude that they must somehow live together. The U.S. can no longer wish away Iran’s natural power in the region, nor does it any longer believe that it can wait out the regime. Iran cannot plausibly hope that the international community will simply look the other way about its nuclear program, or resume normal relations with Tehran until certain conditions are met. That there remain a host of unresolved issues between the U.S. and Iran goes without saying. But a nuclear deal is clearly a step in the right direction. So why is the conservative establishment losing it?

II Misperception

The key to understanding the mutual mistrust between Iran and the U.S. is a relatively obscure article called “Hypotheses on misperception” by Robert Jervis. Less well-known outside the academy than, for instance, Kenneth Waltz’s work on the structure of the international system, the article identifies how states misread one another’s intentions and capabilities in ways that lead to war and conflict that no one really wants. One of the most important observations is the idea that it is difficult for actors in international politics to understand that others see them as a menace. Indeed, the United States has long operated under the delusion that other states perceive its behavior as prima facie non-threatening, a blind spot that is at the root of our long struggle with the Iranians. Our failure to see or understand that Iran has actual security interests and that we are a threat to many of them has contributed greatly to the long series of misunderstandings and missed opportunities that constitute US-Iranian relations since 1979.

DN-ST-88-01405A U.S. Navy convoy during Operation Earnest Will, the reflagging and escort operation undertaken at the same time that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was using battlefield chemical weapons against Iranian forces.

The mistrust between Iran and the U.S. is near total. In the U.S., we can recite a litany of Iranian perfidy: The embassy fiasco, the 1983 bombing of the U.S. marine barracks in Lebanon, the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia in 1996, Iranian support for Shi’i militias in Iraq during the U.S.-led occupation. These incidents can easily be read as part of a well-thought-out plan to undermine American interests and subvert international peace and security. But as Jervis warned policymakers, when you assume your adversary is a menace, “too many complex events are squeezed into a perceived pattern.” In other words, there was more to Iranian behavior than sheer, implacable hostility. From the Iranian perspective, the U.S. has meddled in Iranian affairs incessantly since World War II, deposing the Mossadegh government in a CIA-sponsored coup and throwing its weight behind the despotic regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi. Worse, when Iran was invaded by Iraq after the 1979 revolution, the U.S. eventually supported the Iraqis, providing aid, intelligence and diplomatic cover for Saddam’s grotesque regime. America’s tilt toward Iraq was behind Iranian support for Hezbollah’s suicide campaign against multinational forces in Lebanon in 1983. This bitterness only grew when Saddam began using chemical weapons against Iranian forces, and the Americans still supplied Iraq with loans and satellite intelligence, and then began reflagging and escorting Gulf oil tankers to fend off Iranian attacks. That U.S. naval effort in the Gulf led to the accidental downing of an Iranian passenger airliner in 1988 by the U.S.S. Vincennes, an act for which no official apology has ever been issued. Instead, the ship’s captain was given the Legion of Merit.

When the U.S. looks in the mirror, it sees itself as the selfless guarantor of safety and commerce in the Persian Gulf. As Jervis would argue, the Iranians may not see quite the same image. They see a lumbering giant whose foreign policy discourse is dominated by a small group of aggressive men with sinecures at Gulf-funded think tanks– a country with a military budget that dwarfs that of its next 15 rivals combined, and a nuclear power that still insists, at least rhetorically, on its right to “first use” of nuclear weapons under certain circumstances. The nuclear-armed belligerent they see when they look at the United States has directly or indirectly overthrown the governments of three regional states in the last 15 years, and is the ally and protector of Sunni dictatorships across the Gulf who mistreat their Shia minorities – states which have done more to contribute to the rise of transnational Salafi radicalism than any other entities on the planet. They see the same America that walked away from Iranian overtures during the presidency of George HW Bush and then again following 9/11 in spite of Iran’s cooperation against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. As Trita Parsi recounted in A Single Roll of the Dice, the Iranians approached the U.S. in May 2003 through the Swiss embassy with a document that loosely outlined a comprehensive settlement. But the overture was spurned by a Bush Administration that believed “America could get what it wanted for free by simply removing the regime in Tehran.” This story was so damaging to the neoconservative narrative that Michael Rubin and his minions at AEI have spent years ludicrously characterizing the Iranian overture as “the work of a disgruntled Swiss diplomat.”

America desperately needs to get over both its fixation on bad Iranian behavior, the memories of past betrayals and most of all, the reflexive impulse to treat even mundane Iranian foreign policy moves as part of a grand plan to dominate the Middle East. Iran is hardly the only Gulf country funding proxies in Syria and Yemen or meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the Iranians love to point out, there is only one nuclear power in the Middle East, and it is a country currently in unapologetic violation of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions and conducting a more or less permanent occupation of a neighbor’s territory. Iranian pleas to negotiate a nuclear-free Middle East have been completely ignored, because the Israelis get to do as they please, bad behavior and all, and no one pretends that there is much to be done about it.

What about the regime itself? Wouldn’t a rapprochement legitimize Iran’s dictatorship? It is worth remembering that the SALT deals were negotiated with a Russia that was ruthlessly repressing its own people and whose hardliners remained committed extremists. Iran’s extensive population of political prisoners still has nothing on the Soviet Union’s gulag archipelago, and is quickly being rivaled by the Egyptian government’s. Iran’s support for Hezbollah and the Syrian regime and its reprehensible treatment of its own citizens should be seen in this same light – as unfortunate policies nevertheless made in the regime’s best estimation of its own interests, and pressed by hardline factions that can be undermined by successful dialogue. Yet in American public discourse, Iran is instead treated as a fundamentally irrational actor – millenarian, perhaps suicidal, beyond all reason, and a monumental threat to world peace. It is, not coincidentally, the same way that U.S. policymakers viewed Iraq in 2003.

III Illusions of Defeat

Failure to come to an agreement with Iran, however flawed, would repeat the strategic error the United States made in the 1990s, when it mistakenly came to believe that it had lost the peace that followed the Gulf War. America’s strange, paranoid fear that Iraq – a devastated country that could barely afford to keep the lights on – was somehow reconstituting itself as a threat to the regional order, led directly to the catastrophe of the Iraq War. In fact, as Joshua Rovner argued, the U.S. had achieved all of its stated goals, including the restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty, Iraqi recognition of Kuwait’s boundaries, and most importantly, the dismantling of Iraq’s military and its WMD programs. Because the regime had failed to change its rhetoric, we also assumed it had not also changed its underlying behavior. While Saddam Hussein remained in many ways a problematic actor, as of 2003 his threat to the region and to the United States was so minimal that it hardly required an invasion and occupation. Yet the second Bush Administration somehow managed to take this less-than-perfect status quo and turn it into the ongoing nightmare of instability that is contemporary Iraq, where the United States has wasted trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in pursuit of a regional democratic fantasy that remains unfulfilled.

Likewise, the Iranian regime is at the table today because of the success of the international coalition that was put together to thwart its nuclear ambitions. Despite its improved positions in Iraq and Yemen and its determination to salvage its investments in Lebanon and Syria, Iran is a profoundly weak country, incapable of mounting the kind of threat to international security that would justify current levels of fear. The goal of forcing Iran to completely abandon all enrichment activities was never realistic – and in fact has never had international law on its side to begin with. The regime’s apparent willingness to accept intrusive international inspections and monitoring is a retreat from previous maximalist stances and represents a major victory for the United States and its allies. The deal clearly increases the chance that Iran will be caught if it embarks on a secret weaponization program and gives the Iranians a clear path away from its pariah status. Best of all, the agreement might actually help the more reasonable elements of the regime outmaneuver the ideologues. To throw away or undermine this agreement because it does not contain language that pleases the Israelis, or because it does not represent a total Iranian capitulation, is to utterly misunderstand the nature of compromise essential to effective international policymaking.

Yet despite the obvious benefits of this agreement, there are those who have spent years making the case to scrap negotiations and go straight to war. Several years ago, Mathew Kroenig’s “Time To Attack Iran” appeared in the venerable pages of Foreign Affairs, with the following sage strategic advice: “…the United States should conduct a surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, absorb an inevitable round of retaliation, and then quickly seek to de-escalate the crisis.” This kind of thinking rather begs the question: What kind of maniac launches a war to de-escalate a crisis? A more recent example of this kind of Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper hysteria is the recent op-ed by Joshua Muravchik in the Washington Post, in which he asserts that war is “probably” the best option. Muravchik claims that we can “strike as often as necessary” to degrade Iran’s nuclear program, while proclaiming with no evidence whatsoever that “sanctions and deals” could not possibly hope to prevent a nuclear Iran. And then there was last week’s missive from former Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who called for bombing Iran without devoting a single sentence to the possible repercussions. “Such actions,” he wrote, “should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran,” he wrote, as if it were 2002 and the Iraq War had never happened.

Those advocating war with Iran are living in a strange fantasy world, one in which the United States has the financial wherewithal or even capability to conduct yet another military campaign. The U.S. is so hopelessly fractured politically that it can’t even pass legislation against sex trafficking, let alone find the unity to prosecute another war just years after the desultory end of the Iraq adventure and the strategic stalemate in Afghanistan. While Iran is weak in comparative terms, it is certainly a stronger, more coherent entity than Iraq or Afghanistan, and a limited bombing campaign would risk not only a larger war, but the unraveling of Iranian cooperation against ISIS. The reality is that Iran is likely to eventually be the strongest power in the Persian Gulf. No one outside the echo chamber of the Committee on the Persian Danger any longer believes that the Iranian regime can be pressured, sanctioned, bombed or invaded out of existence. On the contrary, the West’s leverage over Iran is likely to decline over time, particularly as China erodes the NATO bloc’s domination of industries like civilian transport and weapons. So unless the United States wants to continue burning trillions of dollars in the desert forestalling the inevitable, the time to start thinking about the contours of a normal, working relationship with Iran is now, rather than later.

IV Good will

To understand the urgency of a new Gulf policy, we must first acknowledge how ineffective and costly the current one has been. It was the Carter Doctrine, outlined in 1980, that first defined the Persian Gulf as an area critical to American national security. The U.S. then conducted its foreign policy in this region throughout the 1980s as if the Soviets were on the verge of a massive ground invasion. The Reagan Administration’s envoys even (falsely) told the Iranians the Soviets were planning to invade during the Iran-Contra negotiations, and paranoia about the Red Menace was at the heart of the entire effort to trade arms to the Iranians for hostages in Lebanon. Bleeding the Russians in Afghanistan was seen as so important that few stopped to consider the long-term consequences of empowering hardline Salafis. Each successive crisis drew the U.S. deeper into the Gulf’s inherently messy politics, until finally in 1991 the U.S. graduated to guarantor of this unstable and unworkable regional order. Every U.S. military campaign in the Middle East and North Africa over the last 40 years has resulted in a new and more difficult strategic threat – Hezbollah after Lebanon, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban after the ghost war in Afghanistan against the Soviets, Al-Shabab in Somalia, ISIS in Iraq, and the various jihadi fractions currently scrambling for power in post-Qaddafi Libya. Other factors, of course, contributed to the rise of these organizations, but U.S. intervention nevertheless exacerbated pre-existing problems in each case. The failure to learn from, or even to acknowledge, the limitations of American power, particularly on the American right, is profoundly worrisome, particularly given the possibility of the Republican Party recapturing the presidency in 2016 and restoring all of the neoconservative hawks currently flitting around the think tank world back to power.

As recounted in David Crist’s The Twilight War, when the U.S. was ramping up its Gulf involvement during the Iran-Iraq War, Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb was wary of open-ended commitments to Gulf dictatorships. At one point he asked Reagan’s Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, “How will we know when we’ve won?” Webb was laughed off at the time when he considered the Gulf entanglement another Vietnam, but who looks silly now? The U.S. has been almost continuously at war in the Persian Gulf for 30 years, with no end in sight. These years of war have done nothing at all to arrest the increase in the price of oil, the growth of jihadi radicalism or the long-term power realignment that will inevitably see Iran emerge as the leading state in the region. The U.S. is now a declining power, its cities and provinces perpetually in emergency fiscal crisis, unwilling to pay for the education or health care of its own citizens yet still committed to spending $700 billion a year on its military as the world’s de facto hegemon. How crazy has our Gulf policy become? The $6 trillion cost of the Iraq War alone is nearly double the total value of all the oil that was imported into the United States between 1980 and 2010.

A strategic understanding with Iran would be the first step in extricating the United States from a Gulf nightmare that began when the British went to sleep. It was the U.K., after all, that was most responsible for bringing Geostrategically Modified Organisms like Kuwait into existence. What initially seemed like a clever idea – inventing and protecting tiny, defenseless emirates sitting atop virtual planetoids of petroleum – fractured the Arab world and has turned instead into an endless obligation to a series of repressive and unstable states whose moral foundations are even shakier than those of the Islamic Republic.

Changing this expensive and unhappy status quo will not be easy. After George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency in 1989, he desperately wanted to bring home the American hostages held by the Iranian-funded Hezbollah in Lebanon. Many had been held, cruelly, for years, and several had died in captivity. By 1989, of course, Iranian-American relations were in deep freeze, with no real prospect of improvement. In his inaugural address, Bush told the Iranians that “good will begets good will.” The Italian negotiator Giandomenico Picco worked diligently for years to secure the release of the hostages, only to be told by the Americans that there would be no benefits to the Iranians after all. The U.S. had allowed its anger about intervening events – including the Salman Rushdie affair – to scuttle another opportunity for rapprochement. When Picco delivered this news to Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, he was told to leave the country as quickly as possible.

The Iranians and Americans are still, today, hunting for that lost good will. Let us hope this agreement means that they have found it.


David M. Faris is a professor of Political Science and Public Administration at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago. He is also the director of Roosevelt’s interdisciplinary International Studies Program. His book Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt (2013) focuses on the use of digital media by Egyptian opposition movements.

One Comment

  1. David Faris. Thank you much for this detailed treatment of the Iranian “deal” and US perceptions of Iran. Very thoughtful and enlightening and a great help to slogging through the political commentary.

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