No Nixon-to-China Moment Here

It is time we accepted this cold, hard fact: Iran does not want a "strategic realignment" with the United States.

When officials from the Obama administration, along with other members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, sit down with their Iranian counterparts to discuss Iran's nuclear program, the mood in the room may get a little uncomfortable. Iran has been busted setting up a second uranium enrichment plant in clear violation of its international obligations, and its diplomats, such as nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili (left), have a tendency to lash out when cornered.

Astonishingly, however, writing in the New York Times this week, former National Security Council staffers Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett suggest that Iran is the victim here. They accuse even the pro-engagement Obama of failing to reach out sufficiently to Tehran, and urge Washington to "seek a strategic realignment with Iran as thoroughgoing as that effected by Nixon with China." Put bluntly, this is a delusion.

One problem with the Leveretts' analysis is that Iran has a vibrant opposition with its own views on U.S. engagement efforts. Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi vigorously argues that the international community should refuse to deal with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, since he stole the June presidential election. Noted dissident Akbar Ganji, in a petition signed by such notables as Noam Chomsky and Jurgen Habermas, argued that when Ahmadinejad visited the United Nations he should have been arrested for crimes against humanity.

For the United States to align itself with such a government would be to kick the opposition in the teeth. The Islamic Republic has shown that it is neither Islamic nor a republic -- in the elegant phrasing of Iran's respected "dissident ayatollah," Ali Montazeri. And now it is running scared. The regime is afraid to kill protesters, since doing so only inflames the opposition. At the September 19 Quds Day protests, it did not even arrest them, aware of how socially explosive the accusations of retaliatory prison rape have been. In contrast, protesters were bold enough to stand next to Ahmadinejad and shout "resign, resign" when he was interviewed on state television. When a repressive regime is too afraid to kill or silence those brave enough to stand up to it, it does not bode well for that regime.

Rather than do as the Leveretts suggest and embrace Ahmadinejad, the United States must align itself with the rising alternative to the president and his thugs. Jimmy Carter once toasted the shah for running "an island of stability" a year before his overthrow. Barack Obama should not make the same mistake of presuming the ruling power will remain in control.

Certainly, the Iranian people want a strategic alignment with the United States. But is that possible under the Islamic Republic as is? Two governments with profound differences, such as the United States and Iran, can cooperate closely if they both face a common greater enemy. A common threat in Germany brought Britain and the Soviet Union together during World War II. Similarly, the Soviet threat spurred a U.S.-China strategic realignment during the Cold War -- which the Leveretts hold up as a model for U.S.-Iran relations. That same Soviet threat was the basis for the U.S. offer for a strategic realignment with Iran, made by President Ronald Reagan in sending national-security advisor Robert McFarlane to Tehran an oft-forgotten part of the Iran-contra affair.

But what is the common threat faced by the United States and Iran today? Al Qaeda is not a plausible candidate, given that the Islamic Republic has for years played footsie with the terrorist group, providing al Qaeda in Iraq with its most lethal weapons, for instance. Tactical cooperation against al Qaeda when Iran sees a momentary advantage is the best the United States can expect.

The Leveretts further argue that Iran's leaders do not think that the United States has been serious about rapprochement. That is true, but not for the reasons the Leveretts cite. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- whose title accurately portrays his seniority over Ahmadinejad -- has spent 20 years warning that the greatest threat to the Islamic Republic is Western culture, which could provoke women, youth, and intellectuals to stage a velvet revolution. That is why the Islamic Republic repeatedly jails foreign journalists and academics, and airing their show trials on state television. For instance, in 2008 it aired a TV show "exposing" how former President George W. Bush and George Soros met weekly to plot the Islamic Republic's overthrow. Still, the Leveretts somehow argue that the barrier to improved relations is that the Obama administration has not done enough to reassure the Islamic Republic of its good intentions.

Since the June election, Khamenei, the leaders of the Revolutionary Guards and government prosecutors at the show trials of dissidents have concentrated on the foreign role in provoking demonstrations. They have repeatedly described the post-election unrest as prove that the West's real goal is a "soft overthrow" of the Islamic Republic. Given their conviction that the West constitutes a mortal threat to their regime, the prospects are poor that they will accept that the West will abandon its aims just for a nuclear deal. Indeed, Khamenei has often said that if the nuclear issue were settled, the West would move on to other reasons to advance a velvet revolution.

So a strategic realignment is improbable. But would such an arrangement even be desirable? The United States has long-standing friendships and alliances with countries suspicious of or hostile to Iran: Saudi Arabia, the smaller Gulf states, and Egypt, to name a few. A U.S.-Iran strategic relationship could improve security in the region only if those states acquiesced to it. But such a U.S.-Iran relationship seems more likely to lead Saudi Arabia, if not some others, to conclude that they must develop powerful means to defend themselves -- to start their own nuclear programs.

Then there is Israel. The Leveretts say the United States should settle for an Iran working toward the peaceful resolution of regional conflicts. Fair enough. But at present, Iran spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year to promote terrorist movements devoted to "resistance" -- that is, to carrying out terrorist attacks with the explicit aim of eliminating the state of Israel. If the United States makes a strategic realignment with such a government, why would Israel go along? Do the Leveretts think that a tense and suspicious U.S.-Israel relationship will serve U.S. interests and promote regional stability?

U.S. friends in the region have reason to be suspicious of the Islamic Republic. Iran wants a greater role in the region than its neighbors want it to have, and revolutionary Iran is using force to achieve that aim, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, or the pursuit of a nuclear program. The United States, as a status quo power, has little interest in helping Iran upset the regional status quo. In short, even if it were possible -- which it is not -- a U.S.-Iran strategic realignment would be undesirable.



An Olympic-Sized Mess

The revenge of Big Bad Badminton, and other debacles from London's Olympics prep. Chicago, be warned.

Today, the International Olympic Committee announced that Rio de Janeiro will host the 2016 Olympic summer games -- beating out Madrid, Tokyo, and Chicago, despite the lobbying of U.S. President (and former Chicago resident) Barack Obama. The announcement met with cheers in Brazil and shock in the United States. But Obama and other Chicagoans shouldn't fret. They need only look across the pond to realize they might have just dodged an Olympic-sized bullet.

Three years out from the 2012 summer games, the host city of London remains enthusiastic about the prospect of five thrilling weeks of international athletic competition. But it is nevertheless stuck in multibillion-dollar mud. The numerous oversight bodies and local and federal agencies are locked in turf wars. And the British government has little choice but to spend its way out, recession be damned.

For the planners of the games, indignities abound. Take, for instance, London Mayor Boris Johnson's ill-starred attempt to cut as much as $65 million from the games' cost with a single venue change. This month, he asked that rhythmic gymnastics and badminton use Wembley Arena, a massive venue in northwest London, rather than a temporary structure the organizing committee planned to build in the Olympic Park (undergoing construction in Newham, an industrial area east of the city).

Johnson's idea was quickly swatted down by Badminton England. The governing body (which  represents one of the sports Britain expects to medal in) forcefully argued that traveling to Wembley would take too much out of athletes, possibly "[damaging] their performance." The plenary discussions aren't over, but the British press reports that badminton will, at the very least, likely play at a venue in the Olympic Park. Lesson learned: Don't mess with Big Badminton.

But the problems posed by the venues are small compared with the problems posed by transporting the expected 25,000 visitors an hour to them. England is ancient. London is huge, and it is crowded nearly everywhere. Roads follow the routes of old cow paths. Highways are narrow and difficult to expand. The Tube, the city's underground subway system, is 146 years old. London's Olympic organizing committee has announced that there will be no cars allowed at the events, to make them greener. But Britain's government long ago scrapped plans to build a much-needed cross-London train line. Instead, it purchased high-speed "Javelin" trains to run on existing tracks -- meaning no new capacity -- which the masses will take from St. Pancras station in central London to the Olympic Park three miles to the east.

For now, the games are still mostly popular with the British. But the public is taking notice of the expensive drawbacks. And with months to go and billions more to spend, the Olympics have waned in popularity. A series of media debacles hasn't helped. Take, for example, London organizing committee chairman Sebastian Coe's announcement of the logo for the 2012 games, a graphic representation of the number "2012" in neon colors with graffiti-inspired design.

Simply put: The public howled. Commenters said the logo most resembled a broken swastika, Stone Age art, or Lisa Simpson performing a sex act. "[This] screams 1985 at me like a dodgy set of legwarmers," one wrote. "It doesn't look professional: it does, however, look like a fucking disaster area, so it probably suits the Olympics rather well," wrote another. A Tory member of Parliament, Philip Davies, called for a do-over and noted, "It is incredible that someone has been paid ... to come up with this garbage."

One blogger asked: "How much of my money did they blow on this pink day-glo pig's abortion of a logo, I wonder?" The answer? £400,000 -- nearly $1 million -- paid to top design firm Wolff Olins, which took more than a year to produce it.

Which gets to the big problem behind the games: money. The budget for the games has quadrupled to a truly Olympic size: £9.3 billion ($15 billion), and rising. Jack Lemley, the ousted chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority, forecast the games might at the end of the day cost Britain as much as the 2008 Beijing games cost China, in the region of $40 billion -- more than Britain's stimulus package, a mayday measure designed to save the country from economic ruin last November.

That was a cost China -- an expanding economy with very low labor costs and the need for infrastructure anyway -- could bear. It's less clear that Britain can. For one, London hardly needs the facilities it's building, and they are of questionable legacy value. More importantly, such exorbitant costs are coming at the same time that the British economy is struggling beneath the weight of the credit crunch and recession.

The recession is bedeviling the Olympic effort in two ways. First, a number of supplementary private funders have declared bankruptcy or dropped out, leaving Britain to bear costs alone. For instance, a $55 billion private effort to upgrade the Tube foundered when its primary contractor, Metronet Rail, filed for bankruptcy. The company had to be nationalized, costing taxpayers about $800 million and delaying work to modernize tracks and upgrade stations before the games. This spring, the organizing committee failed to find private investors to build the Olympic athletes' village, which it plans to sell as an apartment complex after the games. Now, the government has to work out the project itself, and the prospect of turning a profit after the Olympics seems dim because the housing market has collapsed.

Second, costs are spiraling out of control at the precise time the government has less capacity to bear them. In response, it has burned through existing monies at a breakneck pace, exhausting or earmarking 78 percent of its contingency fund, for instance, with 34 months to go. It has plundered hundreds of millions in lottery money. All of which means London almost certainly faces raising taxes or going into debt to cross the finish line. There's a Keynesian argument to be made that it could use the spending -- and businesses have benefited and will absolutely continue to benefit from the windfall. But the burden of the cost will fall mostly on London's taxpayers, not Britain's, and they've already faced considerable tax hikes.

The common rejoinder to spiraling costs is that the Olympics make money for host cities. But the record is somewhat spottier than boosters admit. Athens and Beijing lost billions. Montreal, which hosted the games in 1976, took 30 years to pay off its loans. Los Angeles and Seoul made a tidy profit. Atlanta and Sydney broke even. It also depends on how you count: Is building a stadium factored into the cost? How about improving the subway? Expanding the housing stock? All this can leave a city with new and gleaming infrastructure -- or a bunch of costly new houses no one wants to buy and stadiums no one wants to use.

That seems the most troubling trade-off of hosting the Olympics: Britain gets the glory of the games, but to do so will spend money it does not have on things it does not really need. So the spectacle in London should be giving Chicagoans Olympic-sized headaches.

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