The international goat grab this week in Tehran -- aka, the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) -- is unlikely to have any lasting impact on the struggle between Iran and the United States over the ultimate disposition of the nuclear issue.
It's a fleeting, feel-good moment for the mullahs. Indeed, I really hope America's diplomats didn't waste too much time trying to persuade U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon not to attend. Teenagers talk on the phone, beavers build dams, and U.N. folks go to these kinds of things.
Still, the NAM conference made me think about a more enduring and consequential issue -- the state of America's influence in a region that remains vital to its national interests, but which it can neither fix nor leave. What, if anything, does the NAM gathering tell us about America's stake and stock in the Middle East?
Not everybody sees the world the way America does.
No shocker there, except maybe to Americans. The fact that representatives of 120 countries, two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and the U.N. secretary-general are milling around with the mullahs is no small matter. This may not be the NATO A-Team. Rather, it's a pretty strong testament to the limitations of America's containment strategy -- at least on the political side. The summit is proof that the United States isn't succeeding in persuading vast swaths of the world that Tehran is a major threat to international peace and must be contained, sanctioned, and isolated. Nor will it.
As if to put an exclamation point on the matter, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy is bringing Iran directly into the latest plan to fix the Syrian crisis. He has launched a regional initiative that calls for a committee of four powers -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Islamic Republic -- to work together on the issue. So much for America's influence.
Bomb, or accept The Bomb?
That the United States hasn't succeeded in bringing the mullahs down, or at least to their knees on the nuclear issue, is also pretty self-evident.
Iran's search for a nuclear capacity is driven by a complex mix of insecurity and grandiosity, two factors inextricably linked to Iran's self-image and identity. These kinds of inchoate motivations are rarely, if ever, susceptible to external pressures -- certainly not to sanctions, cyberattacks, and militaristic rhetoric. If Iran doesn't decide to jettison its nuclear program on its own, we're rapidly moving to a situation in which military action may well be the default position, however risky or nonproductive it could turn out to be.
We've tried negotiations, kind of, and sanctions too. However, the centrifuges continue to spin. And the most widely discussed default position -- a "kaboom" by Israel or the United States -- increasingly seems to be drawing inexorably closer, like a moth to the flame. How such a military strike could do much more than retard the nuclear program is unclear. Eliminating Iran's acquisitive desire for a nuclear weapons capacity would require regime change -- and even that might not do the job. Had the Shah of Iran not fallen to Ruhollah Khomeini and the crowds, Iran would long ago have become a nuclear weapons state.
Just say no.
The Tehran gathering signals something else too: These days, everyone seems to have the capacity to say no to the world's greatest power without much cost or consequence.
The fraternal order of the "Just Say No Movement" includes a checkered cast of close allies, neutrals, the so-called nonaligned, and adversaries. Its ranks include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary-General Ban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Iraqi strongman Nouri al-Maliki, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad, assorted Egyptian generals and Muslim Brothers, and, last but certainly not least, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As I wrote some months back, the United States is fast becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East: America really doesn't get much respect.