Time to Be Bold

Why Obama must seize the opportunity to make a nuclear deal with Iran’s new president.

It's all bad -- the Egyptian coup-by-another-name, the Syrian rebels turning their guns on each other, the ongoing Libyan anarchy. Isn't there any good news in the Middle East these days? Why, yes: Hassan Rouhani will be sworn in as the president of Iran on August 4. I know Rouhani is arm candy for the grim theocrats who run the show over there. But that's not all he is. Iran's next president is a pragmatic figure of moderate temperament who admonished a crowd of clerics in a publicly televised meeting last week that "government's involvement in the social and private lives of people should diminish." And let's remember that Rouhani was the chief nuclear negotiator when Iran agreed in 2004 to temporarily suspend its nuclear enrichment program in exchange for modest economic benefits. Rouhani's accession to power just might be good for Iran, and good for the West.

Iran has, of course, a special gift for disappointing expectations.  Indeed, the leitmotif of The Twilight War, David Crist's history of U.S.-Iranian relations since the revolution, is fresh surprise in Washington each time Tehran chooses hostility and disruption over what would appear to be rational self-interest. So first, let's list the caveats.

As the Iranian press itself has pointed out, Rouhani is a deep member of the establishment, not a "reformist," much less a radical. And on matters which the United States cares about, above all on the nuclear file, it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei who makes the supreme decisions. And yes, we've seen this movie before. In 1997, when the reformist Mohammad Khatami, who had publicly expressed regret for the takeover of the U.S. Embassy, was elected president, the Clinton administration engaged in an elaborate, if largely secret, courtship ritual, including secret messages passed to intermediaries offering improved relations and a speech by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright apologizing for past support of the Shah of Iran. The result? Ayatollah Khamenei thundered, "The confessions of American crimes are of no use to the Iranian nation." The relationship just got worse.

So why should it be any different now? First, precisely because Rouhani, unlike Khatami, is an insider and an apparatchik. He knows the red lines, and has shown a penchant for pushing them ever so slightly. Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has done the world the inestimable service of reading Rouhani's 860-page Farsi-language book National Security and Iran's Economic System. Clawson points out the remarkable fact that, while conceding that the Supreme Leader opposed the deal, Rouhani nevertheless credits the pact with advancing Iran's effort to join the World Trade Organization, keeping the issue out of the U.N. Security Council, allowing nuclear technicians to continue upgrading facilities. Clawson argues that Iran could reach a deal today if -- a big if -- it is prepared to adopt a similar approach.

Is it? The fact that Khamenei allowed Rouhani to run (and win) could mean that the supreme leader and other members of the Iranian elite recognize that they are threatened by the deep alienation of ordinary citizens, and must improve an economy beset by rampant inflation and unemployment. And those problems aren't going to get better unless and until Iran can convince the West to lift the sanctions imposed on the country's nuclear program. Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at Brookings, compares the sense of domestic crisis to 1988, when the Ayatollah Khomeini installed the pragmatic Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as president in order to finally bring the war with Iraq to an end.

This is by no means a unanimous view. Karim Sadjadpour, another Iranian expert, recently testified before Congress that Iran's domestic crisis is less salient than the conviction, shared by the Supreme Leader and other key regime elements, that "resistance against America," along with "rejection of Israel's existence," are "inextricable elements of Iran's revolutionary ideology," and thus that the survival of the revolution -- and their own survival -- depend on perpetual hostility.

So any new bid by Washington to break the logjam would be a gamble -- just as it would be for Rouhani. President Barack Obama has been conspicuously risk-averse on Iran, especially as there is a bipartisan consensus in favor of a policy of confrontation. After seeing his purely emblematic gestures (such as the New Year's greetings he sent in the spring of 2009) batted away, Obama determined to err on the side of resoluteness. His policy has been to try to force Iran to cry uncle through escalating sanctions. Arguably, that policy indirectly lead to Rouhani's election. Now the question is whether the administration is prepared to offer Rouhani's negotiating team -- as yet unappointed -- the kind of concessions which might carry weight with the Supreme Leader.

Right now, Iran and the "P5 + 1" -- the five members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany -- are stalemated, like Dr. Seuss's South-Going Zax and North-Going Zax, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Iran insists on an acknowledgment of its "right to enrich." The P5 + 1 has no intention of conceding that notional right, and has demanded that Iran stop enriching nuclear fuel beyond the point needed for strictly civilian uses. In exchange, it has offered sanctions relief so modest that Iran has had very little inducement to negotiate seriously. The stand-off has to be broken by both sides. In an article in Foreign Policy, Robert Einhorn, the former State Department special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control, proposed that negotiators work out a long-term "road map" clarifying that Iran will be permitted to retain a nuclear-fuel program with international safeguards and offering phased sanctions relief, and then furnish immediate confidence-building measures in exchange for an end to fuel enrichment. 

Is Obama prepared to make such a gamble, even in the face of angry protests from the right and from the Israel lobby? It seems not. A senior administration official told me, plainly: "Our fundamental position is where it is." It's true, this official adds, that with the election of Rouhani, "we are conceivably in a whole new place," but "the onus is on Iran to give us some concrete response" to the current offer. Message from South-Going Zax to North-Going Zax: You go first. So the negotiations, if they ever restart, will go nowhere, but at least the West can continue to blame Iran.

That, however, would be the mother of all Pyrrhic victories. The collapse of the Morsy regime in Egypt, or the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, do not threaten American national security, however disastrous they are for the people of the region. But as Iran continues to enrich and stockpile highly enriched uranium, and moves ever closer to Israeli and U.S. red lines, President Obama, who has said that "containment" is not an acceptable policy, may find that he is left with no option save to launch an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. In the face of such a calamitous possibility, it is not enough to say that one has a defensible negotiating position.

Iran is different from other Middle East crises in one other fundamental respect. Washington has learned how very little it can do to calm the tumult of the Arab Spring. The supreme leader may ensure that American policymakers draw the same conclusion in Iran as well; but the choices Washington makes could have a decisive effect on the negotiations, and thus on the question of peace or war with Iran. Obama has a new chance to test how far Ayatollah Khamenei will move -- or rather, to help Hasan Rouhani conduct that test. It's true that conducting that test could cost precious time; but the cost of not conducting it could be much higher.

The president has husbanded his capital on the Middle East, taking a secondary role in Libya,  steering as clear as he could of the violence in Syria and issuing muted statements on the coup-or-whatever in Egypt. In Iran, where he would have no domestic political cover for a bold initiative, he would have to splurge. That's asking a lot. But that's something we have a right to ask.


Terms of Engagement

The Only Thing We Have to Fear…

An Independence Day oratory on America’s national security paranoia.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, July 4 was typically celebrated with an oration -- above all in New England, the cradle and battlefield of the American Revolution. The great orators of the North, including Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, and John Quincy Adams, each delivered many such addresses. The speaker was expected to read the Declaration of Independence as a reminder to his audience of the sacred principles upon which the Republic had been founded, to recall in shamelessly purple language the heroism and sacrifice of an earlier generation, and then, if so inclined, to descant upon the great issue of the day -- slavery, or federalism, or relations with the European powers. I will spare you the first two elements and proceed directly to the last:

The American people have learned in recent weeks that their government has been engaged in a vast surveillance effort of which they knew nothing. The revelations of spying by the National Security Agency have provoked outrage, and bitter mockery, not from the enemies of President Barack Obama, in whom disingenuous shock has become an ingrained reflex, but from his allies -- from Democratic legislators, liberal activists, and European leaders and intellectuals.

The president has sought to assure the American people that the programs are not directed against them, and that intelligence agencies will not be able to listen to their phone calls or read their emails. He and other officials have also observed that both the U.S. Congress and a special federal court known as the FISA court oversee the programs, and prevent abuses. No abuses, in fact, have been reported. But for passionate defenders of liberty -- one of the "unalienable rights" which, Thomas Jefferson proclaimed to the world, governments are established to safeguard -- the sweeping collection of "metadata" in the United States and of actual communications abroad is incompatible with democracy. The abuse is the act itself.

But we do not live in Jefferson's world. Virtually all developed democracies have intelligence agencies; all spy on one another. We accept inroads on our liberty in the name of many goods -- security, convenience, and above all the pursuit of happiness. Our innocence in such matters has been fatally compromised. It is hyperbolic, and even hysterical, to say, as Glenn Greenwald has, that the United States has a secret plan "to destroy privacy and anonymity not just in the United States but around the world." It is equally excessive to lionize Edward Snowden, the former NSA contract employee who exposed the programs, as a heroic defender of democracy in the face of authoritarian menace. Surveillance, even on a giant scale, is not conspiracy, or murder.

What Snowden revealed must be fixed, rather than abolished. And it can be. Among other things, Obama can, as Jeffrey Rosen recently suggested, publish the secret memos that justify the programs, fix legal doctrines that offer the state too much scope for information-gathering, and stop targeting so many leakers for criminal prosecution. He must also bring more transparency to the decisions of the FISA courts. Democracies must be able not only to have secrets, but even to collect secrets. But they must do so with, to use another phrase from Jefferson, the consent of the governed.

And yet, in conceding this, another, perhaps deeper, discomfort remains. The United States has erected this colossal machinery of information-gathering for one overwhelming reason -- to stop terrorism. In the name of fighting terrorism it has launched hundreds of drone strikes, shrouding that program in secrecy as well; preserved the prison at Guantanamo, holding prisoners with no prospect of trial and trying others in a military tribunal; converted the CIA into a paramilitary organ; and hounded journalists for publishing secrets. All of these policies have been promulgated by a president who was a scholar of constitutional law -- because the overwhelming fear of another terrorist attack has made what once might have felt repugnant to him seem necessary.

Fear has become America's permanent state -- and fear of fear. Thomas Friedman argued in the New York Times that it is best to accept the surveillance program as it is because another terrorist incident would make the American people demand much graver violations of liberty and privacy in the name of security. We are, that is, only one incident away from Glenn Greenwald's nightmares. But perhaps that's not so. Government officials wildly overreacted to the Boston Marathon bombing by locking down the metropolitan area; but the citizens themselves never lost their composure. Are Americans elsewhere more frightened than they are in Boston?

Barack Obama once promised to end "the color-coded politics of fear." He has jettisoned the color code, but he has made few inroads on the fear. The very fact that this civil libertarian president has approved so many onerous programs -- that he has acknowledged their necessity -- isn't necessarily a sign to Americans of how very great is the threat that faces them. Perhaps it's a sign that Obama knows that his opponents would try to whip up a national outbreak of hysteria should a major attack occur on his watch. And so he caters to that fear, and hereby helps keep it alive.

Democracies, precisely because they rely upon the consent of the governed, must forever be turning to the people to ask them to weigh against one another those goods which they wish the state to provide. How many guns against how much butter? How much regulation against how much untrammeled enterprise? How much liberty against how much security? And yet this public exercise becomes an empty ritual when the weight on one side of the scale is deemed infinite. This is true whether we call that weight "the free market" or "stopping terrorism." These are goods, but they are limited goods. George W. Bush went to war in Iraq in the name of counterterrorism; consider the staggering costs of that venture.

Barack Obama wants -- desperately -- to return America's attention to building prosperity at home. But what has he done -- and what political risk has he incurred -- to minimize the national preoccupation with "another attack"? He often seems like a prisoner of the office. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to argue that with the rise of the "national security state" in the years after World War II, every president began his day with a terrifying intelligence briefing which left no doubt that his great responsibility was to protect the American people from danger, not to promote their welfare. That, too, is a balance -- a balance gone terribly awry. Perhaps Obama should occasionally let the Department of Education deliver the President's Daily Briefing. He needs to remind himself -- and us -- of why he is there.

Despite the Orwellian fear-mongering, the United States is less likely than almost any of the other democracies to fall prey to an overweening, all-pervasive state. Jefferson's heritage is very much alive: Americans have distrust of the state deep in their blood. But America's geographical remove, its long generations of safety between two oceans, accustomed its citizens to a degree of physical security unimaginable elsewhere; and this, in turn, accentuated the national sense of anxiety over the global threat of communism, and then the fear and the fury which came with the attacks of 9/11. These were, and are, real dangers; they justify some sacrifice of our liberty, or at least of our privacy; but they are finite. Terrorism does not threaten America's future, or its institutions. If this president is to be remembered by history the way he wishes to be, he must begin reducing that threat to its true dimensions.

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