Fareed Zakaria deserves a medal for breaking with the mainstream media pack to slap down, with the requisite rudeness, the hysteria over Iran being manufactured by the neocons, opportunist Israeli politicians and the Bush Administration. Perhaps stung by having participated in a secret Bush Administration policy discussion to help shape the Iraq war policy before the invasion, Zakaria is acting with honor now to prevent another disaster. This while much of the rest of the media is futzing around asking the wrong questions on Iran and getting the answers that only the wrong questions can produce. Exhibit A: The Washington Post editorial suggesting that the only “alternative” to harsh new sanctions that most of the international community opposes is war, and then scolding “those who say they oppose military action — including a couple of the second-tier Democratic presidential candidates — to portray the sanctions initiative as a buildup to war by Mr. Bush. We’ve seen no evidence that the president has decided on war, and it’s clear that many senior administration officials understand the package as the best way to avoid military action. It is not they but those who oppose tougher sanctions who make war with Iran more likely.”
If and when a war with Iran, with all its terrible consequences that leaves many thousands dead and the U.S. in an even weaker position than it is now, those looking for explanations will do well to remember how their media failed them — with some honorable exceptions. Of course, the hysteria is being fed by the fact that it’s an election season here, and a bunch of mediocre candidates is trying to outdo one another by talking tough on Iran, which, as CNN tells us, has become the new Iraq as far as the presidential campaign is concerned.
Of course the push for tougher sanctions shortens the distance to war, and make it more likely, for a simple reason: Those pushing for them see the sanctions as a “last hope” for something they curiously dub “diplomacy”, failing which force becomes the “only alternative.” But there won’t be tougher sanctions, and not because of the commercial interests of those like Russia and China that oppose them. The reason there won’t be tougher sanctions is that most of the international community recognizes two things: The balance of power in the region is such that Iran is unlikely to respond to pressure and ultimatums over its nuclear program (nor, for that matter, is it likely to be deterred by air strikes, for which it will surely retaliate and extract a heavy price from the U.S. and its allies). Second, and, even more important, most of the international community rejects the very premise that Iran’s nuclear program represents an imminent threat that can only be dealt with by tougher sanctions or military action.
It is, frankly, shocking, that the media allows to pass largely unchallenged remarks such as the one by Condoleezza Rice when announcing new sanctions on Iran, that “Unfortunately the Iranian government continues to spurn our offer of open negotiations, instead threatening peace and security by pursuing nuclear technologies that can lead to a nuclear weapon, building dangerous ballistic missiles, supporting Shia militants in Iraq and terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and denying the existence of a fellow member of the United Nations, threatening to wipe Israeli off the map.” Offer of open negotiations? The Bush Administration has made no such offer; it is the Iranians who have offered unconditional negotiations with the U.S. (in 2003), only to be given the brush-off by a Bush Administration drunk on its misperception of success in Iraq. Today the Administration offers talks with Iran, but only if Iran first heeds the U.S. demand that it end its uranium enrichment activities.
That’s not diplomacy. In fact, listening to Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, you get this bizarre definition of “diplomacy,” which she uses interchangeably with sanctions. If you pursue sanctions, you’re pursuing diplomacy, according to Hillary, not war. But sanctions are not diplomacy, they’re simply a non-violent form of punitive action. Diplomacy involves talking the other side about the most vexed and divisive issues. Any grownup can see that such a conversation — which has not happened, nor has the Administration shown any inclination to make it happen — would be the very foundation of a diplomatic solution. (But, of course, by “diplomatic solution” Bush simply means that the Iranians surrender without him having to fire a shot.)
Zakaria has distinguished himself by taking this fight into the mainstream media, with a passion and righteous indignation all too rare in its columns and broadcasts.
Whereas the mainstream media appears to have taken as read largely unsubstantiated claims about Iran’s nuclear program representing an existential threat to Israel and others, and similarly unsubstantiated claims about Iran’s role in Iraq (which has lately become the Bush Administration’s fallacy d’jour in explaining its failures there), more sober heads begin the discussion by asking whether Iran’s nuclear program actually represent a threat, and if so, is it a threat of sufficient magnitude to justify the risk of potentially catastrophic consequences that military action would carry. And if not, are there options besides war and sanctions for responding to Iran’s undoubted growth as a regional power in the wake of — and as a result of — the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, has acknowledged behind closed doors that even if Iran had nuclear weapons, they would not, repeat NOT, pose an existential threat to Israel. Other top Israeli security officials have said the same thing. Yet Bush and the neocons are left unchallenged when they spin this line.
In an outstanding column in Newsweek two weeks ago, Zakaria did what few mainstream media figures are prepared to do when the President glibly tells Americans that the sky will fall unless they do his bidding — eschewing the deference that so often characterizes the media corps’ approach to the Bush Administration, Zakaria leaves his readers in no doubt that he thinks the President of the United States is a bullshitter, and a dangerous one at that. To quote:
At a meeting with reporters last week, President Bush said that “if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.” These were not the barbs of some neoconservative crank or sidelined politician looking for publicity. This was the president of the United States, invoking the specter of World War III if Iran gained even the knowledge needed to make a nuclear weapon.
The American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality. Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative ideologist whom Bush has consulted on this topic, has written that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is “like Hitler … a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism.” For this staggering proposition Podhoretz provides not a scintilla of evidence.
Here is the reality. Iran has an economy the size of Finland’s and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?
Amen to that. The “knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon” in this instance is the technology of uranium enrichment, which is also an integral part of a full-cycle civilian nuclear energy program. And that’s what Iran is accused of building, which of course, it claims is its right as a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty. Tehran insists it has no intention of building nuclear weapons, and the IAEA has repeatedly made clear that it has seen no evidence that Iran’s program is intended for weaponization. (The issue between the IAEA, and then the UN Security Council, and Iran is its failure to comply properly with transparency requirements over its past activities. Although the Security Council has demanded that Iran cease uranium enrichment until those concerns are resolved, it has not demanded that Iran abandon its right to enrich uranium, because that would contradict the NPT.) So the issue, really, is that the U.S. and its allies don’t trust Iran enough to allow it a full-cycle nuclear energy program, because this gives it the potential to build nuclear weapons if it opted out of the NPT. In its own negotiating efforts via the Europeans, Tehran has previously sought to find a formula under which it would abrogate its right to opt out of the NPT, although those negotiations are going nowhere right now.
Still, assume for a moment Iran did actually use its nuclear energy infrastructure to build a weapon — which it could potentially do, although it would probably take more than five years from now — even then, is Iran really a doomsday threat?
Zakaria has systematically demolished the claims by the war lobby that Iran is beyond negotiation and deterrence, because it is somehow driven by nutty apocalyptic religious zeal, and pointed out that it is the U.S. that has actually refused to negotiate when the Iranians have made decent offers. He writes:
The one time we seriously negotiated with Tehran was in the closing days of the war in Afghanistan, in order to create a new political order in the country. Bush’s representative to the Bonn conference, James Dobbins, says that “the Iranians were very professional, straightforward, reliable and helpful. They were also critical to our success. They persuaded the Northern Alliance to make the final concessions that we asked for.” Dobbins says the Iranians made overtures to have better relations with the United States through him and others in 2001 and later, but got no reply. Even after the Axis of Evil speech, he recalls, they offered to cooperate in Afghanistan. Dobbins took the proposal to a principals meeting in Washington only to have it met with dead silence. The then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, he says, “looked down and rustled his papers.” No reply was ever sent back to the Iranians. Why bother? They’re mad.
Last year, the Princeton scholar, Bernard Lewis, a close adviser to Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal predicting that on Aug. 22, 2006, President Ahmadinejad was going to end the world. The date, he explained, “is the night when many Muslims commemorate the night flight of the Prophet Muhammad on the winged horse Buraq, first to ‘the farthest mosque,’ usually identified with Jerusalem, and then to heaven and back. This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world” (my emphasis). This would all be funny if it weren’t so dangerous.
Actually, it did get pretty funny when the PBS Newshour put Zakaria on in a live debate with the ideologically incontinent Norman Podhoretz, dean of neoconservatism and a soothsayer that still gets invited to brief Bush and candidate Giuliani despite having been wrong, by Chicken Little proportions, about every “threat” on which he’s ever sounded his battered alarm bell. No need to quote more — you can read a transcript of the exchange here.
Any scientist will tell you that the answers you get in any inquiry are first and foremost shaped by the questions you ask — and in any process of peer review, it is as important to interrogate those questions, and the assumptions on which they rest, as to examine how the answers were derived. If the question is “how can we force Iran to stop enriching uranium,” the choice will inevitably be between harsher sanctions, and war. Neither is likely to succeed, of course, but those who pose the question in this way paint themselves into a corner where not taking military action is equivalent to tolerating the intolerable — a message driven home by the Podhoretzes and Gingriches and Netanyahus (now there’s a Halloween gallery for you!) braying about Hitler and Chamberlain and 1938 all over again…
What Zakaria is arguing, imminently reasonably, is that the Bush Administration managed to climb down off its hysterical perch on North Korea and cut a deal that has substantially diluted any danger represented by Pyongyang, by compromising on its (the Administration’s) own ideological aversion to recognizing the odious regime of Kim Jong-il. And the world — even Israel — would be a lot safer if the Administration would grow up and recognize that it has no alterantive but to seek a grand bargain with Iran.
And it’s the absence of real diplomacy by the Administration, not some false choice between sanctions or air strikes, that should be the focus of the media’s — and the Democratic presidential candidates’ — discussion of Iran.