zenpundit.com

Iran: The Debate We Should Be Having

July 24th, 2015

By T. Greer

Major religions in the Middle East
Image Source: Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project

——–
I am not a specialist in arms control or nuclear technology. I must rely on the judgement of others with relevant expertise to assess the viability of the new agreement with Iran. This makes things difficult, for the opinions of experts I trust are divided. Lawrence FreedmanCheryl Rofer, Aaron Stein, and the other folks at Arms Control Wonk all support the deal. Most do so with great enthusiasm.  Thomas Moore and Matthew Kroenig, on the other hand, oppose it with uncharacteristic harshness. Over at the excellent blog Zionists and Ottomans, Michael Koplow sticks to the middle ground. He accepts that the provisions of the JCPOA will successfully deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but worries that this focus on Iran’s nuclear program misses the forest for the trees. As he writes:

It is difficult to see how this deal advances conventional peace and stability in the Middle East over the next decade even as it pushes a nuclear Iran farther away. Contra the president’s assumptions, Iran is almost certainly going to use the money in sanctions relief to continue fighting proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and continuing its general covert war with the Sunni world, not to mention its sponsorship of terrorism against Israeli and Western targets. By all means celebrate a temporary victory on the nuclear front, but the idea that this will bring peace in our time or stability to the Middle East is ridiculous. The impetus for the deal from the administration’s perspective has clearly been a conviction that Iran is changing socially and politically and that the regime cannot go on forever, and that a nuclear deal will empower moderates, create pressure from below for change, etc. This view is hubristic; I know of nobody who can accurately predict with any type of certainty or accuracy whether and when regimes will collapse, or how social trends will impact a deeply authoritarian state’s political trajectory (and yes, Iran is a deeply authoritarian state, liberalizing society and elected parliament or not). Certainly providing the regime with an influx of cash, cooperation on regional issues, and better access to arms is not going to hasten the end of the mullahs’ rule, so much as I find it hard to condemn the deal entirely because of some clear positives on the nuclear issue, I find it just as hard to celebrate this as some clear and celebratory foreign policy victory. [1]

Koplow is not the only person to express such concerns. In a thoughtful write up for the Brookings Institute, Tamara Coffman Wittes warns that this deal “will not stabilize a messy Middle East.” Kenneth Pollack’s recent testimony to the House of Representatives explores these themes in even greater detail, and should be required reading for anyone who wants to contribute to these discussions. (And of course, throw-away lines about Iranian plans to destabilize the region have found their way into almost every speech given by those who oppose the deal). [2]

This is an important turn in the debate. For many the finer points of technical issue like uranium enrichment centrifuges or IAEA enforcement policies have been eclipsed by broad questions about Iran’s role in the regional order. These questions will only became more prevalent  as the newness of this deal wears away with time.

This is not a conversation Americans are prepared to have. The mental model most American observers–and if their statements are to be taken at face value, American officials–use to make sense of Iran, America’s allies in the region, and America’s role in upholding the regional order are faulty and simplistic. You can see this quite clearly in comments like these:

Iran’s nuclear program—for obvious reasons—has been the most important issue in that country’s relations with the West, but it is very far from the only issue. Iran remains one of the most prolific state-sponsors of terrorism in the world. It has and will certainly continue to seek hegemony in the Middle East, to deliberately destabilize its neighbors and other states in the region, and to promote ballistic missile proliferation and human-rights abuses throughout the Near and Middle East and beyond.

Only a comprehensive strategy, led by the United States and supported by our major allies, can neutralize Iran’s malign activities, and this will take time. In particular, that program must take into account the views and interests of U.S. allies in the region, including Israel and those Arab States that understand and fear Iran’s ambitions and capabilities.[3]

The role played both by Iran and “U.S. allies in the region” is far more complicated than this. Each plays a part in the instability now wrecking the Near East. Like America, Iran’s relationship with other actors in the region is convoluted and sometimes contradictory. By simplifying the region’s geopolitics into a narrow contest of good and evil we do ourselves a great disservice. A more accurate narrative would recognize that there are two separate conflicts  threaten the stability of the Near East. These conflicts are related but distinct. The failure to distinguish between them is the root problem behind much of America’s flawed commentary and confused policy.

The first of the two contests is the strategic rivalry between Iran and her regional enemies, Israel and the Saudi led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As with the great geopolitical contests of the last century, this rivalry has a hard ideological edge that makes compromise difficult. However, the ambitions of its central players fall squarely within the realm of traditional power politics. The roles each claim are as old as Thucydides, with today’s Persians playing the part of rising challenger to the existing order, and their opponents acting as its main defenders. This is a war of the shadows, waged through sabotage, assassination, espionage, terrorism, and the occasional full blown insurgency. The instability caused by American intervention in Iraq and the Arab Spring has raised the stakes of this competition. Now Tehran and Riyadh both desperately scour the region, ever seeking some new opportunity to tilt the balance of power in their favor.  It is the civilians of the smaller powers caught in the middle that suffer most. That is where the proxy campaigns are fought. For the most part it is also where they end.  But just below the surface remains the constant fear that these endless maneuvers in the shadows might lead to open war in the light.

It is to prevent such a war that analysts like Mr. Pollack—whose testimony to congress I urged you to read above—favor a strong U.S. presence in the region. This has been the traditional role of the United States since the ‘80s, with America acting as a guarantor of sorts of the existing order. Under such conditions Iran and the United States are natural enemies. When upstart dictators like Saddam Hussein don’t call attention to themselves, “maintain the regional order” is short hand for holding back the tide of Persian hegemony. It is important to realize, however, that no matter how hostile Iran and its proxies may be towards America, their power to harm American citizens and servicemen will always be proportional to how invested America is in the region. This was Ronald Reagan’s central insight when he ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Lebanon in 1984. Americans are only a target in the shadow war if they decide to participate in it.

This does not hold true for the second conflict that roils the Near East. Read the rest of this entry »

Multiculturalism in play?

July 22nd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — multiculturalism in play — or, what’s the name of the game? ]
.

It is getting to be quite a theme: When games collide.

SPEC DQ MacIntyre xkcd

I’ve used the MacIntyre quote before [1, 2, 3], but the wonderful xkcd visual presentation is new to me — many thanks to Tanner Greer for turning me onto it.

**

What’s the name of the game?

Nomic?

Not everything that counts can be counted

July 20th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — not Einstein but a fellow Cameron gave me my title ]
.

I’ll admit I was uneasy when I read about the “effective altruism” movement in Peter Singer‘s Boston Review piece, The Logic of Effective Altruism, but I didn’t quite see how to phrase my unease. Here’s Singer’s explanation of the concept:

Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can. Obeying the usual rules about not stealing, cheating, hurting, and killing is not enough, or at least not enough for those of us who have the good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families and still have money or time to spare. Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can.

That’s the gist, but there’s a lot of what I can only term “moral cost-effectiveness” in there, as though goodness were a problem in engineering.

Today I read Michael J. Lewis‘s Commentary piece, How Art Became Irrelevant, and think I found the “why” of my unease, in the writer’s description of the German idea (“ideal”) of an architectural Existenzminimum:

This was the notion that in the design of housing, one must first precisely calculate the absolute minimum of necessary space (the acceptable clearance between sink and stove, between bed and dresser, etc.), derive a floor plan from those calculations, and then build as many units as possible. One could not add a single inch of grace room, for once that inch was multiplied through a thousand apartments, a family would be deprived of a decent dwelling. So went the moral logic.

**

  • Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.
  • The heart has reasons Reason knows not of.
  • Actions speak louder than.. ahem, narratives

    July 20th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — pondering the use of narratives to “counter violent extremism” ]
    .

    I’m pondering the use of narratives to “counter violent extremism”, and have been thinking about letting this post consist of its title and the government-sponsored words:

    This Page Intentionally Left Blank

    I’m hoping this post will find its place in the comments section, in other words. If the opposing party — whether that means, effectively, IS, salafist-jihadis, the Ikhwan, or Islamists in general — pushes a narrative about US actions towards the Islamic world, can a narrative alone succeed at pushing back? What actions can we show that refute the simple form of that narrative? What actions might we take in future that would appear to affirm it? To refute it?

    Are we so busy thinking about counter-narratives that we allow our actions to undercut our words?

    **

    Come to that, is the appeal of IS really its apocalyptic theology (which is what I mostly address), its success as a military force (which may be down to the presence of ex-Baathist military in high positions of command), its critique of US policy in respect of the Islamic world (dictatorships included), the prospect of adventure (and perhaps concubines?) in foreign lands, or, as Prof Andrew Silke would have it, altruism?

    The key message is that you have got to see the terrorists as they see themselves if you genuinely want to understand why people are getting involved. If you talk to terrorist themselves, they portray themselves as altruists – they see themselves as fighting on behalf of others, whether it’s the IRA fighting on behalf of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, or if it’s Islamic State fighting on behalf of the Muslim ummah.

    **

    I suspect there’s a lot to be said here, and the floor is open. I’m eager to hear your voices..

    Sunday surprise – Dylan and the Bauls

    July 19th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — how Buddha came by his Middle Way, among other things & songs ]
    .

    John Wesley Harding Bauls

    **

    In a fascinating article titled Dylan tunes like you’ve never heard them – in Hindi and Bengali a few months back, Nate Rabe made the assertion — I only saw it today —

    Bob Dylan, unlike many of his contemporaries, seems to never have been drawn to India. There were no pilgrimages to Rishikesh, no gurus, no lost years by the Ganga and, to date, I’ve not detected any Hindustani musical influence in his music.

    Okay — how about his album covers?

    On the cover of John Wesley Harding (above), Dylan is flanked by “Luxman and Purna Das, two Bengali Bauls” — “South Asian musicians brought to Woodstock by Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman” according to Wikipedia.

    **

    The Bauls — with their one-stringed instrument, the ektara, and their ecstatic songs of devotion — have been an interest of mine at least since the time that album came out in 1967. It was shortly thereafter that I also ran across the album The Bauls of Bengal issued by Elektra in 1966.

    A writer in the rec.music.dylan newsgroup notes:

    Through their songs, dances, gestures, through silences, through postures and looks, the Bauls tell stories of the earth, of the body, of lovers uniting – subtly revealing the mystery of life and laws of nature. Submission to the divine is their tightrope to wisdom. Most Bauls are wandering mendicants, living on what they are offered by villagers in return for their songs. They sing from the heart on their never ending tours and consecrate their lives to a fusion of music, song and dance as the privileged vehicle for attaining ecstasy.

    Edward C Dimock Jr, author of The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaisnava-Sahajiya Cult of Bengal and co-author with poet Denise Levertov of the “slim volume of poetry”, In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali, wrote on the liner notes of the Bauls’ album:

    Some people have said that it is possible to characterize the Bauls by a distinctive doctrine. I have never found it possible to do so, for it seems to me that they are first and foremost individuals, and that the term Baul encompasses a wide range of religious opinion, traceable to several Hindu schools of thought, to Sufi Islam, and much that is traceable only to a man’s own view of how he relates to God. All Baul’s hold only this in common: that God is hidden in the heart of man, and neither priest nor prophet, nor the ritual of any organized religion, will help man to find him there.”

    Dimock, as you have guessed, is another long-time favorite author of mine, and I once had the privilege of meeting Denise Levertov, whose poem A Tree Telling of Orpheus I hold to be one of the great poems of the 20th century.

    **

    There is an album out titled From Another World: A Tribute to Bob Dylan, which includes a rendering of Mr Tambourine Man by one Purna Das Baul

    and Nate Rabe’s piece introduces us, among others, to Susheela Raman, covering Like a Rolling Stone:

    **

    It was a wandering musician playing an ektara, so I have heard, whom the ultra-ascetic known as Siddhartha Gauama overheard saying or singing:

    If you tighten the string too much it will snap and if you leave it too slack, it won’t play.

    That hint was enough. Siddhartha grasped from those words the essence of the teaching he was to make famous as the Middle Way, set aside his austerities as he had earlier set aside his princely status, and in short order attained enlightenment — becoming Gautama Buddha, one of the great masters of our age.

    h/t 3 Quarks Daily


    Switch to our mobile site