The News: Fakepolitik
Wednesday's Child Is Full of Woe
When government actors and a very particular subset of experts who work closely with those officials operate within a very tight network that has a shared discursive vision of some problem or issue in the world, the results can be a bit surreal—some basic common sense understandings or perspectives on that problem can be completely absent in their expressed thought. When a reporter wants to project out that discourse from an embedded position inside of it—and thus also keep some obvious thoughts at bay—the surreality of it all is intensified.
Let’s take Robin Wright’s New Yorker article on the “looming crisis” of Iran’s nuclear threat as an example. It’s entirely written from the perspective of US military and executive officials and academics who closely hew to their world. The Iranian Ambassador to the US enters into the article at the very end, but there’s no other Iranian perspectives quoted or explored, nor any academic experts who might think about the worldview of the current Iranian government in any way that doesn’t predesignate them as a problem to be solved through military and diplomatic action.
That’s pretty weird even from the standpoint of trying to think about Iran as a problem to be solved through military and/or diplomatic action. You want a deal with somebody, you had better have a good working understanding of how they think. You want to go to war against someone, or just use violence as a means of coercing them into an action, the same goes.
I have no fondness for nor illusions about the present rulers of Iran: they’re authoritarians who sponsor a good deal of violence and disorder throughout the Middle East and who oppress their own citizens. It would be a good thing if Iran became a more democratic state that was more focused on good governance within its own borders.
However, I could say all of that about a great many states in the world. Saudi Arabia, for example. Egypt, for another. With a few small adjustments of the terms of the characterization, Israel. Perhaps in relatively short order, even the United States will fit the whole of that characterization, rather than just part of it.
That’s only the beginning of the issue here. You can only make the case that Iran having a nuclear weapon—or in this article, having a sophisticated missile capability—is a disaster to be prevented at all costs if you believe the Iranian government’s interest in nuclear capability is motivated by the active desire to actually use nuclear weapons against its adversaries. Otherwise, what you’d have to recognize is that Iran’s government wants nuclear weapons for the same reason Israel wanted and got nuclear weapons: as a defense against being attacked and as a tool for diplomatic leverage.
Which would also apply to missiles and to having proxies throughout the region. There’s a truly weird moment in Wright’s article where an expert represents the “normal” approach of a new regime in a particular region as seeking out natural allies who share common interests as opposed to the presumably “abnormal” approach of financially supporting and arming proxy militias and even puppet regimes.
Other countries that have used the “abnormal” approach in the last thirty years under particular leaderships, since the end of the Cold War: Pakistan, Russia, Uganda, Rwanda, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, France, China, and oh yeah, the United States. (I’m likely missing some other examples.) The universe in which a new government that has overthrown or completely overturned its predecessor looks around the map and sees lots of natural pals to make bilateral agreements with feels like it exists only in some game-theoretic fantasy.
A state that is avowedly revolutionary and that is devoted to a minority branch of a major regional religion that has been at odds with the majority orthodox branch for centuries, is not going to easily find that there are already-existing states with whom they had natural alignments or shared interests. Any more than it is surprising that the United States has to spend billions of dollars to maintain connections with some states in the Middle East rather than just have “natural” alliances.
The article never says as much, but effectively makes clear that if the current government of Iran perceives an existential threat in the United States and in other national governments in the Middle East, it’s perfectly rational in thinking exactly that. When various experts opine that everything would be fine if only Iran would behave normally, what they are fairly clearly saying is “everything would be fine if Iran were a different kind of country under a different kind of leadership”. That is not a promising start to negotiations.
Perhaps even less promising is something that Wright’s article only touches on a few times when it really ought to be the lead, which is that Iranian negotiators are utterly rational in thinking that there is absolutely no point to bargaining with the United States given that they did so before, arrived at an agreement that the entire world supported, kept to the terms of the agreement, and then watched it torn up by Donald Trump and subsequently faced an American government that openly talked about a major military attack on Iran and an American government that killed a high-ranking government official in a very public way. I’m just kind of amazed that Biden’s hand-picked negotiator can say with a straight face that the Iranians ought to come back to the table and re-sign the agreement that the US government abandoned and in the meantime ought to stick to the terms of that agreement while the US violates it. If I were the Iranian team, I’d gladly sit down at the table just for the pure amusement value of watching someone articulate a position of that level of spectacular incoherence. The article cites Senator Ted Cruz saying one of the few truths he’s ever uttered, which is that any agreement the US makes with Iran is likely to be torn up again after 2024.
Which again, makes Iran’s foreign policy and its acquisitions of missiles perfectly rational, however much I or anyone else might dislike the consequences. The current Iranian government is facing one adversary (Israel) that routinely uses assassination, military strikes and sabotage to impede and punish the Iranian government and another (Saudi Arabia) that is funding proxy wars and insurgencies everywhere that Iran has interests. And it is facing the most heavily armed country on the planet whose officials regularly weigh a full-scale bombing attack, a country that may shortly be once again under the authority of a volatile authoritarian leader who will ignore any deal that was made by his political opponents out of spite or whim.
Try to game that out, if you will. Get rid of your missile capability and stop trying to come up to the threshold of a nuclear capability for what reason? What does that get you? That’s the most surreal thing in Wright’s article: all the experts agree that Iran should do that, and none of them offer any reason whatsoever why they should other than the US and Israel want them to. The experts largely concede that Iran’s missile capability and proxy allies have made them harder than ever to attack with impunity, which was presumably a major reason to build those capabilities.
These are all the supposedly clear-eyed people telling us the hard truths and every single one of them repeats a narrative that sounds like a collective hallucination. I can’t tell entirely whether they’re trying to actually sell it, whether they’re just saying what they think they have to say, or whether they’ve actually bought into it themselves. Whichever it is, it’s dangerous. That is how seemingly reasonable people talk themselves into war, by convincing themselves that an adversarial government ought to simply have surrendered to our mercy because we are good and they are not, and because they did not, we will just have to kill them. One of the most lethal aspects of modern diplomacy is the logic that if a country has said it will (or even might) do a thing, it has to do it even if it’s a disastrous action, because otherwise it will lose credibility. If losing credibility is the thing to avoid, then the United States after (and maybe before) Trump can relax, because we already lost credibility in this (and other) domains in a way that will take a generation or longer to regain.
Even Superman knows that if he just has to negotiate with Lex Luthor, he’s got to give Luthor something that Luthor wants—and that he’s got to stick to the terms of the bargain if he ever expects to negotiate with any enemy in the future.