Permissible Arms

A bicycle built for two.

Posted in iran by Karaka on 14 September 2009

The hardest thing about going away is catching up when you get back. I took a folio of articles, position essays, and papers with me, and managed to get through about quarter of them in the relatively distraction-less trip out East; but on the way back I was too shot to think intelligently about anything, much less contemporary war doctrine. So I’ve spent the last several days earmarking the (many, many) many things I need to follow up on; in the meantime, I’ve managed to connect a couple dots.

I’m in the middle of Hooman Majd’s excellent book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ. This is the 2009 edition, with Majd’s new preface addressing the Iranian election process from this summer. He writes:

Over forty million voted in Iran’s presidential election, 63% for the sitting president, according to his own Interior Ministry. It took a day or so, but that’s when it struck dismayed Iranians: of course, they were never going to let anyone but Ahmadinejad win. That’s why his campaign was anemic, that’s why he didn’t seem to care that his challengers were gaining on him, and that’s why he was so arrogant in the aftermath. This had never happened before…Thirty years have passed since the revolution, exactly thirty years, and Iranians weren’t mad that Ahmadinejad won reelection on June 12. They were and are still mad that the one thing, the one true element of democracy they had–their vote–had seemingly become meaningless.

I reference this passage (from page XV) not because it’s an insightful look at the drama that took place this summer, and offers a distinctly Iranian perspective that counters the generally Western perspective about that election, though it certainly is insightful. But the central thesis of his book–the Iranian preoccupation with haq, or rights (I can’t immediately find a good explanation of this) as a fundamental way to understand the Iranian people–is as omnipresent here as it is in the Iranian government’s position on nuclear development.

The Times reported today the news that the United States and Iran would enter into talks for the first time in thirty years, since the American hostage crisis in 1979.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, vowed last week that Tehran would never halt its production of enriched uranium — the fuel used in nuclear weapons. At the same time the Iranians offered western critics a broader discussion on “co-operation, peace and justice”. US officials said expectations of a breakthrough were “extremely low”, but the State Department said Washington was ready to test whether Iran was genuinely interested in dialogue.

Even acknowledging Russia’s clear disinclination to support UN sanctions against Iran, I find it interesting that this attempt is being made. It seems like all the pieces are firm on the chess board, and at most this is a show of the Obama administration’s commitment to a different appearance on international affairs from his presidential forbears. And should that be true, it seems unlikely that this new attempt to open talks will result in anything but a stalemate. If, as Majd suggests in his book, Iran in the form of its government (in the form of Ahmadinejad) views the development of nuclear technology to be a fundamental issue of haq, then an international (Western) force to constrain or halt that development could only be viewed as an infringement on haq, reinforcing anti-Western-imperialist fervor.

What is gained by taking this route if the pieces won’t move? I’m reminded of the May debate on NPR’s Intelligence Squared, whose topic was Is Diplomacy with Iran Going Nowhere?. It was debated by Liz Cheney and Daniel Senor in favor of the motion, and Nicholas Burns and Kenneth Pollack against. Both sides eventually came around to sort of agreeing that as there currently is no diplomacy with Iran (and there has not really been for thirty years), the motion could be interpreted in two ways. Either we have not had diplomacy (or we have not had enough diplomacy) with Iran, and thus we should start before taking more drastic, permanent measures; or we should thus assume that we have not had diplomacy with Iran because we could not have diplomacy with Iran, and there is no reason to disbelieve that such a state would not continue, so we should go forth with stronger UN-backed sanctions to corral Iran’s nuclear programme.

I acknowledge that I greatly simplify that debate, and it’s well worth the time to listen to. Christopher Hitchens’ new article on these talks with Iran, “Engaging With Iran Is Like Having Sex With Someone Who Hates You,” (which wins my favorite title of the day) says:

So it would be nice to know, even if no “conditions” or “preconditions” (this seems like a distinction without much difference) are to be exacted, whether the administration has assured itself on two points. The first of these is: Do we seriously expect the Islamic Republic to be negotiating in good faith about its nuclear program? And the second is: What do we know about the effect of these proposed talks on the morale and the leadership of the Iranian opposition? … Might it be possible—you will, I hope, forgive my cynicism—that this latest initiative from Tehran is yet another attempt to buy time or run out the clock?

and I ask that we consider this. Is there any possible outcome of talks that would truly secure Iran’s agreement to abandon, or at least limit, its nuclear programme? Because, taking also Majd’s subtext that Iranians and Americans are somewhat more alike than either people would like to admit, if it was American rights being infringed upon, American defensive capabilities being restricted by a larger force, would we ever agree to such a limitation?


I for one hope that something useful can come out of these talks, however they come about, but at the end of the day I suspect my cynicism runs closer to Hitchens’. Outside looking in, it seems so unlikely that anything truly productive for either side could come out of these negotiations. But I suppose that’s no reason not to try.


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  1. […] picks up on some of the things I talked about earlier, namely the concept of haq (rights) and how it is mixed up with the political nationalism in the […]

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