Unveiling Iran, veiling America

How the US’ projection of power leads it to project its dilemmas on the rest of the world.

US Secretary of State John Kerry listens to Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif [AP]
US Secretary of State John Kerry listens to Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif [AP]

Two main schools have dominated the debate in the United States over Iran and the ramification of a nuclear deal. 

The first deems Iran is ruled by a dark, evil, terrorist-sponsoring regime that is hell bent on regional, even world domination. It believes the interim nuclear deal signed this month will pave the way for Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons.

Advocates for this school – conservative, neoconservatives and geo-strategists – argue that the only way to deal with such a regime is through crippling sanctions and eventually overwhelming force regardless of the cost. They argue it’s better to fight Iran before, rather than having to fight it after it acquires nuclear weapons.

Adherent of the other school – liberals, isolationists and leftists – reckon that today’s Iran is economically hurting; a country that’s ruled by a pragmatic leadership and governed by a moderate president.

They believe Iran is going through a major change and in need of economic growth and recognition of regional importance. They argue that economic incentives through the lifting of sanction and diplomatic normalisation are best to rehabilitate Iran and reduce its threat to its neighbours.

Will lifting sanctions mean a new era for Iran?

All of this is pretty much obvious. What is less obvious is how much does it all tell about Iran and how much does it say about the US’ own state of affairs?

A state or a cause?

Anti Iranian geo-strategists like to repeat Henry Kissinger’s refrain on how Iran must decide, “whether it is a nation or a cause” before it’s accorded a respectable place in the region and beyond.

They reckon the Islamic Republic has been more Islamic and less Republican in its use of religion, or its form of Shiism, as a way to advance the interest of the regime. As one argued, Iran has been “hijacked by a mad ideology and its adepts, who claim they have discovered the ultimate version of Truth and regard it as their duty to impose that Truth on all mankind”.

Kissinger remains outspoken on international affairs despite his age (92), and surprisingly, remains quite respected in official circles although he’s proven wrong or reckless about the important issues of the day. And this month he weighed in against the Iran nuclear deal. And once again, to quote the State Department spokesperson, he merely used “big words and big thoughts” without providing a viable alternative.

Along with another former Secretary of State, George Shultz, Kissinger argued that unlinking Iran’s nuclear programme from political restraint would be seen in the region as acquiescing to Iranian hegemony. They share similar views with Dick Cheney who also condemned US President Barack Obama for weakening America and strengthening Iran. All three have supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Until the US figures out if it’s a republic or an empire and acts accordingly, neither Obama nor the next Bush will be able to resolve the contradictions between the two.


So why has the response to an agreement welcomed by the world powers been so hysterical to so many in Washington? After all, the deal does freeze all progress in Iran’s nuclear enrichment, reverses certain aspects of its programme, and denies it the nuclear weapon capability that allows it to achieve regional supremacy.

In short, the criticism is politically and ideologically motivated and is directed at the president himself. It comes from the same school that’s been bitingly critical of Obama’s “naive”, “light”, “ignorant”, and “failed” policy in the Middle East.

President with a cause

Contrary to its opponents, the proponents of a nuclear deal have been mostly timid and hesitant.

But since Obama has staked his foreign policy legacy on reaching a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme, he’s been its most vocal and coherent defender. 

The curator-in-chief has made it clear that among the three choices facing America: more sanctions (that proved insufficient to stop Iranian enrichment), starting another regional war, and diplomatic solution based on lifting the sanctions, he chooses the latter. Not because it’s ideal, as he admitted, but because it’s “extraordinarily reasonable”.

Obama reckons the US has a partner in President Hassan Rouhani because his vision of a prosperous Iran entices the Iranian regime to reach a deal that fulfils the minimum requirement of the US and its partners in the P5+1.

Like any agreement, the chances of the nuclear agreement are also driven by leverage and helped by the right timing. 

In terms of leverage, Obama believes that lifting the sanctions is today an urgent national interest for Tehran considering their effect on its economy which has shrunk by 20 percent since 2010, as unemployment hovers around 20 percent, inflation at 25 percent, while Iran’s oil exports have been reduced by more than 50 percent.

And in terms of timing, it’s an opportune time for Tehran to break out of its isolation and normalise its relations with the West in order to take advantage of the weakness of its neighbours and the void of leadership in the Middle East to advance its own regional interests. 

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger [AP]

Projecting on Iran

The dominant US theories, policies and practices towards Iran diverge on whether to project its unilateral strategic military power or multilateral diplomatic economic influence. They split on whether to engage in negotiations or practise coercion and whether to mediate or intimidate. 

The US failure to apply military power in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran has weakened the Bush camp, just as failure to stem the tide of chaos and conflict in the Middle East over the past three years has weakened the Obama camp.

So what can Washington do to succeed?

Perhaps it can start by recognising how its policy towards Iran says more about the US than about the Middle East. This includes whether the US should be dependent on military or economic solutions, whether it should do nation building abroad or at home, and whether its diplomacy helps it as much as it helps Iran break out of its international isolation.

But Washington has been in denial or outright myopic when it comes to its own actions, standing and future.

I’ve noticed this denial in a recent conversation with former senior US diplomat James Jeffrey who works for the pro-Israeli think-tank, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

After quoting Kissinger’s mantra about why Iran choosing between being a country or a cause, I asked whether the same applies to the US: Whether it’s a country and a cause?

“You know, I have to stop with some amazement,” he said, and added: “I actually believe that and I lecture on that, I teach that at George Washington University, but you’re the first person who’s ever responded [with such provocation] – this quote of Kissinger’s is used a lot. Yes we are, and that is a complicating factor.”


Until the US figures out if it’s a republic or an empire and acts accordingly, neither Obama nor the next Bush will be able to resolve the contradictions between the two. 

After World War II, the US led in the world as an economic and military superpower with both aspects of its power feeding into each other. And after the Cold War ended, the US emerged as the only true superpower commanding both a triumphant world economic system and unparalleled global military imperium.

But much of that began to change after its invasion of Iraq and the 2008 economic crash under President George W Bush.

Obama’s attempts at safeguarding US prominence by acting less unilaterally and less imperially have instead complicated US foreign policy challenges and reduced its leverage in the Middle East and beyond.

And the reason is rather paramount.

As long as it commands hundreds of military bases and naval armadas throughout the world operating on a military budget that’s almost equal to the combined military budgets of all other major powers, the US will continue to be treated as the world’s policeman regardless of its president’s intentions.

The same goes for Americans. Like the rest of the world, they should also judge their country for what it is in reality not for what it portends or wishes to be.

PS, next: How liberal Zionists are projecting on Islam.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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