Iran From 10,000 Feet

Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could.

This column appears in the February 2nd, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press.

Trunk to tail the elephants circle the ring while the four remaining clowns in the circus vamp, weep and honk their noses to the delight of the audience. The train travels from Iowa to New Hampshire, and then makes its way down the coast to Florida where the most recent performance went off without a hitch. With dozens more appearances planned for the upcoming weeks, the greatest show on Earth promises to keep the masses entertained for months to come.

Outside the alternate reality that is the American election season, however, a gathering storm is rapidly approaching, threatening to rip the stakes from the ground and bring the tent down upon all of us.

The deadliest game of chicken in history is being played in dark alleys with no headlights. Two cars careen toward each other, Iran in one and Israel in the other, while the world huddles close to see which one of them blinks first. But we are all more than spectators in this deadly contest, we are participants. The ever-expanding concentric circles of conflict that began with the Mossad and Hezbollah, extended to neighboring nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Syria, now encapsulate the United States, Europe, Russia and China.

In short, the stage is set for World War III. Damn, those Mayans were good!

Because the economy is still in the center ring, however, it’s the primary show the audience focuses on. We can see shadowy figures moving about in the periphery. We know they’re there, but our attention is diverted for the moment. Humanity be damned, it’s still the economy, stupid. It’s why every pronouncement of war, every threat to prevent a nuclear Iran, includes references to the disruption of the global oil supply.

But exactly how do you quantify the potential ramifications of a complete breakdown in both production and supply of oil in the Middle East, and more specifically Iran? The second oil shock of the 1970s, beginning with an Iranian oil-workers’ strike in 1978 and continuing through the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, is a useful portent of financial catastrophe. This two-year flare-up resulted in skyrocketing oil prices that reached $38 per barrel in 1980. Adjusted for today’s dollars, that’s around $90 per barrel.

Think about that for a moment. If the equivalent figure of $90 today thrust the global markets into utter chaos and drove the world deeper into recession in 1980, what effect would a new shock today have on the global economy, considering oil is consistently trading around $100 per barrel today? Obama doesn’t need to ask Jimmy Carter how that would work out.

This is why Europe and America have been rallying support to increase economic sanctions on Iran while Israel continues its effective covert assault on the power structure in Tehran. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner recently visited China to ask for their participation in a global embargo on trading with Iran. The problem there, of course, is that China receives approximately 10 percent of its oil from Iran—a figure projected to grow steadily over the next couple of decades as China attempts to break the coal habit. Geithner’s reception was as chilly as it was when he asked the Chinese to adjust their undervalued currency in an effort to stabilize the balance of trade between our nations. Add to the mix that China has no moral or political allegiance to Israel, and it’s easy to understand why Geithner would have had better luck talking to the Great Wall of China than its ruling class.

The political calculus in Washington is as complicated as ever. Obama has been able to walk the tightrope between America’s hawks and isolationists by surging our forces in Afghanistan while withdrawing them from Iraq, and allegedly killing Osama bin Laden while entertaining the possibility of dialogue with Tehran. Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could. But time is running out as the election draws ever nearer, which is why the war rhetoric is beginning to intensify. This diplomatic squeeze is lost only on mouth-breathing Americans whose eyes are glued to the spectacle in the center ring, as they await the outcome of each GOP primary as if it matters. The rest of the planet has adjusted to the darkness as it watches these war preparations very, very closely.

Here’s the current score. Europe has taken a decidedly aggressive stance by leading the way with harsh economic sanctions on Iran forcing the United States to follow suit perhaps more than it might have otherwise. China and Russia have little to gain by punishing Iran as they trade openly. Israel is not above taking matters into its own hands and striking Iran’s nuclear facilities but it requires more assurance from the United States that we will back its play. The less-than-cozy relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thwarts Israel’s next move, because acting unilaterally without U.S. support is as suicidal as doing nothing may someday prove to be.

 Saudi Arabia, which shares access to the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, also has little patience for Iran’s shenanigans; but it, like Iran’s allies in the area, has its own political and economic issues, and can hardly afford a conflict with any of the region’s stakeholders.

We are witnessing one of the greatest standstills of all time. The deciding vote, however, will likely come from none of the nations mentioned here because a new, more powerful force has emerged in the global landscape with the ability to tip the scales: the people.

From Occupy to the Arab Spring, the past year has shown that the most influential voice in world politics is that of the people. In this new interconnected world, the Iranian government’s clandestine policies and shadowy behavior are anachronistic. That’s not to say Israel and the United States don’t understand this potential, as both admit to stoking tensions within Iran to mobilize its youth in the hopes that they will lead to yet another revolution. If a fruit vendor in Tunisia can set off a series of events that changed the Arab world forever, the same can even happen in a nation as mysterious and closed-off as Iran. Dictators can be ousted and regimes can be toppled without deploying the U.S. military.

It’s why an untimely show of force against Iran would undermine the Iranian people’s naturally occurring dissatisfaction, shown by their willingness to protest the regime’s fraudulent elections and its hard-line stances that have wrought such economic hardship. This phenomenon has been occurring even before the most recent round of rigorous sanctions. In practice, imposing more stringent sanctions or military action may have the opposite of the desired effect by coalescing support for the Iranian government from within. Given the Iranians’ already poor economic circumstances, they may in fact see little distinction between enduring harsh sanctions and a blistering show of force.

Critics of the Obama administration have likened his stance on Iran as akin to that of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler with the Munich Pact in 1938. They claim that the United States is being hoodwinked by Iran’s leadership who will immediately use nuclear weapons against Israel once they possess the capability to do so. Most who have written about the subject, however, believe this is folly, but that it’s better to have an Iran without nukes than one with them. In the meantime, the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction might take a backseat to the mutually assured production of oil. In my mind, the specter of nuclear warfare is a singular endgame issue, not an ongoing strategic battle that dismisses the Chamberlain/Hitler analogy in favor of Kennedy/Kruschev. When both men drew their lines in the sand and realized the lines were in exactly the same spot, everyone knew where they stood during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Because the current leaders of Iran have publicly stated that they are committed to annihilating the state of Israel, they have legitimized the world’s fear of a nuclear Iran. But I would submit that the world doesn’t have an Iran problem, it has an Ahmadinejad problem. Were the U.S. to declare unequivocally that we will use force if Iran’s president denies UN inspectors in Iran or we discover that they have developed the capacity to use nuclear technology beyond domestic energy production, we would hardly be blamed for being the aggressor. But perhaps we should re-examine the role of sanctions and look at things differently because a free and prosperous people have a much greater ability to dictate policy in Iran than we outsiders ever will.

A desperate population with nothing to lose alters the equation of Mutually Assured Destruction and interrupts the natural evolution of the Arab Spring. It’s time to reverse the antiquated notion that a forcibly impoverished nation is ultimately obsequious to those nations that suppress it. President Obama should call upon the Congress and the world to lift all economic sanctions on Iran because sanctions starve the people, not the government. Moreover, the people have proven they know how to seize the opportunity for self determination.

Then we can all go back to watching the circus.

 

Main Photo: Associated Press

Life After bin Laden

A successful war effort, if ever there was one, has always been forged in the extreme premise of good versus evil; a supposition made ever clearer when an antithetical figure looms large in our national imagination.

Osama bin Laden's compound in PakistanAs a resident of Manhattan at the time of the 9/11 attacks, both the enormity and the proximity of this tragedy rendered me almost childlike in my response. There was no precedent in my life against which I could benchmark my feelings, nor any reservoir of wisdom wrought from similar circumstances that could place the unthinkable events of that day in any useful emotional context. The initial shock gave way to overwhelming emptiness on a scale wholly unfamiliar to me—feelings that left me bizarrely searching for some sort of parental guidance from our government. In the days, weeks and years that followed, there was plenty on hand.

The Bush administration, unfit on so many levels to direct the social and economic aspects of governance, was somehow uniquely suited to administering a punishing response to al-Qaida, the Taliban and all those who would defy America in our pursuit of justice. Judgment Day would be leveled upon our enemies with a medieval ferocity married with modern precision. Of this we were sure. And not only were we kept abreast of our military response with clarity and immediacy, but we were told how to feel. It was OK to be angry, for ours was a shared tragedy. Our sadness was collective and our resolve singular. One nation, under God.

Now the object of our malevolence is gone. When my wife awoke me on Sunday night to watch as President Obama informed the nation that an elite American force had finally located and killed Osama bin Laden, I was bleary-eyed and confused. This wasn’t at all how I imagined this moment would be. Frankly, I had lost faith that it would ever come. Osama bin Laden had almost ceased to be real, becoming some sort of metaphoric touchstone for the War on Terror. His deeds would always be perpetuated by our inability to capture him and our shame would grow with each passing day. Catching or killing the man that embodied our terror and consumed a nation with fear for the better part of a decade seemed distant and implausible. In many ways, I wasn’t sure it even mattered any longer—because so much had transpired since Sept. 11, 2001 that any sudden manifestation of the man himself would be almost too complicated and painful to contemplate. Osama bin Laden had officially become the bogeyman. His re-emergence or death would inspire too many questions and bring forward too many painful memories buried deep within our subconscious selves.

Americans are hard-wired in such a way that having a villain allows us to compartmentalize our emotions, thereby narrowing our actions and behaviors to a series of Pavlovian responses. A successful war effort, if ever there was one, has always been forged in the extreme premise of good versus evil; a supposition made ever clearer when an antithetical figure looms large in our national imagination. Figures such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Osama bin Laden were so absolute in their contrast to the American zeitgeist that their very existence allowed America to tacitly define itself as their theoretical opposite. The specter of bin Laden, more than the man, allowed the Bush administration to define itself as the antidote to terror, thereby becoming the natural incarnation of liberty and the ultimate arbiter of any global conflict that challenged our notion of freedom, a right characterized less by what we stood for than by what we fought against.

As we awake, hung over from our 10-year drunken binge of warfare and rage, what are we to make of bin Laden’s death? Our youth has been so inculcated by the steady drumbeat of anti-terrorism messaging that many took to the streets in celebration immediately following the pronouncement of bin Laden’s demise. Inchoate explanations of his whereabouts all these years and our inability to locate him even with the most sophisticated technology and intelligence has left many Americans somewhat wary of the information given to us so abruptly. I believe this is because for the first time in nearly a decade the message was delivered absent the hyperbole that has typically accompanied news of bin Laden and the War on Terror. And so we are left on our own to digest and make sense of not only the news of his death, but the world that he forever altered and has now thankfully left behind.  

The innocent victims of 9/11 are avenged, to be sure. If ever there was one seminal event that would resemble closure, this is the moment. But the hardship and grief stemming from the two wars that ensued and the lives that were lost or forever changed cannot be assuaged by any one action. The men and women sickened from working on the “piles” for days and weeks, sifting through the toxic debris, cannot be healed. Our trust in Pakistani leadership has been shattered. Our reason for waging war cannot be easily explained away.

The near-simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were proffered to the American people as a sort of Sophie’s Choice. Osama bin Laden placed us in unforgiving territory where carnage seemed guaranteed by both inaction and war. Now we are faced with the realization that these decisions were made in a world gone mad, ushered in by a true madman who now rests in disgrace somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. And we are left to pick up the pieces, haunted by our actions, unsure of how to feel and forever mourning the victims of 9/11.