Unsurprisingly for someone who used to work in the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, Michael Rubin’s latest bit of spadework for an eventual U.S.-Iran war is built upon a combination of questionable assumptions and untruths. I count two in the very first paragraph:
Within days of [Obama's] election, the State Department began drafting a letter to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intended to pave the way for face-to-face talks. Then, less than a week after taking office, Obama told al-Arabiya’s satellite network, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” The president dispatched former Defense Secretary William Perry to engage a high-level Iranian delegation led by a senior Ahmadinejad adviser.
Last week, Laura Rozen reported that, over the past year, Secretary Perry ““and a group of high-level U.S. nuclear nonproliferation specialists and U.S. experts on Iran held a series of meetings in European cities with Iranian officials under the auspices of the Pugwash group,” an international organization that focuses on preventing armed conflict. While it’s possible that Obama was aware of the Pugwash meetings, the claim that Perry was “dispatched” there by President Obama is simply false. Indeed, it’s unclear how President Obama could have “dispatched” Perry to conferences that had been ongoing since before Obama was elected. While these sorts of meetings can lead to official negotiations, they are not themselves official negotiations, despite Rubin’s attempt to treat them as such in order to buttress his claim that “Washington and Tehran have never stopped talking.”
Rubin’s claim that President Obama was “drafting a letter to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” is also false. According to the Guardian, which broke the story, Obama’s letter — the existence of which the administration has not confirmed — “would be addressed to the Iranian people and sent directly to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or released as an open letter.” This makes sense, as it is Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, who actually controls Iranian foreign policy, a fact Rubin elides throughout his piece.
Miscasting Ahmadinejad as the Decider is a pretty common feature of the neoconservative discourse on Iran. It’s easy to understand why. The bombastic president makes a much better foil than the reclusive supreme leader, a more bankable villain for the neocons’ action-thriller approach to foreign policy. I’m pretty sure Rubin knows who’s in charge — unlike many of his neocon trenchmates, Rubin actually has some serious knowledge about the region of the world that they would like to transform through violence — so it’s unfortunate that he feels he needs to play at this kind of thing.
Rubin’s overall argument is that numerous past attempts to better the U.S.-Iran relationship have failed, so the U.S. should just take no for an answer. What then? Rubin doesn’t say. But, of course, we’re not talking about getting over a crush here. The United States can’t just go get drunk with its buddies and try to make itself feel better by establishing relations with some random other country it just met. We work in Iran’s neighborhood. We’re going to see Iran around a lot. Simply abandoning outright the goal of bettering the relationship has serious negative implications for the U.S., the Middle East, and the world, which is one reason why five former U.S. secretaries of state are in favor of increased U.S.-Iran talks.
Among other things, talks — at any level — are useful for probing areas of possible agreement, and for generating information about the perceptions and misperceptions of both sides. Hardline conservative elements in Iran are clearly nervous about this prospect. They sense the danger of losing one of their most treasured and effective propaganda tools: the fear of an aggressive, inflexible United States.
It’s true that Iran has responded unfavorably to past U.S. overtures, as Rubin is at pains to point out. But it’s also true, as Rubin for some reason neglects, that the U.S. has itself responded unfavorably to past Iranian overtures, most notoriously when President Bush thanked Iran for its help in Afghanistan by putting them in the “axis of evil.”
Willingness to talk is not a sign of America’s weakness, it’s a sign of our confidence and strength. It may be that, after a concerted effort, we discover that there is no accommodation to be reached between our two countries. But we haven’t nearly reached that point yet. And fear of rejection is not a sound basis for foreign policy.