What’s Farsi For ‘Cakewalk’?

Jennifer Rubin suggests a “reset” for Obama’s Iran policy:

There’s a Woody Allen joke that reminds us that everything our mothers told us was good for us — milk, sun and red meat — isn’t, actually. After a week of feckless Iran diplomacy and discussion with some very smart Iran gurus, I’m thinking we need to start asking whether that isn’t true about our policy based on economic sanctions and fruitless discussion with the Iranian regime.

In terms of the approach that Rubin derides as “feckless diplomacy”, Rubin might consider what Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar had to say about it: “The fact is that whatever gripes Republicans may have about Obama’s domestic policies, his diplomatic drive and consensus building in the international community has done considerable damage to the Iranian regime’s global standing, as well as its business interests.” According to Javedanfar, “after only two years in office, Obama has done more to undermine the regime of Ali Khamenei over the course of two years than George W. Bush did in eight.”

Likewise, Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji has said that Obama deserves some credit for the events upon which Rubin proposes to capitalize, praising Obama’s “change in discourse” for helping to create political space for the Green movement in Iran. The question now is how to help restore some of that space that has been retaken by the regime, and continue to increase it.


Javedanfar, Ganji, and quite a few other Iranians I’ve spoken to clearly don’t believe that discussions with the regime have been “fruitless.” But Rubin opposes continuing them, claiming that “we bestow an aura of legitimacy” on the regime by negotiating. I know this is a favorite notion of conservatives, but it really makes no sense. It’s not like we’re dealing with a government in exile or a nationalist insurgency. Iran’s is a government that is firmly in control of its territory, and thus not really requiring our legitimation.

While Rubin insists that, “So long as we are talking, we are more inclined to pull our punches on issues like human rights atrocities when we meet,” there is, again, no evidence that this is really true. We negotiated with the Soviets over nukes while still highlighting our differences in other areas. There’s no reason we can’t do the same with Iran (and my sense from talking to administration officials is that we are moving in that direction). Furthermore, continuing to talk with Iran provides us more potential leverage points on human rights than simply walking away and lecturing them from afar, which would actually alleviate the pressure that comes with being presented with real choices.

Set against allowing Iran even limited enrichment of nuclear materials, Rubin warns “the longer we talk, the more likely a ‘compromise’ of this type will emerge.” She later writes, however, that “there is no indication that the Iranian regime is capable of making a deal,” so I’m not really sure what the problem is.

I don’t disagree with some of what Rubin suggests, especially regarding elevating human rights in our approach and speeding the provision of anti-censorship tools to Iranian activists. Progressive organizations like CAP, National Security Network, The Century Foundation, and the National Iranian American Council have all been calling for these things for some time. But this doesn’t require “reset,” it just requires making it part of the agenda.

But then we get to what I think is the real point of the exercise, which is to begin to normalize the idea of yet another large-scale U.S. military intervention in the Middle East:

[W]e should begin to make the case and agree on a feasible plan for the use of force. When there is a credible threat of force — not occupation or invasion, but strikes sufficient to hobble Iran’s nuclear program, military and Revolutionary Guard — the decision-making calculus may change. What of the notion that the nation will rally around the flag if attacked? Well, that depends on the nature of the assault and, moreover, how far the regime has alienated the Iranian people by its serial killings, jailings and prison rapes. There is good reason to believe that a wide anti-government coalition views the regime as illegitimate and acting in ways contrary to its stated Islamic precepts. In these circumstances, an attack would serve as a tipping point rather than a rallying point.

Now read that again, and notice the extraordinary amount of work that conjecture is doing here. We’re talking, conservatively, weeks of bombing for “strikes sufficient to hobble Iran’s nuclear program, military and Revolutionary Guard,” weeks in which a lot of extremely bad things could, and very likely would, happen. And I’m unaware of any such episode ever occurring in the history of strategic bombing where the population under attack directed their rage at their government, rather than at the people bombing them.


Indeed, having observed how and under what pretenses neighboring Iraq was attacked, many Iranian dissidents are nervous about U.S. plans for their country, that the same people who brought us the Iraq carnage will use “support Iranian democracy!” as an excuse for attacking Iran. Akbar Ganji said that fear of U.S. military action had caused Iranian democracy activists to scale back some of their rhetoric:

“Since Iranians, in particular opposition groups, do not want to see a repeat of Afghanistan or Iraq in Iran,” Ganji said, “they’ve actually had to scale back their opposition to the government in order not to encourage an invasion [by the U.S.]”

Ganji was adamant that talk of a U.S. military option was harmful to the cause of Iranian democracy. “If you do not have the threat of foreign invasion and you do not use the dialog of invasion and military intervention, the society itself has a huge potential to oppose and potentially topple the theocratic system,” Ganji said. “What I’m trying to get to is that jingoistic, militaristic language used by any foreign power would actually be detrimental to this natural evolution of Iranian society.”

Human rights activist Shirin Ebadi was less equivocal:

“The military option will not benefit the U.S. interest or the Iranian interest,” said Ebadi. “It is the worst option. You should not think about it.” Ebadi said, “The Iranian people — including myself — will resist any military action.”

Now, when a Nobel peace prize-winning anti-regime activist tells me that she’d react to an American attack on her country by joining the anti-American resistance, I listen.


Ebadi said an attack on Iran “would give the government an excuse to kill all of its political opponents, as was done during the Iran-Iraq war,” and suggested that the government probably wouldn’t mind an attack for precisely that reason.

Responding to Rubin’s piece via email, another Iranian human rights activist (who preferred to remain anonymous because s/he has family remaining in Iran) wrote: “It is precisely this sort of reaction that makes many of us very wary of speaking out about the Iran situation frankly here [in the U.S.] We’re never quite sure who you are talking to and what they take away.”

As Ali Gharib commented recently, talk of “air strikes” are for Iran what “cakewalk” was for Iraq — the false idea that, through large-scale preventive military action, the U.S. can accomplish its goals with a minimum of fuss. It was a fantasy then, and it’s a fantasy now. As Brookings’ Ken Pollack noted, “Once the United States starts a war with Iran — and launching air strikes will be war — it is impossible to know how it will end, and what would be required of Washington to end it.”

Maybe there are Iranian democrats who support the U.S. bombing their country, I’d love to hear from them. But I think we’ve gotten far too casual about proposing these sorts of attacks. If we’re going to talk about it, let’s at least talk about it seriously, recognizing that very many people will very likely die. They deserve a lot better than than you know, if everything goes just right, it just might work!

And frankly, so do we.