Preparing for Iranian Hegemony in the Middle East

Newsweek has all but officially become the pulp-based mouthpiece of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Obama administration's inner sanctum of advisers.

Following the first official U.S. diplomatic effort with Iran on October 1, a few Westerners realized that Iranian hegemony in the Middle East was virtually assured by the Geneva P5 plus 1 sit-down.  Iran had proven itself a rational actor on the geopolitical stage by simply passing a letter to the Council on Foreign Relations to be handed to President Obama's foreign policy team in early September.  In that letter, Iran agreed to assume the role of a regional superpower through a process of engagement.  The fact that Iran's new nuclear facility near Qom was not a bombshell in the international community indicated that the world readily accepted Iran's rejection of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime's rules in defiance of the sanctions it was facing from the international community.  In so doing, Iran beat Western leaders to the nuclear punch, agreed to set up token inspections, and set the world on a new axis. 

It was not surprising, to me, then, when I saw a recent cover for Newsweek:  AFTER IRAN GETS THE BOMB It Won't Be The End Of The World...  It surprised me even less to see the name Fareed Zakaria in the vortex of a mushroom cloud under the title.   What did surprise me, however, was Zakaria's confident assertion that Iran's historic role in the region was "as a crossroads of commerce and capitalism."  Really?  When did that happen?  I could have sworn that capitalism required individual liberty. 

The actual title of Fareed Zakaria's article was "Containing a Nuclear Iran: Forget Force and Sanctions.  It's Time to Get Real."   Zakaria surmises that any American tough talk of attacking Iran is a hollow threat, since Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defence, assessed that militarily striking Iran's nuclear capabilities would only delay the reality of a Nuclear Iran.  Well, once you chuck regime change off the table, I guess this is a truism.  In that case, the belief that all options remain on the table with Iran is a delusion, a chimera.  The moment Iran proved itself a rational actor in its passing of the engagement agreement in early September to CFR, it proved that regime change would be an unthinkable option to the Obama Administration.  Why would Obama's administration want to change a rational regime?  Wouldn't that make it the tyrant? 

So, now that Iran is a rational actor, it has some legitimate security concerns.  "They live in a neighborhood surrounded by nuclear powers - Israel, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan."  Not only a rational actor, the Islamic Republic of Iran is also, according to Zakaria, our shunned ally in the War on Terror.  In reference to George W. Bush's decision to place Iran with Iraq and North Korea on the Axis of Evil list, Zakaria states that "The Bush administration did needlessly alienate Iran right after Tehran had cooperated to oust the Taliban."   Yet, while it may be true that Iran somehow helped the early American war effort in Afghanistan, from 2001 to 2003 how many headlines found their way onto the front pages of newspapers and magazines in the West, heralding Iran's open support of America's efforts to mop up the Taliban in Afghanistan, while it shunned talks with America, officially?   America is the ogre to Zakaria.

The self-loathing continues when Zakaria notes that America has apologized for its role in the 1953 coup, one of Madeleine Albright's nonstarter gifts to the logjam of diplomatic talks between the US and Iran.  In a blink, Iran's recent regimes, which "rebuffed the outstretched hand" of American talks every time it was offered, had good cause to remain skeptical of American assurances.  Quickly, Zakaria rattles off the need to maintain the course already in progress - sustained containment and deterrence.  Apparently, somehow, we are going to keep Iran in its self-made box "until the regime becomes much more transparent and cooperative on the nuclear issue."  To accomplish this nimble task will require the U.S. diplomatic corps to perhaps "maintain the current sanctions" for leverage, reject new sanctions like a gasoline imports embargo, and to actively work to align Sunni nations with Israeli interests against a nuclear Iran.   

Zakaria virtually shouts that Israel's 200 nuclear warheads and second strike capability turn an Iranian nuke into a puny threat, effectively deterred from attacking Israel.  "Deterrence worked with madmen like Mao, and with thugs like Stalin, and it will work with the calculating autocrats of Tehran."  Will it?  If regime change is off the table, how long will it be before deterrence gives way to support?   In the shadow of an Iranian nuclear test, which is more likely - a Sunni-Israeli alliance of deterrence or a region wide nuclear arms race?  Is it likely that Iran will recognize the nuclear test ban treaty?  Not to worry, Zakaria has the ultimate solution - Iran's regime need only understand "how much it stands to gain by embracing the modern world."  What a relief.  All sorts of reasonable questions about the implications of doing business with a country that supports terror were dangerously rolling around in my head until I realized that Iran was just going through its adolescent rebellion phase. 

This enlightened Iranian regime would be more apt to be transparent and open in its nuclear program, and "would view trade and contact with the West as a virtue, not a threat.  It would return Iran to its historic role as a crossroads of commerce and capitalism, as one of the most sophisticated trading states in history, and a place where cultures mingled to produce dazzling art, architecture, poetry, and prose."  Zakaria's romantic notions of Iran are positively unfounded; yet, he does not skip a beat in asking "Can the West do anything to help the current regime evolve into something more open, modern, and democratic?"  Now, we owe it to Iran to bring it back to its former glory that was stolen by Western designs on the resources of Persian land.  Reality disappears, fizzles and poisons like a silvern track mark of stuck mercury, with the glycerine purity of Hezbollah resistance war crimes and Mahdist strategic depth in the oppressed classes of the Muslim World.  Forget Zakaria's earlier notion that Iran's nuclear ambitions are a problem, or that the regime's foreign policy "which has involved support for militias and terrorist groups - make it a destabilizing force in the region."   All Iran needs is help to remember her Capitalist roots! 

Amazed, I headed down to the bookstore to see what Zakaria was really peddling. 

It didn't take long for me to come to Vali Nasr's new book, Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World.  Lo and behold!  On the cover of the September 2009 release is a blurb by Fareed Zakaria: "A brilliant guide to the complex landscape of the Middle East...about the good news made not by governments but by people.  The rise of trade, capitalism, and merchant life is the most important trend at work there, one that could counter the pernicious force of religious extremism."  Vali Nasr is also the author of a best seller called The Shia Revival and has recently worked as an advisor to Dennis Ross, Obama's right hand man on Iran.  The Shia Revival was an instant portrait of Iran and the Shia Crescent; it became a classic the moment it was released.  I still think it an excellent resource.  However, it was written in a time before he was in a position of influence, in consultation with the Oval Office. 

Leslie Gelb, the CFR president emeritus, whom Zakaria quotes in his article, has a back panel blurb on Forces of Fortune: "Take American chips away from the endlessly hypocritical and fruitless diplomatic games and rhetoric, our weakest hand, and put the chips on our strength - helping Middle Eastern and Muslim countries with economic growth.  That's the way to ultimately defeat terrorists, build the middle classes, loosen ties to Arab autocrats, and develop democracies.  That's Vali Nasr's brilliant message.  It's the only way to rescue U.S. foreign policy from disasters."  Senator John F. Kerry, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, touts the book as a must read. 

Without opening the book, I paid the teller and headed home.

It didn't take long to come to the new reality being framed by Nasr.   On pages 83 and 84 of Force of Fortune, Nasr makes the argument for easing sanctions on Iran in order to guarantee the possibility that a commercial middle class might someday arise.  "Sanctions are not the way to help this process along" Nasr posits. 

Like Zakaria, Nasr makes the argument that Iran was a center of commerce in the region at its Persian root.  Nasr goes further, blaming western colonial activity and sanctions for driving out the commercial leaders that could foment change in Iran, while carefully describing the Iranian form of populist co-ops under the current Islamic Establishment, which have, for thirty years, oppressively punished the wealthy in progressive taxation, and created an underground smuggling syndicate, which openly flouts sanctions and works in Dubai, Iraq and Afghanistan with abandon...all under the control of the IRGC, which gets rich in the protection tax biz. 

Nasr's challenge was a tall order.  It is a fine line to support the need for economic stimulus in Iran via capitalism in order to provide an abstract solution for the nuclear threat of a Mahdist leadership in Tehran, while serving an administration in D.C., whose entire platform in both foreign and domestic policy is based on creating oppressive, anti-business, populist economic measures that mirror the oppressive Iranian economy which enslaved or drove out the wealthy elite in Iran in the first place. 

Co-ops are apparently all the rage - Iran's got ‘em, Venezuela is sponsoring a full blown revolution with ‘em, and Obama has the American public considering their value in the Health Care dustup, while his Chief of Staff crafts the final bill behind closed doors - populist measures are by nature, after all, not typically transparent things (though sometimes they contain a public option). 

How did Vali Nasr walk this fine line?  He baskets the words "capitalism" and "commerce" together, just as Zakaria surprisingly did in his article, blurring the line between free market Capitalism, Shariah Compliant Finance, Mercantilism, Trade, Commerce, and underground smuggling syndicates.  With a casual stroke, Zakaria and Nasr orchestrate a dramatic revision of history, frame a new diplomatic reality, take America down a peg, and guarantee the eradication of all efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran.  Capitalism, in this frame, is no longer an exceptional mechanism of free market trade based on individual liberty and property rights.  Capitalism, the fuel of America's economic dominance for two centuries, is now, just another type of commerce, or a diplomatic tool to be dangled like a carrot to gather bi-partisan support.  However, placing a populist veil over Iranian commerce and calling it capitalism does not wash in the ethical battlefield.

In full, Fareed Zakaria and Vali Nasr have utilized Newsweek as a CFR megaphone, amplifying the new paradigm of US-Iranian relations revolving around the Islamic Establishment's new superpower status in the Middle East, heralding the return of an evolutionary merchant class, whose rise will change the face of Iran and liberalize the hard-line stances of an Iranian Regime on the verge of achieving its right to nuclear power.   

Interestingly, by default, these two influence peddlers have spelled out a new geopolitical reality -- regime change in Israel is now on the table.