Candidate Barack Obama’s most appealing campaign promise in 2008 involved his pledge to transform United States foreign policy from one relying on the perpetual use of force to one based upon the skillful application of bargaining and negotiation, the traditional tools of diplomacy. However, most peace activists were clear-headed enough to know that an Obama foreign policy would not be anti-imperial but they hoped that the US would not blunder into additional wars that would cost the lives and treasure of people all across the globe.
Six years of Obama foreign policy have been mixed at best. US troops are still in Afghanistan. The United States, under cover of NATO, helped destroy the authoritarian but stable government of Libya, leaving a fractured dysfunctional civil war in its place. Military advisors remain in several countries. Drones have targeted alleged enemies in multiple countries. And the United States has continued efforts to destabilize governments, for example in Venezuela.
On the other hand President Obama has committed the United States to a dramatic and significant negotiation process with Iran in conjunction with nations in the United Nations Security Council and Germany, the so-called P5+1. Iran has committed itself to a process of reducing nuclear weapons capabilities in exchange for the end of economic sanctions. Nuclear scientists believe the tentative agreement as reported is feasible and desirable. Prominent voices from the foreign policy community regard the agreement as significant; some say as significant as President Nixon’s agreements with the former Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China, both in 1972.
But Obama’s opening to Iran, potentially his most important foreign policy legacy, has generated outrage in the United States. For the more open-minded, a careful assessment of the impending Western/Iran agreement on the latter’s nuclear program needs to be examined referring to history, the contemporary Middle East/Persian Gulf context and the possibilities of tension reduction in the region that could come about because of the agreement. Finally, all of these factors need to be evaluated in the context of the domestic politics and the legacy of racism in the United States.
Historically the United States presence in the Persian Gulf/Middle East region expanded with its establishment of a permanent relationship with the region’s premier dictatorship and sponsor of violence, Saudi Arabia, at the end of World War II. President Roosevelt agreed to provide that country with arms and military support permanently in exchange for perpetual access to oil. Since then the Saudi Arabian government, in conjunction with other Gulf States, has funded terrorist actors in the region and destabilized regimes regarded as threats to its regional hegemony.
In addition to US ties with the Saudi dynasty, the United States supported the secular and brutal dictatorship of the Shah of Iran. His power was solidified in a CIA backed military coup in 1953 that ousted radical nationalist leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh, from power. The ousted leader had promoted the Iranian nationalization of its own oil industry. Subsequent to the U.S. coup, the Shah ruled his country with a heavy hand. By 1979, 70,000 political opponents were in Iranian jails and Iran had become the fifth largest military power in the world.
Then the catastrophe happened: Iranian workers and religious activists overthrew the Shah in 1979, thus threatening other regimes friendly to the US such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the flow of oil from the region to Europe, Japan, and the United States. US hostility to Iran escalated. The US hosted the ailing Shah for medical treatment and after Iranian students took US embassy personnel hostage, President Carter made it clear the United States would not return the Shah to Iran to stand trial for his crimes nor would the United States apologize for its role in putting the Shah in full control of his nation. Also, after the Iranian revolution, the United States gave large military support to Saddam Hussein’s military attack on Iran, leading to the eight-year Iran/Iraq war that cost over a million lives.
Also the United States backed Israeli military adventures against Lebanon and the Gaza strip where allies of Iran reside. Once this history is included, the troubled US/Iranian relationship, stripped of the conventional and overly-simplified narrative of Iran as a global supporter of terrorism and driven by religious extremism, becomes more understandable.
Today’s context makes the story even clearer. The Syrian civil war includes conflicts between anti-government factions supported by the Saudis, the United States, the Israelis, and a government supported by Iran and Russia. The Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), while a threat to Saudi hegemony in the region, is also a movement in opposition to the Iranian-backed Iraqi government, the Syrian government, and the horrific role the United States has played in the region at least since the Iraq war. Violence in the region is fueled by religious differences and the struggle for power between Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, the United States, and Israel versus Iran, the Syrian regime, Shiite backed governments, supporters of the Palestinian people such as Hamas, and Russia.
Given the enormous complexity of the history and context of US/Iranian relations in a region plagued by colonialism, neo-colonialism, the sixty year war between Israel and the Palestinian people and the spread of violence between states and within states, any efforts to negotiate tension-reduction and arms control and/or disarmament agreements among key players is vitally important. Further, Israel already possesses nuclear weapons. The seething caldron of violence and advanced weapons justifies fears of escalating regional and worldwide nuclear war,
While Obama’s campaign and periodic rhetoric about a more “pragmatic” foreign policy--negotiate rather than make war--has not been fully realized, the negotiations begun between the P5+1 and Iran in 2006 and expanded during the Obama administration, constitute an effort to defuse escalation to war in the most volatile region of the world and most sensible policy analysts endorse the effort. However, there is a domestic campaign in the United States to derail the US/Iranian negotiations for at least four reasons.
First, a possible long-term agreement tying Iranian dismantling of technologies that could be used to build nuclear weapons in exchange for the end of harsh US economic sanctions against Iran puts diplomacy ahead of force or the threat of force as the primary instrument of United States foreign policy. This diplomacy first approach, called here pragmatism, is fundamentally at odds with the neoconservative program articulated by foreign policy influentials who have acquired undue influence in Washington DC since the Reagan years. These are the Project for a New American Century elites, the neoconservatives, the key decision-makers who launched the Iraq War. They still believe the United States should use its military power to remake the world in its image. The most extreme spokespersons from this point of view in recent weeks have called for war on Iran.
Second, the pro-Israeli lobby is driven by the idea that Israel must remain the regional hegemon and the United States has an obligation to support Israel in every way, irrespective of the violence and instability it creates. For them, United States foreign policy should be guided in all its conduct by what such policy means for the state of Israel.
Third, a possible US/Iranian agreement can establish a very “bad example” for the future of United States foreign policy. A shift from guns, bombs, and drones first, to a foreign policy based primarily on diplomatic activity might lead peace advocates to renew their call for cuts in military spending. Neoconservative pundits and military-industrial complex spokespersons often frame their analyses in terms of “planning for the next war.” Preparation for war, they believe, should be the number one priority of United States foreign policy.
Finally, negotiations between the United States and Iran from the vantage point of domestic politics, that is Congress and the electoral process, is only marginally about international relations. The first priority of the United States Congress, presidential candidates, most of the Republican Party, and a sizable number of Democrats is about opposing everything President Obama does.
What gives fuel to this opposition in contradistinction to the old foreign policy norm of “bipartisanship” has to do with race. In addition to all the other factors noted above, racism has motivated much of the politics of opposition since 2008. Candidate Obama campaigned around the world in 2008 to enormous plaudits. In the United States his global appeal challenged the whole history of racism that has conditioned and distorted American political life. That is an extra burden this president has had to face in his foreign policy practice beyond mere partisan disputes about policy.
In the end, President Obama’s ability (with P5+1) to pursue and achieve an agreement with Iran might determine whether the world will see a global war in the coming years or declining violence in the Persian Gulf/Middle East region.
The mobilization of the peace movement in defense of a US/Iranian agreement, therefore, is a mobilization against the neoconservative agenda of perpetual war, Israeli hegemony, the military-industrial complex, and racism in the United States.