Stopping an ominous Iran

For nearly 40 years, I have taught Modern Middle Eastern History and Politics at Emory University. I follow the contemporary Middle East as a passionate devotee of behavior, precedents, and historical perspective.  When my Arab-Israeli conflict course cranks up this semester, most of my students will arrive without too much knowledge of the region.  Like always, my students will yank me into discussions about contemporary events like the Iran deal; I will resist until they are grounded in historical context.  

And then here is what I will tell them:   

As the son of rural Orthodox German-Jewish immigrants whose families lost so much because of Hitler’s destruction and displacement of Jews, and who was raised on Truman, Kennedy, Javitz, Rockefeller, and Johnson, my personal political instincts have always led me to lean center or center-left, especially with regard to civil rights, the role of government, and the liberal idealist sensibilities that engagement and dialogue achieves more than confrontation and conflict. I looked to Scoop Jackson as my benchmark for foreign affairs.

{mosads}While growing up, ignorance and indifference were not valued virtues. My parents voraciously engaged in America because they were excluded systematically in the Germany of their youth.  My mother at age six in the 1920s was yelled at by the Aryan teacher during bible learning periods, “Juden Raus.” She and her mates were forced to stand in the wintry cold halls of the public school until shouted at to return to class.  At least my mother and father and their parents got out of Germany. 

Iran is not Nazi Germany – at least not yet – but its history of hatred and repression combined with its economic and military might – and its willingness to use that might to expand its sphere of influence – is perhaps the most dangerous in the world today.   Add to that history the reality that this deal validates Iran’s nuclear program, enshrines Iran as a threshold nuclear weapons state and almost guarantees it can build its own weapons unhindered by international constraints in fifteen years. and the prospects for this Iranian regime to become the Nazi Germany of the 21st Century will become more real every single day.

There was a time when it appeared the president thought the same way.  I listened carefully to his remarks in Jerusalem in March 2013, when he said, “the position of the United States of America [is] clear: Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained.”  Until now, the president never put a time limit on these constraints – his commitment was “not now not ever.”

Statements like that and others made me think the president and his team understood the history of the Iranian regime in the Middle East and elsewhere and that if he was to proceed with negotiations and an eventual agreement, that statement would be a guiding force in any deal he would bring back to the American people.

But I was mistaken. 

In the interest of securing any deal rather than the right deal – politics over principle – the president and the diplomats he sent to negotiate seem to have forgotten or perhaps never learned why Iran must not get a nuclear weapon.  Did they forget nor not understand this Iranian Shia regime despises 90 perrcent of the Moslem world? Did we ignore our Sunni Arab allies who have political shivers about past, present, and future Iranian hegemonic intentions?  Did we not learn from the Iraqi and Afghani engagements that political borders in the Middle East are only suggestions and that Iran will cross those borders to kill American soldiers? Who believes that Iran will in the future treat its border with Iraq like we do with Canada? Do we not see that Iran is already a “Mediterranean” country, with tentacles stretching across Iraq, into Syria and Lebanon?  Did we forget conveniently that Iran and its supported surrogates, killed more than 250 marines, diplomats, French soldiers, and others in Beirut in 1983? Does it matter that Iranian operatives killed Jews in Argentina in 1994, in Bulgaria in 2012, or are constantly shipping weapons to Hezbollah or Hamas who want to see Israel vaporized?  Does it matter that this Iranian regime is supporting Syria, one the world’s most murderous regimes of its own people, and has routinely threatened to wipe Israel off the face of the earth?  Does it matter that the US is referred to as “the Great Satan?”  Perhaps the concern should not be a nuclear threat to others in the region but to us right here in the U.S.?

This deal negates historical context, allows Iran to have a pathway to a nuclear breakout, walks back containment, legitimizes a nefarious regime, and gives Tehran desperately wanted sanctions relief.  What has Iran historically done to warrant a “Get out of Jail Free Card?”  Where is the incentive for Iran to change its regional political behavior, even slightly?  With a new lease on longevity, this oil-rich Iranian regime can reshape the map of the Middle East in a manner not seen last since WWI. 

At some point within the next couple of weeks, when we suspend the syllabus for a day or two, and the class engages in a vigorous debate about the Iran deal and its impact on the region, the merits of negotiations with incentives will be weighed as a means to tone down hostile attitudes. Will the students grasp the notion that past actions are acutely indicative of future behavior?

I will remind them that when the Iranian regime negotiated this deal it knew that the Obama administration’s clock was ticking; for that reason Iranian negotiators have operated with a decade calendar; prolonging these negotiations through the last three, two-term presidents, finally wearing down the last of them. The American people and the congress cannot leave this foreign policy to this president alone; he exits in 500 days.

In his American University speech, the president, the fiercest advocate for this agreement, described the Iranian regime as “dangerous and repressive.” He said, we should “continue to have sanctions in place on Iran’s support for terrorism and violation of human rights?”  Without those sanctions, it looks like greater hatred, more proxy violence, more unrest for a region already awash with enormous instability, and an ominous existential threat to Israel.

Stein teaches Middle Eastern History and Political Science at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.


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