President Obama's global agenda, part two: Iran

By Hannes Artens


Dennis Ross, AIPAC’s mouthpiece, to become Obama’s Special Envoy for Iran? (Source: Time)

This article concludes with an appeal to all Agonistas, I kindly ask you to consider!

When I talked on speakerphone to a class of extraordinarily bright Cornell undergrads the week before the election I was, and still am, of the opinion that on November 4 actually two elections were decided: the one whose formidable outcome we’re still celebrating, but also the presidential – ok, not quite so, but for the sake of universal détente and in the absence of a single word to better describe its complexity, let’s call it – election in Iran next year. Here at The Agonist I have argued that the single most important signal heralding change and a new approach to the Middle East Barack Obama can send to Tehran, is to actually get elected. He did with flying colors, and heads are already spinning in Tehran how to react to this game changer of all changers.

Let me get this straight, I believe that if President Obama still has to deal with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad past June 2009, it is the clearest sign you can get that Iran is not interested in serious and honest negotiations but is on self-destruction mode. The hand Iran claims to be waiting for has been reached out. Now it’s up to Tehran to react. If they reject it, continue to play for time, or mandate a team for negotiations that cannot be understood but an overt provocation, we at least know where we are. Faced with the choice to either lead the Islamic Republic across into a multi-polar world, in which it could become a regional power, respected and dealt with at eye level by its peers, or go first into the abyss, I believe Iran will decide for a pragmatic opening. Theoretically, there is reason for optimism that the Supreme Leader will back a more moderate candidate for president in March (see Hossein Askari in Asia Times for an analysis and list of hopefuls), and that defusing the Iranian powder keg will rank among Barack Obama’s major historic accomplishments.

There, however, is one player with the potential to spoil things for us all, to rain on President Obama’s parade, and still make the horror scenario of The Writing on the Wall come true: AIPAC and its mouthpiece, Dennis Ross.

After thirty years of Cold War-like confrontation it is evident, the policy of containing Iran or triggering a counter-revolution through such obscure proxies as PJAK has not worked. No sanctions will ever force Iran into compliance, no aerial strikes can ever provide us with the certainty of having stopped its nuclear enrichment for good – let alone MAD, the resulting mutually assured destruction, Iran’s through “shock and awe,” the West’s through $10 per gallon at the pump. There simply is no alternative to talks, a realization five former secretaries of state – Henry Kissinger and James Baker among them – have supported Barack Obama to sell to the American public. Not only for the nuclear standoff but also in light of Barack Obama’s pledge to withdraw combat troops from Iraq by 2010, a new chapter of engagement with Iran is an imperative. The equation is as simple as that: no détente with Iran, no withdrawal form Iraq. Charles Knight and Chris Toensig sum it up on Commondreams:

Probably the most important and most difficult initiative, given American political attitudes, is to engage Iran and Syria in non-coercive “give-and-take” diplomacy addressing bilateral issues. The Iraq war has strengthened Iran’s position, not weakened it as the war’s architects once hoped. The policy of isolating Iran as a “rogue state” is no longer viable. If the United States is to make progress in exiting Iraq it must be willing to treat Iran as a peer state. This will be unwelcome news in Washington, but it is a reality the United States must deal with, and the sooner the better.”


No doubt, such a “give-and-take” diplomacy will require the US to make painful decisions. It will come down to nothing less but to recognize Iran as a regional power in the Persian Gulf. It will have to acknowledge that Iran has achieved its four major goals in Iraq, detailed by Robert Dreyfus: “(1) to ensure that Iraq would remain a weak, fragmented state that cannot pose a threat to Iran, (2) to prevent the return to power of the powerfully anti-Iranian Sunni bloc, (3) to guarantee that Iran’s Shiite majority would maintain a grip on the levers of power in Baghdad, and (4) that the United States not use Iraq as a launching pad for a regime-change strategy toward Iran.” America will also have to finally implement the Algiers Accords, signed by the US in 1981 but violated ever since, that prohibit any intervention in Iran’s internal affairs – farewell to the fetish of regime change of Michael “Mussolini Worshiper” Ledeen et al. Not to mention a substantial technologies shopping list Iran will present the US and the EU with in exchange for placing its nuclear program under strict IAEA inspection or, even better, outsourcing it to Russia or a regional consortium.

Quid pro quo, the US should draw its red lines in the sand. While Iran should enjoy all the rights the NPT grants non-nuclear weapons states – rights the Bush administration keeps denying Iran – re-enrichment to weapons grade can and will not be tolerated. But it can’t be done overnight. The IAEA is well-equipped and experienced enough to monitor Iran’s nuclear development for us. Once they raise the red flag, it’s five minutes to midnight. Five minutes, though, are enough for doing what has to be done then. In case the IAEA, and only the IAEA, proves beyond doubt that Iran attempts to re-enrich LEU to weapons grade, all necessary means will be employed to stop Iran going nuclear in its tracks. An absolutely certain outcome Iran should be left with no misgivings about from the first day of negotiations on.

A warning, I believe to be redundant, though, as the outlined “grand bargain” is what Iran has always played for, with loaded chips, no doubt. Together with Ray Takeyh, Trita Parsi and others I have maintained for a year and a day that Iran’s true objective is to use its nuclear program as a bargaining tool to coerce the US to sit down at the green table and negotiate a “North Korea+”-like deal. They don’t want to get their hands on a doomsday weapon, they want international respect. Now, with a president in the White House who sees things for the US in the Middle East as dire as they realistically are, Iran won’t squander this unique opportunity. George Bush’s ’03 war of choice has put Iran in such a strong position, now it is time for Tehran to close the deal.

The more so, as the current financial crisis hurts Iran as much as the US. Even at an oil price beyond $140 per barrel, the Iranian economy, featuring a youth unemployment of 45%, and inflation at 29%, had its back against the wall. More corrupt than Nigeria, and the state’s oil revenues having drained away in a self-service outlet for oligarchs worse than Gazprom, the ruling clerics find it increasingly hard to finance the pillar their power is based on, the Revolutionary Guards, to live in clover and still convince the masses of the social blessings of the Islamic Revolution. With global demand dwindling and crude at half of what it used to cost in summer, they are in as desperate a need for a bail-out as AIG (for a glimpse at the economic situation, see Parisa Hafezi’s piece at Reuters). Thomas Friedman may carry things a bit too far by comparing Iran to the about-to-implode USSR of 1989, but he’s got a point in low crude prices having forced the one and presumably forcing the other to consider Perestroika.

But what worries me most is neither Iran nor the once-powerful-now-comical neocons but the preponderance of “Clintonistas” in Barack Obama’s team. Rumor has it Obama will appoint Dennis Ross his Special Envoy for Iran. Picking John Bolton or Norman Podhoretz for that post could hardly be worse. Remember, this is the same Dennis Ross, who acted as AIPAC’s mouthpiece in the Clinton administration, and who, together with Martin Indyk, train-wrecked the Camp David II negotiations and the Geneva talks of 2000 with Hafez Assad (I keep recommending Clayton Swisher’s brilliant account of both, The Truth about Camp David). If it were not for Ross a Second Intifada may have never occurred and Israel may have signed a peace treaty with Syria eight years ago.

If appointed, Dennis Ross has the potential to become President Obama’s Douglas Feith. As if confirmation were necessary, he’s already up to no good. A month ago former Senators Daniel Coats and Charles Robb introduced a reputedly bipartisan recommendation for Iran, titled Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development. In truth, it was written by Michael Makovsky and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute. Jim Lobe introduces them:

Makovsky, of course, is the younger brother of David Makovsky, the former head and currently senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), which has acted more or less as a “think tank” for the so-called “Israel Lobby” over the 20-some years since it was created as a spin-off of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Michael, who reportedly emigrated to Israel in 1989, served under Doug Feith at the Pentagon where he was part of the team that helped manipulate the intelligence to facilitate the path to war in Iraq. Rubin, of course, also worked in Rumsfeld’s office at the same time.”


No surprise, this paper, which amounts to nothing less than “a roadmap to war with Iran” (Loeb), enjoys the full support of Dennis Ross and he’s actively lobbying for it among the Obama transition team.

The Clinton administration having been putty in AIPAC’s hands was the major reason why I opposed Hillary’s candidacy. Now we run risk of permitting those who thwarted her husband’s Middle East initiatives and who deliberately ignored the opportunities Mohammad Khatami’s presidency offered, to meddle things through the back door. Allow me to conclude this piece with a call for civic action:

I have outlined above that without Dennis Ross et al having a say in this White House a realignment with Iran might be within our reach, with him as Special Envoy for Iran prospects look much gloomier. Now I ask all of you to check Dennis Ross’ background, past politics, and the Meeting the Challenge-document. If after due consideration you think him running America’s Iran policy as disturbing as I, please spread the word about this possibly disastrous staffing decision and petition against it with the president-elect’s office. You, the grassroots, have proven to make a difference in this election cycle. But your task is far from completed with Barack Obama getting elected, war with Iran is not yet averted, and there still is a difference for you to make. Please do so and contribute to preventing Dennis Ross being appointed Special Envoy for Iran. Thank you.


Hannes Artens is the author of The Writing on the Wall, the first anti-Iran-war novel.

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  • when an increasing number of appointments were going to insiders of the Clinton administration. “Some change”, I thought. And now, with the possible appointment of Dennis Ross, Obama is sending all the wrong signals to the Arabs and Iranians who are already nervous about Barack Obama’s pro-Israeli chief of staff. Add to this that Rahm Emanuel was forced to apologize to Arab-Americans for his father’s remarks to an Israeli newspaper. This confirms my worst fears.

    Benjamin Emanuel talked about his son’s new job and told the Israeli daily Ma’ariv that “obviously he’ll influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn’t he? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to be mopping floors at the White House.”


    Tolerating prostitution is tolerating abuse and torture of women and children.

  • Together with Ray Takeyh, Trita Parsi and others I have maintained for a year and a day that Iran’s true objective is to use its nuclear program as a bargaining tool to coerce the US to sit down at the green table and negotiate a “North Korea+”-like deal. They don’t want to get their hands on a doomsday weapon, they want international respect.”

    with the caveat that the Iranians appear to want to get out of this with respect, a “North Korea+-like” deal, and at least a latent nuclear capability. Given the state of the game and their position, I just can’t see them accepting less than a significant enrichment capability (by definition one that would give them a breakout potential) on their sovereign territory. Don’t have very much insight into how much pressure there is to weaponize, however.

    “The absence of any US-Iran bilateral channel…may have the perverse effect of reinforcing Iranian interest in progressing in the nuclear realm so that the US will be forced to take it seriously and engage it directly.” ~ Richard Haass

  • “The Clinton administration having been putty in AIPAC’s hands ”

    Please name the recent aministrations who were not putty. If AIPAC were Russian (or Chinese) there’d be an outcry in Washington.

    And there are probably more peopl of Chinese origin in the US than…potential AIPAC members.

  • Recent administration I can’t name, true. It depends though, how you define recent. Jimmy Carter’s wasn’t and that’s why he got Camp David done – despite Menachem Begin grumbling throughout the entire summit.

  • I’d be happy, if it only were a bluster to calm Israel until Obama takes over. But the more I see, I fear this White House will be less revolutionary change than just Clinton-rehashed. On many aspects that might not be so bad, concerning the Middle East and Iran it would be disastrous.

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