McCain on Iran: Bush all over again

An alarmist John McCain is using Iran as a political weapon against Barack Obama -- even as he misjudges our Middle East adversary.

Published June 19, 2008 10:59AM (EDT)

In the race for the White House, John McCain has trumpeted Iran as a paramount threat to the United States (and its close ally Israel), and has asserted that Iran will be the No. 1 foreign policy problem facing the next administration. McCain uses Iran as a prime example of what he depicts as his opponent Barack Obama's naive and guileless approach to U.S. foreign policy. Just like the president he hopes to succeed, McCain has sought to deploy Iran as a political weapon of mass destruction.

In an interview with the Atlantic in late May, McCain said that "Iran is hell-bent on the destruction of Israel, they're hell-bent on driving us out of Iraq, they're hell-bent on supporting terrorist organizations, and as serious as anything to American families, they're sending explosive devices into Iraq that are killing American soldiers." In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee this month, McCain again mocked Obama's willingness to enter into dialogue with the Iranians, saying, "The idea that they now seek nuclear weapons because we refused to engage in presidential-level talks is a serious misreading of history."

The problem with McCain's alarmist rhetoric throughout the presidential primaries and now in the general campaign is that he's got the Iran problem almost entirely wrong. Notwithstanding his deep résumé on national security matters, his statements seem to reflect little understanding of the realities America faces in terms of dealing with Iran. Moreover, despite how highly he rates the problem, and his own foreign policy credentials, McCain seems to have no clear plan for actually dealing with Iran.

McCain has campaigned with little to offer the American people when it comes to domestic or economic policy (aside from boilerplate Republican rhetoric), and is concentrating on national security and the fight against terrorism as his strong suits in the presidential race. Americans remain genuinely concerned with both the war in Iraq (which McCain has been one of the most vocal supporters of) and potential future threats to homeland security in the form of terrorism. On the latter, McCain has shown no reluctance to follow the George W. Bush playbook, stirring up fear to support his position. Terms such as "Islamist," "jihadist," "Islamic terrorism" and "radical Islam" are still likely to make many Americans sit up and take notice. But although McCain has attempted at many turns to link those terms directly to Iran and the threat it poses to America, they have little relevance to our problems with this adversary. McCain may see Iran as the boogeyman he needs to help him defeat Obama this fall, but solving our real problems in the Middle East will require a fundamental decision about foreign policy that McCain seems unprepared to make: either negotiate with Iran, or go to war with Iran. There is no other choice at this point that is in the interests of the United States, and to pretend otherwise is pure sophism.

There are four main issues that the U.S. faces with Iran: the nuclear issue, Iran's role in Iraq, Iran's support of Hezbollah and Hamas, and Iran's perceived threats against our ally Israel. The biggest issue revolves around the concern that Iran is gaining the knowledge and capability to build nuclear weapons. Short of launching another war -- an endeavor that the vast majority of national security experts believe would be a terrible idea -- is there a way to negotiate a solution to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran?

In September 2006, a year after the Iranian presidency had been transferred from Mohammad Khatami to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former President Khatami visited New York. At a private dinner for about 30 people then, I heard Khatami suggest to several influential American policy thinkers that while Iran would not suspend enrichment activities, it might be willing to settle for a "research" uranium enrichment project with perhaps 164 centrifuges. (That number was approximately the number of centrifuges Iran possessed at the time.) I've always known Khatami to be a cautious politician, and his statement was undoubtedly cleared by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (the true center of Iranian power). Given the audience, which included former high-level U.S. officials, Khatami's statements undoubtedly were communicated back to the Bush administration.

Needless to say, the U.S. did not pursue diplomatic negotiations on the matter, following that apparent opportunity or other ones. Today, Iran is known to have at least 3,000 centrifuges running, and is expected to have as many as 50,000 within a year or so.

The Bush administration's refusal to engage Iran without the pre-condition that Iran first suspend all uranium enrichment -- a policy supported by McCain -- demonstrably does nothing to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear knowledge and capability. Meanwhile, U.S.-led sanctions at the U.N. Security Council have had no discernible effect on the Iranian government's perseverance with its nuclear program. Without either real negotiations or war against Iran, the nuclear issue will not be solved satisfactorily, and Iran could be fully capable of building a nuclear weapon, without outside assistance, in a matter of a few years.

On Iraq, McCain has joined the Bush administration in emphasizing allegations that Iranian-supplied weapons have been used by Shiite militias against American soldiers. Those allegations have been supported by scant or dubious evidence, and they distract from the overarching issues concerning war-torn Iraq. In fact, Iran's interests in Iraq are not radically different from America's: a relatively strong central government dominated by Shiites and Kurds (albeit from Iran's view, Shiites and Kurds who would remain beholden to Iran's interests), and a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. Unlike the U.S., Iran would probably like to see the various competing Shiite factions in the Iraqi government and the various militias remain strong enough so that no one party or militia can dominate the others. But that shouldn't necessarily be at odds with American interests at this point. We are looking for a graceful exit from a costly and unpopular war, that accomplishes some relative stability in the region -- ensuring that Iraq doesn't collapse as a failed state and become a long-term breeding ground for terrorists who may one day strike further west. (The notion that the American goal is for Iraq to become a beacon of democracy in the Middle East has long been debunked and is no longer even a pretense.)

Iran's influence in Iraq is of such significance that even the Bush administration, although loath to talk to Iranians under nearly any circumstances, decided to engage the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad on several occasions last year. Iran's role in the recent Basra cease-fire and in quelling the violence in Sadr City is well documented, and President Ahmadinejad's state visit to Iraq earlier this year, ceremoniously upstaging any visit by President Bush, reiterated that Iran will play a major role in Iraq for years to come.

The Bush administration has complained that the ambassadorial-level talks with Iran in Baghdad have been fruitless -- but surely they were designed to be. The talks last year were limited to only the subject of Iraq itself, and, according to two senior Iranian government officials familiar with the talks (with whom I spoke around the time of the talks, in spring 2007), the discussions consisted largely of accusations by the U.S. ambassador about Iranian "interference" in Iraqi affairs and Iranian support of violence against U.S. forces.

The Iranians, as they have said on many occasions, are not particularly persuaded by lectures or accusations, and are unlikely to help the U.S. with the Iraq predicament unless they are offered something in return. More sanctions and saber-rattling are not likely to do the trick. McCain has said often that he believes that the U.S. should not withdraw from Iraq until "victory" is achieved there. But it is clear that any "victory" will not come without Iranian help, and Iranian help will not be forthcoming without real, fruitful talks that encompass more than just the continuing violence in Iraq.

Iran's support of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militant group, is the chief reason it is labeled a state sponsor of terrorism, a categorization played up by McCain and other hard-liners. (The message intended for the American public is that Iran is, ultimately, supporting terrorist attacks against innocent Americans or Europeans.) Iran's support for Hezbollah is also a reason why the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Qods force, the foreign expeditionary arm of the force, has been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. Senate (in a resolution voted for by both McCain and Sen. Hillary Clinton, and now, apparently, one supported by Obama as well).

But although Hezbollah has an active military wing, it is also a political party and is now part of the government of Lebanon -- a government the U.S. supports. The Bush administration has in the past refused to talk to Hezbollah. But without Hezbollah, the recent 18-month government deadlock, which left Lebanon perilously without a president for six of those months, would not have been resolved. The subsequent power-sharing deal gave Hezbollah a stake in the government, even if the U.S. is reluctant to recognize that. (Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently engaged in talks with Hezbollah officials in Beirut.)

The reality is that Iran's influence in the Levant has grown, not diminished, because of our refusal to talk with either Hezbollah or its patron, Iran, and Hezbollah will not disappear from the Lebanese scene simply because we ignore it. If we want to increase our influence and check Iranian influence in the region, then we have to either talk to Iran and Hezbollah, and try to find a way to ally our interests with theirs (which would certainly have to include Hezbollah ceasing their attacks on Israel) -- or we have to bomb Iran and hope that bombing will make them rethink their support of Hezbollah.

Hamas, the militant Sunni political party that runs Gaza, is also unlikely to disappear through U.S. refusal to engage them. Iran is one of the only countries offering financial and material support to Hamas, a fact that has elevated Iran's prestige in the region and across the greater Muslim world while U.S. prestige has waned. Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, in recognition of the reality that ignoring Hamas has produced no favorable outcome, suggested recently that he would negotiate with Hamas in order to unite the Palestinians in their quest for a homeland. Even Israel, whose long-stated pre-condition of not talking to Hamas until it first recognized Israel's right to exist, finally came to the conclusion that it had to negotiate with Hamas or otherwise plunge much deeper into military conflict. With Israel's citizenry overwhelmingly in favor of talks, and with its military wary of the ramifications of a full assault on Gaza, Israel reached a cease-fire agreement with Hamas, announced on Tuesday.

The current Iranian president's ongoing "threats" against Israel represent perhaps the easiest of the issues to resolve by talks. President Ahmadinejad relishes the attention his contemptible outbursts bring, such as when he called Israel a "stinking corpse" during Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations in March, or when he again suggested Israel's demise in a recent speech commemorating Ayatollah Khomeini's death: "You should know that the criminal and terrorist Zionist regime which has 60 years of plundering, aggression and crimes in its file has reached the end of its work and will soon disappear off the geographical scene."

McCain jumped at the opportunity to play up Ahmadinejad's rhetoric as indicative of a dire danger. "Foremost in all our minds is the threat posed by the regime in Tehran," he said in his speech to AIPAC in June. "The Iranian president has called for Israel to be 'wiped off the map' and suggested that Israel's Jewish population should return to Europe. He calls Israel a 'stinking corpse' that is 'on its way to annihilation'."

But while Ahmadinejad's bluster pays dividends for him in the Arab and Muslim street, and perhaps helps to distract the Iranian people from the painful economic problems that have compounded under his presidency, in reality it is no realistic reflection of Iranian foreign policy. Even if Ahmadinejad were really intent on waging war against Israel, he has no real power or authority to do so: He is not the commander in chief of Iran's military; the supreme leader is. If Iran ever were to build a nuclear weapon, it would not be its president's finger on the button, it would be its supreme leader's. Ayatollah Khamenei has made it clear that Iran will never attack another country first, and it is certainly in its interest not to do so. Every Iranian official, and all the clerics including the supreme leader, know full well that an attack on Israel will mean suicide for the regime (if not the country more widely) -- and the No. 1 priority, especially for the clerics, is to maintain the continuity of the regime.

Iranian rhetoric, prior to Ahmadinejad's presidency, has always been pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli (or anti-Zionist, as the Iranians claim) -- but even today, most Iranians do not view Ahmadinejad's excessively belligerent remarks as a direct threat to attack Israel. Ahmadinejad is up for reelection in 2009, but whether he is reelected or not, Iran's policy toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in particular is not likely to change. That policy -- reiterated to me by President Khatami in his last days in office in July 2005, repeated by officials in the Ahmadinejad administration and stated publicly by the supreme leader himself -- is that Iran will support whatever the Palestinian people decide for their fate. Iran could be brought in as a participant to talks on a Palestinian state, or it could agree, in talks with the U.S., to sit on the sidelines. If Mahmoud Abbas engages Hamas as he has suggested, and comes to an agreement with Hamas, then Iran will be at the table anyway, unless, of course, America is at war with Iran.

Ultimately, John McCain's position on Iran -- in lockstep with the Bush administration's -- is one of refusing, as he puts it, to "appease" the enemy. Shortly after President Bush's speech to the Israeli Knesset in May, in which Bush characterized potential negotiations with Iran, Hamas or Hezbollah as appeasement, McCain said to reporters in Ohio: "Yes, there have been appeasers in the past, and the president is exactly right, and one of them is Neville Chamberlain." He continued: "I believe that it's not an accident that our hostages came home from Iran when President Reagan was president of the United States. He didn't sit down in a negotiation with the religious extremists in Iran, he made it very clear that those hostages were coming home.''

Bush, McCain and their hard-line Republican supporters have managed to redefine the word "appeasement" with this line of reasoning. Appeasement, as any student of history (or even anyone with a dictionary handy) knows, means to placate by acceding to demands, such as when Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, acceded to an invasion of Sudetenland in the hopes of placating Hitler. It is unclear what the U.S. would be acceding to if it were to engage in talks with Iran, a state that is relatively puny in military terms and in that regard is in no way comparable to Hitler's Germany.

What Iranian demands would the U.S. face, then? That they be allowed to enrich uranium for civilian energy purposes, a right they are granted under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty? They're enriching now, and will continue to do so whether we talk with them or not.

The bottom line is that Iran is not, and never will be, a serious military threat to the United States, centrifuges spinning or not. Militarily, it is incapable of standing up to Israel (even if it were to develop a nuclear weapons capability, that capability would pale in comparison to Israel's), let alone the U.S. But not negotiating with Iran can only help strengthen its position, and weaken ours, in a vitally strategic region. Iran will continue to reap unprecedented income from its oil exports (oil that booming countries such as China cannot afford to embargo). It will continue to use its wealth and its standing in the Muslim world as a bulwark against American hegemony in the region. And it will continue to grow its power and influence.

At this late date, the U.S. faces a rather obvious, stark choice in the matter. Yes, Senator McCain, you could, as you joked last year, "bomb, bomb, Iran." Or you can talk, talk to Iran. It will have to be one or the other.

By Hooman Majd

Hooman Majd has written on Iranian affairs for Salon since 2007. His book on Iran and its people, "The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran" (Doubleday) was published in September. Majd travels regularly to Iran and has served as an advisor and translator for two Iranian presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on their trips to the United States and the United Nations.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama George W. Bush Iran Iraq John Mccain R-ariz. Middle East