What matters, not just in the end but from the beginning, is not the pronouncements and priorities of broadcasters and columnists but the hopes, concerns, and fears of Iranians.
Forgive me, but I am going to break the pledge of silence over US commentary for a moment today.
I am prompted to do so not by another one-dimensional portrayal of Iran or by the deceitful words of those invoking sensitivity for the Iranian people to justifying bombing the Iranian people. I do so because of two pieces, by two intelligent and thoughtful writers, which start from the premise that we need to review the approach to Iran.
Writing in Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt criticises "Sleepwalking with Iran":
I can't figure out who is actually directing U.S. policy toward Iran, but what's striking (and depressing) about it is how utterly unimaginative it seems to be....We continue to ramp up sanctions that most people know won't work, and we take steps that are likely to reinforce Iranian suspicions and strengthen the clerical regime's hold on power.
I think Walt is an excellent analyst and, even if you disagree with his position on sanctions and the nuclear issue, his critique of the US Government's tactics is incisively realistic:
The Obama administration's approach to Iran is neither feasible nor consistent. To begin with, our objective --- to persuade Iran to end all nuclear enrichment -- simply isn't achievable. Both the current government and the leaders of the opposition Green Movement are strongly committed to controlling the full nuclear fuel cycle, and the United States will never get the other major powers to impose the sort of "crippling sanctions" it has been seeking for years now. It's not gonna happen folks, or at least not anytime soon.
What got my attention, however --- especially given Walt's normally sure-handed evaluation --- was not the clarity in that paragraph but the resignation and confusiion in one later in the piece:
The first [problem] is the mindset that seems to have taken hold in the Obama administration. As near as I can tell, they believe Iran is dead set on acquiring nuclear weapons and that Iran will lie and cheat and prevaricate long enough to get across the nuclear threshold. Given that assumption, there isn't much point in trying to negotiate any sort of "grand bargain" between Iran and the West, and especially not one that left them with an enrichment capability (even one under strict IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards). This view may be correct, but if it is, then our effort to ratchet up sanctions is futile and just makes it more likely that other Iranians will blame us for their sufferings....Maybe our focus ought to shift from our current obsession with Iran's nuclear program and focus on human rights issues instead (though it is harder for Washington to do that without looking pretty darn hypocritical).
I think --- although I have to admit that I am trying to put this on paper after reading the above paragraph for the 20th time --- that Walt is saying: well, if we have to put pressure on Iran's nuclear programme and aspirations in the region, let's use rhetoric on human rights rather than sanctions as our weapon of choice.
Wrong. So wrong. I'm all for putting human rights up-front but it should not be picked up as an instrument simply because you don't like other tools in your foreign-policy box. Human rights should be acknowledged as an end, not a means. To do otherwise does not sweep away the hypocrisy that Walt notes, it reinforces the reality as well as the impression of deceit.
Which brings me to the latest intervention of Roger Cohen in The New York Times.
Cohen has been an important US voice on Iran for some time and, to his credit, he has tried to bring the internal situation to the attention of readers, having spent time before and after the 2009 election in the country.
And, to his credit, the starting point of Cohen's latest column is well-intentioned. He highlights and draws from the recent publication of Death to the Dictator!, the account of a protestor detained, abused, and raped by security forces.
Human rights, not just in this story but in thousands of others, not as a rhetorical device but as an important objective. Right?
Not quite. For Cohen uses his story for a personal goal: to set himself up as arbitrator between two viewpoints that he dislikes:
Since June 12, U.S. realists and idealists have had an Iranian field day. The realists have dismissed the Green Movement, proclaimed a stolen election fair, and urged President Obama to toss aside human rights concerns and repair relations with Tehran in the American interest.
The idealists have rained renewed fury on Ahmadinejad, called for his overthrow and urged Obama to bury outreach and back Moussavi.
Leave aside, for the moment, that Cohen's portrayal of "idealists" (not one of whom he names) is a caricature. My experience is that those who have criticised the Iranian Govenrment on "idealistic" grounds, i.e., human rights, have not called for a burial of outreach. To the contrary, if one wants to acknowledge the Iranian people, one has to reach out and establish connections: to learn, to understand, to disseminate information, and to discuss. Some, indeed many, may wish to see the back of President, but they do not necessarily advocate "overthrow" (which Cohen is using to imply military action or US-supported regime change).
Here's my problem, which goes far beyond Cohen's ploy of setting himself up as the centrist voice of reason.
When Cohen declares that we should "pursue engagement because isolation only serves the horror merchants", his "engagement" is --- ironically --- not on human rights concerns. It is a call for a resolution of the nuclear issue: "[Iran's] renewed interest in Brazilian-Turkish mediated talks is worth skeptical consideration".
I respect the position that, whatever our perspective, on the political and legal issues inside Iran, the priority must be on a resolution with the current Iranian Government. I understand the geopolitical reasons: not only taking the destabilising dispute over Iran's nuclear programme off the table but also furthering an accommodation over Afghanistan, Iraq, and regional issues in the Middle East.
What I find objectionable is the justification of that approach through distortion and mis-representation of the situation inside Iran. Now that the authors of Race for Iran, pushing for a "grand settlement" with Tehran, have finally publicly declared that human rights plays no part in their calculations, then let them stick to that position by offering no deceptive comment on developments over those rights.
And I'm just as opposed to using human rights as a sleight-of-hand to push a nuclear-first approach. Just because Roger Cohen, who has raised awareness of the situation in Iran and has a concern for those rights, is the perpetrator in this case does not affect that opposition.
Here is Cohen's concluding sentence in full: "[Iran's] renewed interest in Brazilian-Turkish mediated talks is worth skeptical consideration....if you believe Mohsen [the abused detainee in Death to the Dictator!]--- in the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate --- deserves a future."
I have no idea of Mohsen's position on the Iran-Brazil-Turkey declaration on uranium enrichment. I doubt Cohen knows. However, I think I have a good idea of what Mohsen, and many others who have suffered in the post-election period, think of the Ahmaidinejad Government. A President and a Government who are using the nuclear game as a distraction from internal issues. A President and a Government which, it must be appreciated, will present any agreement on uranium enrichment as a "victory" for their policy and, thus, as evidence of their legitimacy.
So it is a bit presumptuous for Mr Cohen to use (I would say "manipulate" had this come from a less benevolent commentator like Charles Krauthammer) Mohsen's story not for Moshen's interests but for Roger Cohen's agenda.
It is still deceitful --- irrespective of whoever carries out the act --- to use human rights as his/her instrument of the moment to seek a settlement which is far removed from human rights.