I went yesterday to hear Karim Sadjadpour speak at a university function on US/Iran relations. Sadjadpour, like Vali Nasr, is making the rounds these days as an Iran expert. Like Nasr he is a Persian-born American citizen who gives the impression of being adept at straddling both his homes. Both speak as Americans and neither hides abiding affection for his first homeland.
Sadjadpour’s presentation was in large part a reprise of his testimony before Senator Biden and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where he described the United States and Iran as being engaged in a game of chicken. Two stubborn hotheaded kids with cars headed for trouble. Not an image of leadership one wants if one has any sense of loyalty or affection for the two parties involved.
In that presentation, Sadjadpour concluded there are two possible courses of action: to create a Cuba-like isolated nation, this time with nuclear weapons, that could last for decades, or a nation integrated into the international community open to influences that would come with foreign investment, a strengthened middle class, and a free flow of tourists and members of the Iranian diaspora.
Before summarizing the ideas he presented yesterday, which I hope will gradually become more broadly familiar to more Americans, let me digress a minute on the man himself. Two things struck me in listening to Sadjadpour and reflecting on how closely his comments paralleled Vali Nasr’s. One is how easy it is to get a clear picture of the world from resources available within the United States. Nothing either has said is radical or hard to swallow, and their views have been publicized in Congressional Reports and news outlets such as the Lehrer News Hour. The question is not how to get good information on Iran; it’s whether we make use of what is available.
The other thought is how fortunate we are to have so many both/and people in the United States who can serve as bridges between nations. It is clear it is not merely rational thinking at work that leads them to suggest compromise and cooperation is wise, but a personal desire for a win-win situation that comes from having two places to call home.
I chafed endlessly at the we-Japanese-you-foreign thinking I lived with during my three and a half decades in Japan and moving from either/or to both/and became a cause I am still dedicated to. By both/and I mean the belief one can identify with and be loyal to one group, including a national one, without being disloyal to another. It simply requires an endless commitment to seeking common ground and diffusing hostility and the weighting of commonality over difference and the facets of an entity which are universal over those which are particular and unique.
I worked hard to convince my returnee students they needed to ignore any and all pressures to slough off their foreign parts to “regain” a Japanese identity. I worked to persuade them they could help to define Japaneseness as readily as anybody who displayed no influence of foreign ideas or cultural practices. I associate the either/or identity choice with provincialism and insist the both/and identity has benefits beyond the immediate psychological one of not having to deny part of oneself. Yesterday, watching an Iranian-American gradually unfold the ways he had come up with to get his American government to work in harmony with his Iranian cultural home, I felt considerable kinship.
A desire to have your cake and eat it too, when applied to nations, makes one a pacifist, of course, and puts one at odds with the kind of jingoism fostered by the Bush Administration. But in addition to the psychological benefits you gain, others gain the political benefit of a bridge between identity groups. The immature and unhappy struggle over whether Barack Obama is black or white in the minds of his compatriots comes to mind – it’s not just the Japanese who think in terms of either/or – and watching Sadjadpour I was struck with the pragmatic advantage of being committed in your person to both/and.
I remember a parting of the ways with an uncle many years ago when I began to show interest first in living in Germany, and later in Japan. There was something disloyal about me that I could be so cavalier about taking up with my country’s enemies. To me, his arguments made as much sense as suggesting we go on fighting the Civil War. It took no time at all for me to develop a sense of belonging to Berlin. To this day I long for a Berlin home that never totally came to be and got derailed when I went to live in Japan instead. But today the thought of dropping bombs on Berlin or Tokyo would be absolutely equivalent to dropping bombs on San Francisco.
It doesn’t always take decades for nationalist animosities to dissipate. For some they simply never form. Iranian Americans today live in fear that the game of chicken played by the bullies Bush and Ahmadinejad can lead to the most unimaginable horror.
I may of course be projecting my personal goals onto Sadjadpour’s, but I don’t think so. He talks with some passion and suggests he understands the challenges. His frequent references to the dignity of the Iranian nation revealed him to be clearly loyal to Iran. He was educated in the U.S., the University of Michigan, as an undergraduate, Johns Hopkins as a graduate, and despite an evident Farsi accent, he speaks a completely native American English. Misquoting Churchill as saying if you’re 18 and not a liberal, your heart’s in the wrong place; and if you’re 40 and you’re still a liberal, there’s something wrong with your head, he quipped, “Here I am caught in the middle at 30, heartless and brainless.” Not the funniest joke, nor the worst. My point is that he joked, not that he bowled them over. His speech may be Farsi-tinted, but his discourse is pure American.
There are strong and weak versions of the postmodern theory that there is no truth, only one personal stake in conflict with another. The strong version is that’s all there is. I take that to be insulting to anyone’s intelligence. The weak version is that it’s always worth considering how much one might be influenced by one’s emotions and one’s personal history.
The presence of strong and weak versions of postmodern theory gives us three ways to go here. We can reject postmodern theory in its entirety and argue there is only good solid objective description on the one hand and sloppy opinionated description on the other. And we have an obligation to accept only the former. We can buy into the strong version and give up entirely ever hoping to find objectivity and surrender to power, hoping in the end one bad bias will keep another in check. Or we can take the middle ground, the version which goes “Just because a totally germ-free surgery is impossible to create doesn’t mean you operate in a sewer” and take two approaches to objectivity. Hold people responsible for finding a neutral position whenever and to the greatest degree possible. And maintain a multiplicity of perspectives, not to keep one bad bias from cancelling another but to keep all sides honest by reminding them of what they’re missing.
I have a tendency to be easily persuaded. I believe and assume the views of the latest author I’ve read. I want to believe people. Especially if they’re good looking and intelligent. I used to fight that and try to force myself into cynical disbelief and suspicion, calling it critical thinking. Lately I’ve decided to let everybody be queen for a day. Allow myself to become a convert on the spot. And assume I’m going to live till tomorrow when I’ll get more information.
That reflection formed a framework in which to put Sadjadpour’s remarks. Anyone looking to separate the facts he brought to the discussion from the man himself would wonder at his conclusion that there is cause for optimism despite the fact that we are working at present with two belligerent and antagonistic government administrations. But they would also have to recognize his even-handedness, I found myself thinking. For anyone, on the other hand, who sees the both/and identity as a reason for assuming he is likely to be working harder to find a way through conflict, there is no problem with his having more than one personal loyalty. The contrary, as I have suggested, is true.
So much for my passing speculations on where Sadjadpour was likely to be coming from and how I might direct my own tendency to get caught up in thinking Iran’s more my kind of place than the Arab world. And to repeat the thought in my head that I came away with after listening to Vali Nasr recently: Why didn’t we take sides with the Iranians and the Shia Arabs of Iraq in the first place and come down on one side of a Civil War? Would we be any worse off than we are today? All of which leaves me wondering how the hell do you deal with the fugitive thoughts that come from giving free rein to any and all gut-level reactions to complex problems?
Enough of that. Let me summarize Sadjadpour’s points with a minimum of commentary. Unless I indicate otherwise, I have tried to keep the statements below in his voice, even if I have played a little loose with his words. I have not been overly fussy about not extending his conclusions in one or two places, but I trust I have not misrepresented his ideas.
Sadjadpour raised four topics: the nuclear standoff, Iraq, US/Iran relations, and internal reform in Iran.
The nuclear issue is clearly issue number one in US/Iran relations, but there is considerable overlap among the four issues. In all of these, Sadjadpour suggests, we seem to overlook the bazaar mentality at work, the idea that the first bid in a negotiation is never to be taken at face value, and that if the United States really wanted Iran to give up its nuclear program it would get serious about negotiating. The United States’ assumption it can have whatever it wants simply for the asking is part of the long history of imperial hubris, from Iran’s point of view. The suggestion is that Iran has determined it has no choice after decades of humiliation but to regain its dignity as a nation of distinction. It doesn’t matter that their methods are self-defeating. They need to be understood for what they are, not what they would signify if carried out by Americans.
The assumption by the West that Iran’s nuclear buildup is a form of militarization overlooks the vivid memory Iranians have of the devastating war with Iraq in which “not a single Iranian family was left untouched.” There is no love of the military and absolutely no desire for moves that could lead to a war.
At the same time, there is no doubt whatever is going on with the nuclear buildup is consequential. To make the point in economic terms, you could take every Iranian citizen out to eat kebabs every night of the week for a year for the cost of the current nuclear program. If what is going on is something other than militarization, we need to know what it is. Unfortunately the cultural distance remains great. From the Iranian perspective, American bullying is stupid and coarse. From the American perspective, Iranian brinkmanship is stupid and suicidal.
The problem is the absence of a diplomatic approach to international relations, Sadjadpour suggests. America paid no attention to Iran in 2003 when there were real offers on the table for compromise, so convinced it was it would win Iraq over for democracy and the spin-off would be that Iran would implode. There was no reason, from the American perspective, to throw a lifesaver to a drowning enemy. With the failure in Iraq, the lack of diplomacy is revealed for what it is, in the Iranian perspective, raw greedy self-interest. And stunning miscalculation.
Given this mutual hostility, and the American belief it was in such a position of power it didn’t need to negotiate, Iran opted for a policy of “controlled chaos” in Iraq. As long as America was bogged down, Iran could hope to gain advantage. This does not mean, however, that Iran can benefit from the complete disintegration of Iraq. The war in Afghanistan already brought in two million Afghan refugees. Like the rest of the Middle East, Iran cannot support the refugees that are likely to pour out of Iraq when all hell breaks loose. Iran will not gain much more from an American defeat than it could from an American victory. The implication is there was never a more conspicuous common ground, never a better moment for the U.S. and Iran to benefit from working together. But America’s stand-alone approach continues to this day to reflect the thinking “first we get Iraq, then Iran.”
The irony is that Iran could so much more readily be brought around with a carrot than with a stick, if only we could shake this aggressive mentality of ours. Iran needs to be understood for what it is. A closer working relationship would give us a better understanding of what is going on with the nuclear buildup, a chance to verify the suggestion it is not about militarization.
America should remember, says Sadjadpour, that Iran is the only country in the region where a democratic election would lead to improvement, and the local populace really understands that. After twenty-seven or more years of living in a theocracy, the Iranians understand better than anyone else in the region the implications of theocratic rule. As one taxi driver in Tehran put it, “You never eat melons (politics) and honey (religion) together.” Iranians, if this cabdriver is any indication, have learned much more effectively by experience what a theocracy means than it ever could from having it imposed on them by a longtime enemy. Particularly when that enemy isn’t imposing democracy anyway, but economic hegemony.
Such experience has made the Iranians ready for the next step in their political maturation. The danger is America’s bungling might well lead to a reversal at this sensitive time. As they did in Iraq with de-Baathification – pushed the secular forces to join the religious forces they once were hostile to to fight the Americans together – America could provide Ahmadinejad and the hardliners with the support they need. Thousands of members of the Baath Party were in the party, as were civil servants in Nazi Germany and fascist Japan, not for ideological reasons, but because they were the sole employer. When the U.S. disbanded the party – and, even worse, the army – they said to these Iraqis, “You will not be part of Iraq’s tomorrow.” The result is the anti-American resistance we see today. If I’m not part of tomorrow, I will make today last as long as I can.
Two-thirds of Iran is under 33 years of age. They don’t remember the Islamic Revolution and the reasons for it. They refer to the ruling council as the “Jurassic Council – a group of twelve men. All dead.”
Iran cannot continue on its present economic course. 80% of its exports are energy related. Consumption is going up with heavy subsidies of $10 billion a year, making oil cheaper than water, while production is going down. Within a decade Iran could be a net importer of oil at this rate. Ahmadinejad is on a suicide course with this populist give-away program. He will very soon need foreign investment, and the ruling elite understands this and will act in its own interest.
Furthermore, the tide is turning on Iranian apathy. In 1997, 80% voted for Khatami and there was no change in policy. In 2000, the voter turnout was still above 70%, and still there was no change. By 2005 apathy had reached a new high and Ahmadinejad was elected. This, Sadjadpour suggests, served to remind the average Iranian of the cost of apathy, and they may be starting finally to move against the status quo to greater reform.
All if the U.S. does not muck it up. Questions from the audience brought up how precisely that might happen, including the possibility that while the U.S. is not in a position any more to launch a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons, it might encourage Israel to do so, or not take sufficient steps to deter it. One wonders what part Israel’s successful pre-emptive strike in 1981 against nuclear facilities in Iraq might play in establishing this mind-set.
An aside here. I’ve wondered for a long time how Israel’s understanding of Arab tatemae (public face) and honne (real feelings), to use those very useful Japanese concepts, really works in regard to these bombastic rhetorical calls to wipe Israel off the map. I can’t help thinking Israel hardliners benefit from ratcheting up the fear, and that there are hardliners who will take short term gains at the cost of long term ones, just as Americans were jerked around by the color-coded terror alerts used by the neocons running America after 9/11.
And isn’t this what is going on now? You profoundly wish Ahmadinejad’s thugs wouldn’t resort to this obscenity of the holocaust denials, but they do. You wish they would start with reasonable first negotiating positions instead. But they don’t. Who, the question is, can find a way to cut through the rhetoric and get on with common causes. The old issue is raised of whether threats are a prelude to violence or a substitute for them, and the stakes are high.
To return to Sadjadpour, Paul Bremer asked him once what he called an “asinine” question. “Do you know only 50% of Iran is Persian?” The implication was we might consider a policy of divide and conquer. First of all, one has to wonder what Bremer and his ilk are about plotting the disintegration of the Iranian nation, even if they had the capacity to pull it off. Secondly, how is it that Americans like Bremer know so little about history? Iran is not the same place as the nations of the post-Ottoman Empire, where ethnicities struggled with the concept of nation. Iran is an ancient nation of multiple nationalities all sharing an Iranian identity. With the exception of the Kurds, nation overrides sectarian divisions throughout the Middle East. The Persian/Arab divide, in particular, is much greater than the Shia divide, according to Sadjadpour.
Another aside here: this was the only time I seriously questioned Sadjadpour’s judgment. Not about the Persian/Arab divide, but about the power of nationalism to override sectarian divisions. All I’ve heard elsewhere suggests the contrary, and I think Sadjadpour may have gotten carried away making the point in connection with Iran.
What Iran wants is respect among nations, Sadjadpour says. Until America demonstrates it has something in mind for it other than setting it up once more as the client state it was under the Shah, the bombast and hardline stance will continue.
Iranians are ruled by two cultural mentalities, one reflected in the clergy, the other in the bazaari. That ought to govern our approach to Iran. But where are the negotiators who know how to talk to clergy and not overlook that they are speaking with bazaari as well? Where are the folk who have the skills to get the price down and make the carpet salesmen respect them in the process?
I have been unabashed about reading the personal into Sadjadpour’s description of Iran and US/Iran relations, not because I don’t believe in objectivity or that he lacks it. But when all is said and done one can’t help notice what’s missing in his account, what might come from a larger contextualization of his information, and what might be said from other binational perspectives. The question has not been answered, for example, what Iran is up to in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Sadjadpour suggested it was a means of regaining national pride. Sunni Arabs, Israelis, all sorts of people, including many who will write and speak from the heart from another pacifist binational bicultural perspective, will argue they’re moving into place to dominate their neighbors, that the buildup has more to do with ruling the neighborhood than with standing up to America.
But that’s beyond what Sadjadpour has to offer and it’s speculation for another day.
Wouldn’t it be great to get Ahmadinejad in a room alone and ask him, “What in God’s name are you thinking?” How about we get Pelosi and Tom Lantos to get back on a plane and do it. In Farsi.
testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
News hour interview with Ray Suarez
brushing aside Ahmadinejad’s letter