Totten: Eternal Enmity

In his Jan. 18 post “Iran’s Hostage Victory,” Michael Totten displays the same blindness typical of many hawks in their disdain and loathing of both Iran and the possibility of a détente with Iran.

Totten begins his post eye-rolling Bernie Sanders’ suggestion on restoring diplomatic relations with Iran:

During Sunday’s Democratic primary debate, Senator Bernie Sanders argued that it’s time to bring Iran in from the cold. “I think what we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran,” he said.

If Iran had a representative government, if it wasn’t ruled by Ayatollah Khamenei, his dark theocratic Guardian Council and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the United States and Iran would restore normal relations almost as a matter of course.

Iran would, in all likelihood, take its proper place as one of America’s premier allies in the Middle East alongside the Kurds and the Israelis. The extreme and often fantastical anti-Americanism so endemic in the Arab world is far weaker among the Persians, Azeris and Kurds who make up the Iranian nation.

Iran right now is like Poland under the Warsaw Pact—a would-be friendly nation occupied and ruled by a hostile regime. Good and proper relations will have to wait until the government is overthrown or reformed out of all recognition like Vietnam’s current communist-in-name-only government.

Now, my response isn’t to defend Iran. It is beyond any doubt that Iran is the perpetrator of many human rights abuses: ranging from the persecution of Baha’is and homosexuals, to sponsoring Hezbollah, and liberal use of torture against prisoners of conscious. That can’t be denied.

But for the sake of consistency, why doesn’t Totten advocate ending diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Egypt? Those same abuses can be pinned on nominal American allies. But he doesn’t. And he shouldn’t.

Breaking diplomatic relations from other states is rarely a good idea. Yes, the circumstances behind the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis were unique. But Totten is not advocating the continued situation with Iran because of the hostage crisis of 1979. Rather, he’s angry (rightfully so!) that Iran is unjustly imprisoning someone today. And while his anger is warranted, you do not base your foreign policy on those concerns. 

The United States and Iran have shared interest in the region; namely, the destruction of the so-called Islamic State. And while the 2015 nuclear deal’s ramifications are yet to be seen, the upside is that Iran’s pursuit for a nuclear weapon has been stymied for the foreseeable future. In contrast to McCain’s infamous rendition of Barbara Ann to Bomb Iran, President Obama was able to accomplish the same goal without another disastrous war in the Middle East. 

The prospect that diplomacy may work and may be a force for good is frightening to Totten and the still-extant neoconservative punditocracy, where it is forever 1938 and Obama is another Neville Chamberlain. Iran is an evil and must be dealt with post-haste!

But what is truly mind boggling is that these well-meaning (if woefully wrong) pundits have their equals in the conservative inner-circles of the Islamic revolutionary vanguard of 1979. Ayatollah Khamenei and his ilk also have memories of the United States that mirror the boogey-men of Totten’s fevered imagination. From Mosaddegh to America’s support for the tyrannical Pahlavi dynasty and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran…well, you get the idea. 

It’s easy to imagine what Khomenei would think of making peace with the United States. Why would he support dealing with a regime that has openly talked about bombing his nation for the last three decades? That surrounds his country militarily? That could theoretically exterminate his population in half an hour? And that is complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iranians?

For all the faults Iran has done to the United States, it does not compare to what we have done to Iran.

But to Totten, while may think it’s Munich 1938 all over again, our past against Iran is irrelevant. Iranians will just have to get over ancient history.

The point is not that two wrongs make a right. Peace is not going to happen when one side completely capitulates to the other. That’s a fool’s errand. Instead, the first steps to peace are always tentative: one side gives, the other side reciprocates. Pride and reactionary factions on both sides would rather want war than admit their mistakes.

To their credit, both Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani have made those first steps despite the opposition. That the Iranians quickly released US navy sailors after their capture shows what diplomacy can accomplish. 

Diplomacy isn’t always going to work. And that’s okay. There are no easy answers, and peace is hard for both sides. But war is even harder. Totten may fret that Iran isn’t perfectly compliant with his image of what it could be. But as the saying goes, the perfect is the enemy of the good. And of course, good is better than our current situation.

One hopes that the future American and Iranian leadership continue the work accomplished this last year. Peace depends on it.