Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Iran: Not Crazy After All These Years

Not to overflog what ends up being a small, reluctant, and late-in-coming symbolic gesture, but Slate's TP notes today:
The NYT and LAT front, and everyone covers, news that the Iranian-American journalist who had been convicted of spying in Iran and sentenced to eight years in prison was released yesterday. Roxana Saberi had been in jail since January, and the Obama administration had been speaking up to try to secure Saberi's release. Last month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for a careful review of the case in what the NYT says might have been a bid to try to improve relations with the United States before the June elections. The LAT takes it a bit further and says that while the arrest shows the Iranian system remains unpredictable, it's at least "capable of flexibility, pragmatism and even damage control." Ahmadinejad's press adviser cryptically declared: "Maybe we want people to read into this." (emphasis added)

The reason this is significant is that one of the arguments for why Iran is an "existential threat" to US interests, Israel, and even the US homeland itself, is that as militant crazy-fuck religious extremists, it is proclaimed, assumed, declared, etc. that they can't be reasoned with, that engagement doesn't work, and that if they did get nukes, somehow the realpolitik of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) wouldn't work on them. (An alternative analysis of course is that Iran wants nukes to put it on par with Israel and as a safeguard against US or Israeli attack, especially as Israel is an undeclared nuclear power and therefore technically should NOT be eligible for "U.S. economic, and military assistance, and export credits", rather than historically being the single biggest recipient of US foreign aid, receiving more than all of Latin America and the Caribbean in 1998, or ~12% of total US foreign aid*.)

If Iran indeed is pliable to the normal carrots and sticks of international politics, it can hardly be viably referred to as an "existential threat", certainly not uncategorically so, especially in light of Israel's NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) intransigence on the one hand, and, say, Egypt's former and still status as one of the top five recipients of US foreign aid despite its continued, and largely unremarked-upon in the US, political repression of its own citizens. That is to say, if Iran, a state the US considers to be an antagonist, if not an enemy, is seemingly equally or more willing to release an injustly jailed reporter than Egypt, a nominal US ally, it would appear irrational to consider Iran an irrational state immune to normal negotiation, and therefore, only "solvable" militarily.

*For reasons unknown to J, foreign aid to Israel from the US appears to have declined 90% in the past decade, which I have not heard referenced in the news at all. Part of it is certainly shifts in aid to Afghanistan and Iraq, but Israel in 2007 was also surpassed by countries like Kenya, Benin, Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, El Salvador, and many others. My guess is that aid to Israel has shifted to more "off-the-books" types, that is, not illegal aid, but indirect aid like discounted weapons sales, but I have no evidence for that. Still, it seems simply unlikely that US policy to Israel would have such a dramatic shift without remark in the US press or Israeli statements reported in the US. It seems more likely to me that aid was quietly changed than that it was quietly dropped to one of the lower rates among our major allies, client states, and poorer "Third World" countries.