Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

03 April 2015

The “Deal” with Iran


We Yanks have a unique, quasi-religious veneration for words on paper. Take our Constitution, for example. Most of us think it’s humanity’s most vital social contract ever, the mother of all agreements.

Our right-wingers try to spin its use of the word “republic” to deny its purport of democracy. But everyone inside and outside America has known from the beginning that our Yankee society was and is an experiment in democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville didn’t title his analysis “The American Republic.” He called it “Democracy in America.”

Do we Yanks really have a democracy today? Hell, no.

For everyone since the ancient Greeks and Romans, “democracy” has meant simple majority rule, perhaps constrained in times of war, or when basic principles like civil rights are at stake. Yet today our Yankee House of Representatives operates, nearly all the time, by the will of a majority of the majority, which means a minority of all members. Our Senate decides anything important by a 60% majority, and it allows individual members to block legislation and presidential appointments at will.

And if proof of the pudding is in the eating, consider this. Consistent polls show that about two-thirds of us Yanks want single-payer health insurance and a path to citizenship (or at least honest, fearless work) for the many long-time, non-criminal immigrants among us, especially their thoroughly American children. Yet we Yanks now have none of these things, despite decades of supposed effort. That fact alone ought to tell us all something. Either our Constitution is a deeply flawed document, or we don’t observe it in fact, or both.

Yet we Yanks venerate our Constitution as if it were scripture. Some of us, including Justice Scalia, treat it as the Taliban treats the Qur’an. As we attempt to divine answers to questions that the Constitution’s plain language never tried to address, we ask what was the “original intent” of its drafters.

How, pray tell, does that approach differ from asking “what would Mohammed have done”? We treat the words of our Constitution as if they could bring our Founders back to life and propel them fully integrated into a modern society that differs radically, in just about every way, from the one in which they actually lived. We play guessing games with history rather than think for ourselves.

With the possible exception of the English with their Magna Carta, no other human society treats words on paper with that sort of misplaced reverence. As businessmen well know, Asians treat agreements as the focus of an evolving relationship, not a rigid sort of private, consensual law. No other society on Earth believes, with near-religious fervor, that you can solve longstanding problems by putting words on paper, let alone dispel a fifty-year, mindless and needless enmity between two very different peoples at opposite ends of the Earth.

Once you understand this peculiarity of us Yanks, you can predict what is about to happen with regard to the “framework” of a nuclear agreement with Iran. A whole lot of people are going to criticize it because it’s not perfect, because it doesn’t self-evidently keep Iran from ever going nuclear. They are going to drive themselves into a frenzy speculating “What about this?” or “What if the Iranians do that?” They are going to worry endlessly about this ambiguous word, that comma, this point left out or “unresolved.”

What most of us Yanks don’t understand is that an agreement is not an end in itself. It’s not legislation. It’s not an infallible prediction. It’s part of an evolving human relationship.

Viewed from that perspective, the “framework” agreement seems a lot like a seminal achievement.

Sixty-two years ago, in 1953, our spooks, working with Britain’s, overthrew Iran’s duly-elected democratic government. We installed the Shah, who wasn’t so bad at first but became a brutal dictator. By 1979, Iran’s people had had enough. Since Islam was the only social force with enough power to defeat the Shah, they had their Islamic Revolution.

The victorious revolutionaries took 52 of us Yanks hostage. No one killed the hostages; eventually they came home. Imagine what the Taliban, Al Qaeda or IS would have done with them!

For this act of Iranian humanity and mercy, we Yanks incited Saddam to make an eight-year war on Iran, which killed an estimated half-million Iranians. Not surprisingly, the surviving Iranians didn’t like us Yanks very much. But because our nation was (and is) incomparably bigger, stronger and more aggressive, Iran’s people did little more than call us “the Great Satan” and chant “Death to America.”

For our own grave sins and Iran’s “impudence,” we Yanks have waged a Little Cold War with Iran ever since.

But three important things have happened recently. Two years ago this June, Iran elected a moderate president, in an election universally recognized as free and fair. With this single act, Iran seemed to have resurrected the kind of democratic government that we Yanks had subverted in 1953.

Second, about a year ago, we Yanks sat down with Iran’s leaders and leaders of the world’s great powers and began discussing important differences, person to person, for the first time since the Islamic Revolution.

Those discussions might have lacked significance had they not had results. But they did have results. Despite delays and sleepless nights, they’ve produced a “framework” for an agreement—a basis for further discussion and for developing some sort of human relationship after a half-century of mindless, catastrophically counterproductive enmity.

That “framework” is the third important development. It’s important not because of what it says, or because it will somehow magically prevent Iran from going nuclear no matter what happens from now on. It’s important simply because it exists. It shows that both sides recognize the importance of a rapprochement and an end to the Little Cold War.

But that’s not all. The terms of the “framework” so far suggest, if not prove, that Iran wants a thriving economy and a prosperous future more than it wants nuclear weapons, and that we Yanks want peaceful commerce more than we want yet another useless, painful and costly Middle-East war.

We can always bomb Iran. And Iran can always try to hide its development of nuclear weapons. If it wanted to do so, it could have bedouins on camels pack parts of centrifuges under blankets, where no satellite or aircraft could see them, and take them to deep natural caves where no one but desert caravans ever goes. Iran has revealed its intentions and goals by agreeing to substantial restraints on the simplest, easiest, quickest and cheapest ways of making nuclear weapons.

It will be years, if ever, before a half-century enmity turns into cooperation, let alone the friendship that we Yanks had with Iran at the outset of the Big Cold War. But the potential is there. Iran is not only the most populous nation and the largest economy in the Middle East. Now that Turkey’s Erdogan has “pulled a Putin” and extended his rule beyond any rational conception of term limits, Iran is only nation in the Middle East besides Israel that resembles a democracy. It is also the only nation besides Israel that has the the technology and the expertise to presume to develop nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, all by itself.

Think what a commercial powerhouse Iran could be if it devoted all those people, all that wealth, and all that talent to peaceful commerce and innovation. The very fact that it has agreed to the “framework” suggests that Iran seeks that end more than nuclear aggression.

Sooner or later, we Yanks are going to figure out that using all of our considerable might to keep a proud and ancient people down forever is neither intelligent policy nor consistent with our national culture and values. Sooner or later, we are going to understand that the bloody mess that is the Middle East is not going to heal without Iran’s engagement and help. Sooner or later, we are going to realize that a rapprochement with Iran, like the one with Cuba that our President was able to accomplish all alone, is long overdue.

The “framework” agreement is hardly evidence that those realizations have permeated our leadership, let alone dawned among our dysfunctional Congress. But it’s a good start.

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