I would love to know who the jerk is who wrote the White House’s press statement on the occasion of the inauguration earlier this week of the new Iranian President, Hassan Rowhani. I say this is the work of a jerk, or a band of war-addicted zealots in Washington, DC, because it seems designed to totally bury the opportunity that Rowhani represents to improve the wellbeing of Iranians and resolve Western-Iranian and Arab-Iranian tensions on a variety of important issues.
It is useful in today’s very turbulent Middle East to separate what can be changed quickly from issues that require a longer time frame—and to grasp the real relationship between them. So, for example, are terrorism, or Islamic, Jewish or Christian religious fanaticism, causes of insecure states, or consequences of them? Structural issues like terrorism, gender parity, and environmental, economic and demographic stress require many decades to improve. Political conflicts can be resolved more quickly, if political leadership capabilities are available. The two most important conflicts that exacerbate many tensions in the region are the century-old Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict and the more recent Iranian-American/Western conflict.
Progress on defusing these conflicts will help to tone down many other tensions around the region. The Iranian-American/Western conflict is the most recent, and by far the easier one to resolve. Rowhani’s inauguration provides a moment of change in both the substance and style of Iranian policies at home and abroad. His recent statements have emphasized his focus on “confidence-building, mutual respect, common interests and equal standing,” as guiding forces for engaging with others.
So what does the Washington, DC jerkocracy offer in reply? A new round of sanctions against Iran from the Congress, a majority of senators asking Washington to increase sanctions and maintain a credible military threat, and a White House statement that suggests that America’s highest elected officials have learned nothing in the past decade—which is, by my definition, how a jerk behaves.
I say this because the White House statement on August 4—after appropriately congratulating the Iranian people for making their voices heard during Iran’s election and noting that President Rowhani “recognized his election represented a call by the Iranian people for change”—went on to use the most powerful political pulpit in the world to repeat precisely the two points that are most offensive to Iranians, and only those two points, without mentioning any others.
These two comprise the last two sentences in the American statement: “The inauguration of President Rowhani presents an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. Should this new government choose to engage substantively and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, it will find a willing partner in the United States.”
The problem with this approach that has failed for many years is that it is based on a series of arrogant assumptions or aggressive preconditions that no self-respecting government in the world would accept. It mentions substantive issues with Iran only in terms of Iran’s nuclear efforts, without acknowledging that Iran also has security, economic, nuclear rights and other concerns to discuss about how it is treated by the United States and Western powers. It accuses Iran of not engaging substantively and seriously, when the evidence shows that Iran has offered many substantive gestures (including freezing nuclear enrichment for two years and allowing all its enrichment facilities to be inspected by the UN), but now refuses to advance further mainly as a response to the U.S.-Israeli-driven campaign of sanctions, threats and cyber-attacks against it. The United States, Israel and others in the West never waste an opportunity to threaten to use military force against Iran, but in this context they also demand that Iran is responsible for taking the initiative to resolve this issue peacefully.
I wonder if this is structural American official arrogance and neo-imperial hubris repeatedly manifesting on this issue, or a more simple case of stupidity on the part of some officials who refuse to understand that “mutual respect” is not just a cliché that Iranians and others throw around, but a real live operative diplomatic principle that is a vital ingredient for success in such conflicts.
Iranians and Rowhani took the first step of moving their national policies in a different, perhaps more fruitful, direction. Why could the White House not simply have replied to Rowhani’s calls for respect and equal treatment with the same magnitude of fusion between the display of new style and substance that hold the promise for a better world for all? Why did the White House instead reassert the aggressive ways that have only steadily increased tensions across the entire region for the past decade or more?
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global