The Old Adage About Assumptions Applies To The Iran Deal, Too

The Old Adage About Assumptions Applies To The Iran Deal, Too

Obama constructed the Iran Deal with a fundamental misunderstanding of Iranian politics. If his assumptions fail to manifest, the we'll all be in serious trouble.
Michael Ginsberg
By

Albert Einstein famously said that the first prerequisite of wisdom is self ­doubt. Yet the Obama Administration is displaying stunningly little self ­doubt in its campaign for approval of its nuclear deal with Iran. Watching President Obama’s speech last week at American University in support of the Iran deal, the certainty with which he speaks of the deal is striking. He and his administration seem oblivious to the truth that far from being a certain path to peace, the Iran deal – relying as it does on the good faith and trustworthiness of the Iranian mullahs – is an enormous gamble.

As with so much of this administration’s foreign policy, Obama’s American University speech was more evidence that he is obsessed with proving that diplomacy can work and that he is not George Bush. Invoking the supposed “rush to war” in Iraq, Obama said the following:

In the end, that should be a lesson that we’ve learned from over a decade of war. On the front end, ask tough questions. Subject our own assumptions to evidence and analysis. Resist the conventional wisdom and the drumbeat of war. Worry less about being labeled weak; worry more about getting it right.

Yet the speech was nothing more than a reiteration of an enormous number of unsubstantiated beliefs about Iranian behavior, for which Obama offered no proof and cited no evidence or analysis. In fact, Obama’s speech showed he is making a dangerous set of delusional assumptions, erroneously projecting his own Western, progressive values on the apocalyptic, totalitarian theocrats of the Iranian regime.

Obama’s Misperception of Middle Eastern Diplomacy

The irony in Obama’s approach is that he and his administration fancy themselves as multiculturalists and citizens of the world, the proud part of the American political spectrum that appreciates world cultures. Unlike George Bush, the swaggering American cowboy, Obama and his administration have taken pains to ostentatiously display a unique sensitivity to other ways of life. From the exaggerated pronunciations of foreign countries – think “Pahk­ee­stahn” – to the obsequious bowing before foreign leaders, and even to regularly referencing Ayatollah Khamenei as the “Supreme Leader,” Obama has made a grand show of trying to demonstrate exquisite respect for other cultures.

When it comes to the substance of dealing with Iran and other countries, Obama looks at the world through parochial Western eyes.

And yet, when it comes to the substance of dealing with Iran and other countries, Obama looks at the world through parochial Western eyes. More specifically, he examines the world through the narrow lens of a Western progressive politician. He views Iran the same way a run­-of-­the-­mill progressive Democrat politician views the American electorate.

Take this passage from Obama’s American University speech:

It is true that if Iran lives up to its commitments, it will gain access to roughly $56 billion of its own money ­­ revenue frozen overseas by other countries. But the notion that this will be a game­changer, with all this money funneled into Iran’s pernicious activities, misses the reality of Iran’s current situation. Partly because of our sanctions, the Iranian government has over half a trillion dollars in urgent requirements ­­ from funding pensions and salaries, to paying for crumbling infrastructure. Iran’s leaders have raised the expectations of their people that sanctions relief will improve their lives. Even a repressive regime like Iran’s cannot completely ignore those expectations. And that’s why our best analysts expect the bulk of this revenue to go into spending that improves the economy and benefits the lives of the Iranian people. (Emphasis added).

I would wager that the term “crumbling infrastructure” has never passed Ayatollah Khamenei’s lips. Why do Obama and his administration believe that the Iranian mullahs think in terms of repairing infrastructure and funding pensions? These are Western concepts, and particularly Democratic, progressive concepts. It sounds like something Obama might say at a party convention or fundraiser. It is as if Obama views the lifting of sanctions and the $150 billion Iran will immediately receive as nothing more than an Iranian version of the stimulus.

The Iranian leadership does not view ordinary Iranians the way Democrats view ordinary Democratic constituencies.

But the Iranian leadership does not view ordinary Iranians the way Democrats view ordinary Democratic constituencies. The Iranian government is not seeking to curry favor with labor unions or teachers’ unions in preparation for the next election. It is a messianic theocracy populated by Twelver Shia, imposing theocratic rule by clerics until the reappearance of the Twelfth Imam. They are not concerned about mundane economic matters; indeed, Khomeini famously once said that the Iranian Revolution “was not about the price of watermelons.” His successors and acolytes have not changed. If the people rise up in revolt over “crumbling infrastructure,” the mullahs will not launch a stimulus program. They will unleash the Basij paramilitaries to crush the revolt, as they did while suppressing the 2009 Green Revolution.

Obama’s idea that “even a repressive regime like Iran’s cannot completely ignore [the] expectations” of their people is laughable. Millions of North Koreans are starving at this very moment and risking life and limb to flee that prison of a country. The North Korean regime has completely ignored the expectations of its people quite effectively and without any damaging consequences. Repressive regimes fall when their leadership and security apparatus is no longer willing to kill its own citizens to maintain power, not when people rise up demanding mass transit and better roads.

Obama also said this in his speech:

The majority of the Iranian people have powerful incentives to urge their government to move in a different, less provocative direction, incentives that are strengthened by this deal.

The language of “incentives” is the language of free societies, not of totalitarian theocracies. It is the sort of comment one might hear in a law school or sociology class. People living in totalitarian societies are in no position to respond to “incentives.” The Iranian people already have sufficient incentive to remove the mullahs; the 2009 Green Revolution demonstrated this. What they lack are the capabilities to defeat the regime’s thugs and enforcers.

When They Shout ‘Death to America,’ They Probably Mean It

The Obama Administration also assumes Iran’s repeated chanting of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” is intended for a domestic political audience, dismissing its greater significance. How does Obama know that this is just political rhetoric and not the actual policy of the mullahs? The mullahs spent the Iraq War providing weapons and guidance to the Iraqi insurgency. Revolutionary Iran was responsible for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 U.S. airmen, the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans, and the 444­-day hostage crisis at the American embassy in Tehran. The regime currently holds four American citizens, including a Washington Post journalist, hostage. There is ample evidence that the Iranian regime actively seeks the deaths of Americans; there is precious little evidence that “Death to America” is merely a campaign slogan.

There is ample evidence that the Iranian regime actively seeks the deaths of Americans; there is precious little evidence that ‘Death to America’ is merely a campaign slogan.

This is yet another example of Obama projecting onto the mullahs his own impulses as a progressive politician. We are all familiar with the statements the Obama Administration puts out statements for domestic political consumption. One of the Iran deal’s lead negotiators, the State Department’s Wendy Sherman, said that the Administration’s public statements that the final Iran deal would include “anytime, anywhere inspections” were just a “rhetorical flourish.” And, of course, there is Obama’s hardy perennial: “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.”

Rhetoric for domestic political consumption is what this Administration does, but it’s hardly the policy of Iranian leaders. In Iran, there is no such thing as a domestic political audience, for there is no such thing as domestic politics. The mullahs run the country, and that’s that. They have no need to persuade the public of the correctness of their decisions.

In his American University speech, Obama made more assumptions about what is in the heads of Iranians:

But superpowers should not act impulsively in response to taunts, or even provocations that can be addressed short of war. Just because Iranian hardliners chant “Death to America” does not mean that that’s what all Iranians believe.

How does he know what all Iranians believe? And why does this matter? What matters is whether the rulers of the country – the people who would have their fingers on the nuclear button – believe in “Death to America.” Not all Germans may have believed in “death to the Jews,” but their Nazi leaders did, and the result was death to the Jews.

Worse, Obama assumes that Iran’s national interest will preclude it from acting on its vile anti­-Semitism. Not long ago he told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg the following:

The fact that you are anti­-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-­Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations.

They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti­-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred, as opposed to self interest.

How does Obama know that the ayatollahs’ anti­-Semitism won’t override all of their other considerations? History is replete with examples of countries taking actions not in their economic or national self­-interest, but rather in the name of anti­-Semitism. The Nazis diverted precious materials from their war effort to maintain the concentration camps and continue the Holocaust, even as their military situation became more desperate.

Obama is once again mistakenly applying his own Western progressive governance and value system onto the Iranian mullahs.

Czarist Russia and the Spanish monarchy expelled highly peaceful and productive Jewish citizens from their societies, disregarding their positive contributions. In fact, recognizing the immense value of the expelled Spanish Jews, the Ottoman Sultan Bayazad II sent his navy to Spain to bring many of them to the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan was well aware of the mistake Ferdinand had made in expelling Spain’s Jews, asking “How can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king, the same Ferdinand who impoverished his own land and enriched ours?”

The idea that a government would not take what Westerners perceive to be “irrational” actions in the name of anti­-Semitism assumes that these governments’ raison­d’être is economic progress, rather than a theological and political commitment to a prejudice belief system. Obama is once again mistakenly applying his own Western progressive governance and value system onto the Iranian mullahs.

Granted, it is difficult for Western minds to grasp the concept of an apocalyptic, theocratic government. Democrats and progressives especially tend to view people as homo economicus, people whose behaviors are driven primarily by economic concerns or living conditions. Apocalyptic Iranian theocrats and their armies are beyond their understanding. But we should avoid concluding that they simply cannot exist.

Evidence Required For Thee, But Not For Me

What is perhaps most troubling is the certainty with which the Obama Administration makes all of its claims. Despite decrying the supposed lack of evidence opponents of the nuclear deal are presenting, the Obama Administration has presented no evidence that Iran plans to fix its “crumbling infrastructure” and fund unfunded pension plans with its sanctions windfall. There is no stimulus program making its way through the Iranian parliament. Public discussion of Iranian “infrastructure” spending has focused on Iran’s oil infrastructure, the mechanism by which the regime makes money. (And a large portion of the Iranian economy is owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is responsible for supporting terrorist attacks, Bashar Assad, and Hezbollah.)

Why is Obama so certain that the same American government that incorrectly assessed Iraq’s WMD program will accurately assess Iran’s nuclear program?

Nor is there any evidence that Iran plans to cease funding Hezbollah and these other terrorist actors. In fact, Obama has conceded that “some of that money will flow to activities that we object to.” But, he claims, “the truth is that Iran has always found a way to fund these efforts.” So his answer is to allow them more funds to commit terrorist acts, because they’d do so anyway?

Still another assumption Obama makes is that the West will have insight into Iran’s nuclear and regional intentions by virtue of this deal. Yet the same Obama who excoriated his predecessor for going to war over incorrect intelligence on WMD in Iraq is today absolutely confident that he has excellent insight and intelligence regarding Iran’s nuclear activities and intentions for the Middle East region. Why is he so certain that the same American government that incorrectly assessed Iraq’s WMD program will accurately assess Iran’s nuclear program? Why is he so confident in his analysis that Iran will spend the bulk of its sanctions windfall to improve the economy and benefit its people, rather than invest in Hezbollah, Bashar Assad’s murderous Syrian regime, and other destabilizing activity in Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere? Just last week CNN, Reuters, and other news outlets reported that the chief of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassam Soleimani, traveled to Russia to negotiate the purchase of S­300 surface-­to-­air anti­-aircraft missiles.

Within ten years a regime that regularly says ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to Israel’ could actually have the means to bring death to Israel.

Most frighteningly, because he is so certain of the rightness of his position, Obama has been unwilling even to consider the question, “What if I am wrong and Netanyahu is right?” What would be the consequences if this were true?

If Netanyahu is right and Obama wrong, within ten years a regime that regularly says “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” will have nuclear weapons and the means to bring death to Israel – a state former Iranian president Rafsanjani referred to as a “one­bomb state” because only one nuclear bomb would be needed to destroy it. Yet Obama never answers that question. Already the Iranians are making noises about prohibiting American inspectors from inspecting military sites. And the “anytime, anywhere” inspections the American people were promised would result from this deal are not, in fact, part of this deal.

The bottom line is that Obama and his foreign policy team are making a huge gamble based on assumptions and projections that the Iranian mullahs have the same approach to governing as any textbook Western Democrat. Obama and his team are absolutely convinced of their position, and they further believe that the only alternative to their position is war. If the first prerequisite of wisdom is self­-doubt, the White House is painfully lacking in wise men and women.

Michael is an attorney in Washington DC for the U.S. government, and a 2002 graduate of Harvard Law School.
Photo by a katz

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