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Avoiding Apocalypse on the Korean Peninsula

Pyongyang
Photo by AdobeStock/Mieszko9

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

Defense Secretary James Mattis remarked recently that a war with North Korea would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” No kidding. “Tragic” doesn’t even begin to describe the horrors that would flow from such a conflict.

The Korean peninsula, all 85,270 square miles of it, is about the size of Idaho. It contains more soldiers (2.8 million, not counting reserves) and armaments (nearly 6,000 tanks, 31,000 artillery pieces, and 1,134 combat aircraft) than any other place on the planet. The armies of North and South Korea face each other across the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, and Seoul, South Korea’s capital, is a mere 35 miles away as the artillery shell flies. More than 25 million people inhabit that city’s greater metropolitan area, home to about half of South Korea’s population. Unsurprisingly, untold numbers of North Korean missiles and artillery pieces are trained on that city. Once the guns started firing, thousands of its denizens would undoubtedly die within hours. Of course, North Koreans, too, would be caught in an almost instant maelstrom of death.

And the war wouldn’t be a bilateral affair.  South Korea hosts 28,500 American troops. In addition, there are some 200,000 American civilians in the country, most of them in Seoul.  Many in both categories could be killed by North Korean attacks and the United States would, in turn, hit multiple targets in that country.  Pyongyang might retaliate by firing missiles at Japan, where 39,000 American troops are stationed, concentrating on the network of American bases and command centers there, especially the U.S. Services Headquarters at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo.

And that’s without even considering the possible use of nuclear weapons.  If anything, Mattis’s description is an understatement.  And don’t assume that the danger of a Korean conflagration has passed now that President Trump has become trapped in the latest set of political scandals to plague his administration.  Quite the opposite: a clash between North Korea and the United States might have become more probable precisely because the president is politically besieged.

Trump wouldn’t be the first leader, confronted with trouble at home, to trigger a crisis abroad and then appeal for unity and paint critics as unpatriotic.  Keep in mind, after all, that this is the man who has already warned of “a major, major war” with North Korea.

Trump vs. Kim

So far the coercive tactics Trump has used to compel North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and cease testing ballistic missiles have included sanctions and asset freezesmilitary threats, and shows of force — both serious, as in the recent Key Resolve and Operation Max Thunder joint military exercises with South Korea, and farcical, as with a supposedly northward-bound naval “armada” that actually sailed in the opposite direction. 

Such moves all involve the same presidential bet: that economic and military pressure can bend Pyongyang to his will.  Other American presidents have, of course, taken the same approach and failed for decades now, which seems to matter little to Trump, even though he presents himself as a break-the-mold maverick ready to negotiate unprecedented deals with foreign leaders.

By now, this much ought to be clear, even to Trump: North Korea hasn’t been cowed into compliance by Washington’s warnings and military muscle flexing.  In 2003, after multilateral diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea ran aground, Pyongyang ditched the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and two years later declared that it possessed nuclear weapons.  In October 2006, it detonated its first nuclear device, a one-kiloton bomb.  Four other tests in May 2009, February 2013, January 2016, and September 2016, ranging in explosive yield from four to 10 kilotons, followed.  Three of them occurred after the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, came to power in April 2012.  

A similar pattern holds for ballistic missiles, which North Korea has been testing since 1993.  The numbers have risen steadily under Kim Jong-un, from four tests in 2012 to 25 in 2016.

Clearly, the North’s leaders reject the proposition that American approval is required for them to build nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles.  Like his father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or DPRK, North Korea’s official name), Kim Jong-un is an ardent nationalist who regularly responds to threats by upping the ante.  Trump’s national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, characterized Kim as “unpredictable.”  In reality, the Korean leader, like his father and grandfather before him, has been remarkably consistent: he has steadfastly refused to stop testing either nuclear weapons or their possible delivery systems, let alone “denuclearize” the Korean peninsula, as McMaster demanded.  

Indeed, from Pyongyang’s perspective Trump may be the unpredictable one.  On one day, amid press reports that the Pentagon was considering a preventive strike using means ranging from Tomahawk cruise missiles to cyber attacks, the president declared ominously that North Korea “is a problem, a problem that will be taken care of.”  He followed up by warning Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he was then hosting at his Mar-a-Lago estate, that if China wouldn’t rein in Kim, the United States would act alone.  Not so long after, Trump suddenly praised Kim, calling him a “pretty smart cookie,” presumably impressed that the North Korean leader wasn’t even 30 years old when he succeeded his father.  On yet another day, the president announced that he would be “honored” to meet Kim under the right circumstances and would do so “absolutely.” 

The roller-coaster ride otherwise known as the presidency of Donald Trump has many people perplexed. Trump’s boosters believe that the president’s unpredictability gives him leverage against adversaries.  But in the event of a military crisis on the Korean peninsula, Trump’s pendulum-like behavior could lead North Korea’s leaders to conclude that they had best prepare for the worst — and so strike first.  That prospect makes the Kim-Trump combination not just dangerous but quite possibly deadly. 

Old Claims, New Possibilities

Standing in the way of a fresh policy toward North Korea are a set of assumptions beloved within the Washington Beltway and by the foreign policy establishment beyond it — and rarely challenged in the mainstream media.

Perhaps the most common of them is that diplomacy and conciliation toward North Korea won’t work because its leaders only respond to pressure.  So pervasive and deeply rooted is this view that it makes fresh thinking about Pyongyang next to impossible.

Given the failure of both sanctions and saber rattling, however, a new approach would have to involve diplomacy (in case you’ve forgotten that word) and serious negotiations with the North. Here’s one possible way to go that might, in fact, make a difference.

North Korea would agree, in principle, to dismantle its nuclear weapons installations, rejoin the NPT, and allow comprehensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to verify its compliance.  Concurrently, the United States would pledge not to attack North Korea or topple its regime and to move toward normalization of political relations.  

Major steps taken by North Korea on the path to denuclearization would be matched by cuts in American military forces in South Korea.  Once Pyongyang delivered completely, the United States would remove all its forces and fully lift economic sanctions on the North.  

The United States, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia would undertake to fund and, for some of its future energy needs, build new Light-Water Reactors (LWRs), which reduce the risk of bomb-grade plutonium production.  These would be subject to regular inspections and electronic surveillance by the IAEA and all spent fuel would be transported out of North Korea.  The dismantling of the North’s nuclear facilities, verified by intermittent inspections and continuous electronic monitoring, would — as in the nuclear deal with Iran — prevent the production of weapons-grade plutonium (PU-239) or uranium (UR-235)

Once these steps were completed, both Koreas would begin to pull back their troops massed along the Demilitarized Zone and so create an even wider region free of weapons and troops between the two countries.  They would agree not to reintroduce troops and armaments into the vacated areas and to allow monitoring by international observers.  Over perhaps a 10-year span the two states would commit to additional military pullbacks plus reductions in the number of weapons each possessed, focusing on retiring those most suited to offensive warfare.

If Trump is indeed prepared to meet with Kim, it should be to do a deal along these lines, not to deliver in person the sort of ultimatums that the North has rejected for years.

The Diplomacy-Won’t-Work Trope

Typically, proposals like these are dismissed on the grounds that they combine the worst of all worlds: the appeasement of a despotic regime and reckless naïveté. 

Let’s start with the appeasement charge, the gist of which seems to be that Pyongyang’s cruelties bar diplomatic engagement with it.  This claim amounts to sanctimonious puffery and historical amnesia.  The United States has, in various forms, supported a vast array of despotic regimes, including Greece during the brutal “regime of the colonels” (1967-74); Indonesia under Suharto (who presided over the slaughter of half a million people in 1965-1966); and Iraq under Saddam Hussein during the 1980s, when his government was gassing Kurds and razing their villages.  And of course in South Korea there was the U.S.-backed government of President Syngman Rhee (1948-1960), whose security forces killed more than 100,000 people, 30,000 to 60,000 in the infamous 1948 Cheju massacre alone, as part of an effort to decimate any left-wing opposition in the country.

North Korea’s state, while undeniably repressive, has persisted for more than 60 years and must be part of any plan to reduce the risk of war on the peninsula.  Attempting “regime change,” à la Iraq in 2003 or Libya in 2011, would certainly prove disastrous.  In comparison, the upheaval and death that followed the ousters of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi would seem minor and the bloody reverberations of such an event would extend far beyond the peninsula. 

Counting on China, Pyongyang’s principal benefactor, or Russia to squeeze North Korea so that it undertakes far-reaching reforms amounts to wishful thinking.  Neither country wants to trigger instability there for fear that the country might collapse, creating mayhem on its borders and releasing a floodtide of refugees that they would have to deal with.  In addition, China views the North as a buffer with South Korea, an American ally and a forward base for U.S. military power.  From Beijing’s vantage point, if changes in North Korea careened out of control, the eventual result could be a unified Korean state allied with Washington.  For the Chinese, the status quo on the peninsula, while anything but ideal, beats such a roll of the dice.  Beijing has been willing to impose sanctions on Pyongyang and sees it as mercurial and reckless, but it is not about to strangle it economically.

As for the charge of naïveté when it comes to a proposal to begin the partial demilitarization of the peninsula, that’s part and parcel of prevailing Washington orthodoxy, a deep conviction that North Korea will never surrender its nuclear weapons as part of a grand bargain.  In fact, progress toward just such a denuclearization was made during Bill Clinton’s presidency, when the sticks were briefly put aside and the carrots brought out.  In October 1994, negotiations led to what was called the Agreed Framework.

Its details are complicated, so brace yourself for a barebones summary: North Korea agreed to shut down its reactor at Yongbyon, place the plant’s spent fuel in sealed containers for shipment out of the country, stop construction on two larger reactors (at Yongbyon and Taechon), remain a party to the NPT, and permit the IAEA to inspect its nuclear sites to verify the agreement’s implementation.  In exchange, the United States, Japan, and South Korea undertook, through a consortium, to build two light-water reactors (LWRs) suitable for generating electricity but not for producing weapons-grade plutonium and to provide Pyongyang with 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil pending the completion of the reactors. 

Eventually the Agreed Framework fell apart, a development for which all the parties share blame.  North Korea’s ongoing missile tests, while not banned by the deal, bolstered the accord’s critics in Washington.  It also faced resistance in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, which in 1994 were, for the first time in four decades, in Republican hands, while the Clinton administration proved inept in defending the agreement.  Having stopped producing plutonium at Yongbyon, North Korea complained about the delay in building the LWRs.  (Work on the first reactor didn’t start until August 2002.)  The South Korean government, stuck with partially funding those plants, was unenthusiastic, too.

The Bush administration arrived in office in 2001 ready to shred the Agreed Framework.  Soon enough, however, it sought to resurrect a version of that deal during the “Six-Party Talks,” which began in 2003 and included both Koreas, the United States, Russia, China, and Japan. 

Here again the details are labyrinthine, but the basic formula that emerged did indeed resemble the Agreed Framework: North Korea was to receive both those LWRs and economic aid in exchange for freezing and then dismantling its nuclear program.  The North Koreans even allowed American and other technical experts to observe it shutting down the Yongbyon reactor.  It also provided reams — 18,000 pages to be exact — of documentation on its nuclear program.  Most importantly, having frozen plutonium production in 1994, it continued to do so until 2003.

For its part, the Bush administration removed North Korea from the State Department’s list of countries accused of sponsoring terrorism and exempted it from the Trading with the Enemy Act.  

There were also threats, theatrics, and setbacks aplenty.  In the end, the Six-Party Talks failed for reasons similar to those that killed the Agreed Framework: quarrels over the nature and scope of verification procedures, North Korea’s missile tests and confirmation of reports that it had embarked on efforts to build uranium-based nuclear weapons, and U.N. sanctions.  President George W. Bush, of course, included that country, along with Iran and Iraq, in what he infamously termed the “axis of evil,” which he called a “grave and growing danger” in his January 2002 State of the Union address.  His administration also listed North Korea in the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review as one of the states that might become the target of a preventive strike.

The lessons to be drawn from this grim record are not that North Korea will not negotiate, let alone that it won’t ever agree to freeze, or even terminate, its nuclear program.  Instead, the history of these failed deals should be looked to for ideas on better ways to reach a consensus-based solution. 

This much remains clear: the more Pyongyang suspects that Washington’s real goal is regime change, the less likely it will be to relinquish its nuclear weapons for fear of suffering the fate of Muammar Gaddafi, who shut down his nuclear program only to be toppled in what began as a U.S. and NATO humanitarian intervention to protect civilians but morphed quickly into a campaign to take him out.

North Korea and the Legacy of War

The notion that North Korea couldn’t possibly fear an American attack and that its claims to the contrary amount to paranoia reflects a stunning ignorance of history.  Between 1950 and 1953, North Korea experienced firsthand the devastation the American military machine was capable of inflicting.  As Charles Armstrong, a historian of Korea, has written, in those years “American planes dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on Korea — that is, essentially North Korea — including 32,557 tons of napalm, compared to 503,000 tons of bombs dropped in the entire Pacific theater of World War II.” Armstrong estimates that 12%-15% of the North Korean population might have died, “a figure close to or surpassing the proportion of Soviet citizens killed in World War II.” 

As happened during the Anglo-American terror bombing of Germany and Japan, the distinction between civilians and soldiers, so central to International Humanitarian Law and Just War Theory, was defenestrated.  Many Americans know about the bombing of Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki and the deliberate targeting of civilians in an attempt to break their morale.  But few know what happened to North Korea in the early 1950s.  In his haunting book, On the Natural History of Destruction, W.G. Sebald writes that Germans did not discuss the wartime bombings because Nazi crimes made them hesitant to cast moral judgments on other states, no matter what they had done to Germany.  There has been no such repression of memory or reticence by the state or the citizenry of North Korea.  

As a result, the usual dismissals of Pyongyang’s apprehension about what the United States might do to a denuclearized country are both callous and foolish.  Successful negotiations would mean taking its security concerns seriously, not rejecting them as paranoid demands, especially given that American military power remains so close, that Washington has threatened to attack the North more than once, and that the American president only recently boasted to the president of the Philippines (in a conversation leaked online) of the two U.S. nuclear submarines that were evidently somewhere off the North Korean coast at that moment.

Cutting the Umbilical Cord

A grand bargain that combines aid and political normalization in return for denuclearization and the pullback and reduction of troops on the Korean peninsula could be made even more attractive to Pyongyang if it included a phased withdrawal of the 28,500 American troops in South Korea.  The standard claim — that this would leave South Korea defenseless — is ludicrous.

South Korea has twice the population of the North: 50.6 million to 25.2 million, and they are better educated, far better fed, and much healthier. Just look at the data on life expectancyinfant mortality, and the amount and quality of calories consumed.  The South, then, has far more and better human capital.

The gap in economic power is gargantuan.  South Korea, an industrial and technological powerhouse, has a $1.5 trillion gross domestic product (GDP), the world’s 12th largest.  Valued at $30 billion, North Korea’s ranks 115th internationally, barely ahead of Senegal’s.  In other words, South Korea’s economy is about 50 times larger than the North’s, and its per capita GDP ($37,900) exceeds North Korea’s ($1,800 — and so comparable to South Sudan’s) by a factor of 21.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about investments in education and technology or living standards, South Korea inhabits a different universe than the North.

Confronted with such economic comparisons your garden variety Washington military wonk might quip, “Fine, but GDP doesn’t fight.”  Fair enough, strictly speaking.  So let’s ignore the multiple ways in which wealth shapes military power and consider the military data alone.  The results may surprise you.

According to the most recent State Department estimate, South Korea spends more than seven times what North Korea does on its armed forces. And given the South’s technological prowess and purchases of American arms, it has a far more modern military than the North, which still uses Soviet and Chinese armor and aircraft developed during the 1950s and 1960s.  Then there’s the relative burden of military spending. South Korea allocates 2.6% of its GDP to its armed forces, North Korea, 23.3%. In other words, South Korea can easily increase military spending without undue hardship.  Not so North Korea.

Remember this the next time you hear that the North has many more troops, tanks, artillery, and submarines. Remember as well that the numerical balance is about even or substantially favors the South in other armaments, such as combat aircraft, frigates, and destroyers.  

In other words, in a future settlement that includes a stage-by-stage U.S. military withdrawal, South Korea will hardly be left defenseless.

Averting Apocalypse?

Since the end of the Korean War, crises on the peninsula have come and gone.  Some have been dangerous indeed.  In the run-up to the 1994 Agreed Framework, for example, Defense Secretary William Perry proposed military options that included increasing the number of American troops in South Korea and readying long-range bombers and aircraft carrier battle groups to strike the Yongbyon reactor.

Still, the current crisis has no equal.  Sitting in the White House is a president whose narcissism knows no bounds, whose ignorance of the world is staggering, who talks blithely about war and nuclear weapons, and who is besieged by political scandals.  Meanwhile, North Korea’s ruler, like his predecessors, refuses to be cowed by American shows of force and continues to test ballistic missiles — three in May alone.

A deal resembling the one sketched above may never be reached and, given past history, it won’t be arrived at easily. Yet threats and displays of military power by the United States haven’t worked.  Ever.  If President Trump acts on the assumption that he and “his” generals can make them work and that North Korea will become reasonable only when faced with the certainty of war, there could be a conflagration on the Korean peninsula the likes of which would be almost unimaginable.


Rajan Menon, a TomDispatch regular, is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, and Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. He is the author, most recently, of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Rajan Menon

America’s Iran Hysteria

 Iran
Photo by Adobe Stock/Borna_Mir

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

“Everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters on a mid-April visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, “you find Iran.”

I must admit that when I stumbled across that quote it brought up uncomfortable personal memories.

East Baghdad, January 25, 2007: my patrol had missed a turn and so we swung onto the next grimy avenue instead.  As platoon leader, I rode shotgun in the second of our four vehicles, yakking away on the radio.  The ensuing explosion rocked the senses: the sound, the blinding dust, and the smell — a mix of burnt metal and, well... I still can’t bring myself to describe it.

Our lead HMMWV, a military utility vehicle, aimlessly swerved right and came to rest beside a telephone pole. Only then did the screams begin.

The “cost” would be two wounded and two dead: my then-unborn son’s namesakes, Specialist Michael Balsley and Sergeant Alexander Fuller.  These were our first, but not last, fatalities.  Nothing was ever the same again.  I’m reminded of poet Dylan Thomas’s line: “After the first death, there is no other.”

The local militia had shredded our truck with an advanced type of improvised explosive device that was then just hitting the streets of Baghdad — an explosively formed projectile, or EFP.  These would ultimately kill hundreds of American troops.  Those EFPs and the requisite training to use them were provided to Iraqi militias by the Islamic Republic of Iran. It’s a detail I’m not likely to forget.

Still, there’s one major problem with bold, sweeping pronouncements (laced with one’s own prejudices) of the sort Secretary of Defense Mattis recently offered on Iran: they’re almost always wrong.  It’s the essential flaw of “lumping” — that is, of folding countless events or ideas into one grand theory.  But, boy, does it sound profound!  The truth is that Iran is simply not behind most of the turmoil in the Middle East, and until Washington’s policymakers change their all-Iran-all-the-time mental model, they are doomed to failure.  One thing is guaranteed: they are going to misdiagnose the patient and attack the wrong disease.

Look, I’m emotionally invested myself.  After all, I fought Iranian-trained militiamen, but a serious, workable national strategy shouldn’t rely on such emotion.  It demands a detached, rational calculus.  With that in mind, perhaps this is the moment — before the misdiagnosis sets in further — to take a fresh look at the nature of America’s thorny relationship with Iran and the Islamic Republic’s true place in the pantheon of American problems in the Greater Middle East.

Let’s start this way: How many Americans even realize that there are only three countries in the world with which their country has no ongoing diplomatic relations at all? Actually, the number was four until the Obama administration began slowly normalizing bilateral ties with one longtime member of the naughty list: Cuba.  How many could name the three remaining states on that roll of shame?  The first and easiest to guess is surely North Korea; the most obscure is Bhutan (the “Switzerland of the Himalayas”).  And, yes, of course, last but by no means least is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Think of all the scoundrels not on that list: Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe; our Pakistani “frenemy”; Vladimir Putin’s Russia; Equatorial Guinea with its craven, 40-year dictator, accused of cannibalism; and, until 2012, Bashar al-Assad’s grim Syrian regime.  Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. kept an embassy in the Soviet Union and it similarly maintained formal relations with apartheid South Africa.  As of 2014, the State Department officially dealt with nine-tenths of the globe’s most abusive regimes, according to the Human Rights Risk Atlas.

So, is the secretary of defense correct? Is Iran really behind all regional trouble in the Greater Middle East?

Hardly.  In fact, such an assertion — and the language of absolutes that goes with it — is by definition problematic.  In a Washington filled with Iranophobes, the demonization of that country is already a commonplace of everyday political chatter and it almost invariably rests on three inflated assumptions about Iran’s menacing nature: that it is on an eternal quest to develop and perhaps employ nuclear weapons (especially against Israel); that it massively supports regional “terrorists” and their proxies; and that it regularly exhibits an unquenchable desire to establish its regional hegemony by force of arms.  All three suppositions rest on another faulty assumption: that Iran has a straightforwardly dictatorial system of fundamentalism led by irrational “mad mullahs.”

Let’s consider each of these propositions.

The Iran Exaggeration

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a Middle Eastern country — no, not Israel — but one with a sizeable, protected Jewish community, a place where Islam is the state religion but its president regularly tweets Rosh Hashanah greetings for the Jewish New Year.

Sounds like somebody’s wild fantasy, but it’s actually Iran.  In fact, the Islamic Republic sets aside one mandatory seat in its parliament for a Jew, three for Christians, and another for a Zoroastrian.  It would be a mistake to conclude from such token gestures that Iran is a paragon of tolerance.  But they do speak to the complexity of a diverse society full of paradox and contradiction.

It certainly is a land in which hardline fundamentalists chant “Death to America!” It’s also a country with an increasingly young, educated populace that holds remarkably positive views of Americans.  In fact, whatever you might imagine, Americans tend to have significantly more negative views of Iran than vice versa.   Don’t be shocked, but Iranians hold more positive views of the U.S. government than do the citizens of Washington's allies like Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey.  In reality, there’s long been a worrying paradox in the region: an inverse relationship between the amiability of a government’s relationship with Washington and the favorability ratings of this country among its people.

In other words, when it comes to Iran... well, it’s complicated.  The trouble is that Americans generally don’t do nuance.  We like our bad guys to be foreign and unmistakably vile, even if such a preference for digestible simplicity makes for poor policy.

If you want to grasp this point more fully, just think about Secretary of Defense Mattis’s recent statement again. He assures us that Iran’s shadow hovers over every regional crisis in the Middle East, which is empirically false.  Here, for instance, are just a few recent conflicts that Iran is not behind or where its role has been exaggerated:

* The Arab Spring and the subsequent chaos in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.  Iran didn’t start or significantly influence the uprisings in those countries.

* Turkey’s decades-long war with separatist Kurds in its southeast provinces.  Again, not Iran.

* The ongoing spread of al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria and on the Arabian Peninsula.  Iran actually abhors such groups, and certainly wasn’t behind their rise.

* Or, if you want, take Yemen, since supposed Iranian meddling in the Middle East’s poorest state happens to be one of the favorite drums Washington’s Iranophobic hawks like to beat.  And yet a range of credible reports suggest that the much-decried collusion between Iran and the Houthi rebels, who are the focus of the Saudi war in that country, is highly exaggerated.

Look, Iran is a significant, if often thwarted and embattled, regional power and a player, sometimes even a destabilizing one, in various regional conflagrations.  It supports proxies, funds partner states, and sometimes intervenes in the region, even sending in its own military units (think Syria).  Then again, so does Saudi Arabia (Yemen and, in funding terms, elsewhere), the United Arab Emirates (Yemen), Russia (Syria), and the United States (more or less everywhere).  So who’s destabilizing whom and why almost invariably turns out to be a matter of perspective.

The State Department and various other government agencies regularly label Iran the world’s leading “state sponsor of terrorism” — and that couldn’t sound more menacing or impressively official and authoritative.  Yet to tag Iran as #1 on any terror list is misleading indeed.  The questions worth asking are: Which terrorists?  What constitutes terrorism?  Do those “terror” outfits truly threaten the U.S. homeland?

As a start, in 2016, the State Department’s annual survey of worldwide terrorism labeled ISIS — not Iran, Hezbollah, or the Houthis — as "the greatest [terror] threat globally." How do we square that “greatest sponsor” stamp with an Iran that has proven both thoroughly hostile to and deeply invested in the fight against ISIS and various al-Qaeda-linked groups in Iraq and Syria?

Iran does support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.  However, lumping regionally focused nationalist organizations like Hezbollah with genuine global jihadist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda (in its proliferating forms) is deceptive, often purposely so.  The Lebanon-based Hezbollah, for example, is largely fixated on Israel, but has sometimes even fought ISIS in Lebanon and Syria.  In other words, Hezbollah, though it had previously attacked U.S. troops in the region, isn’t sending its operatives to crash planes into American buildings.

To think of it another way, more foreign ISIS volunteers hail from Belgium or the Maldives Islands than from Iran. In fact, most of the top sources of ISIS’s foreign recruits (Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan) turn out to be “friendly” American “partners.”  From 1975 to 2015, Iranian-born terrorists inflicted zero deaths in attacks on U.S. soil.  In contrast, citizens of key U.S. allies — Saudis, Egyptians, and Lebanese — killed thousands on 9/11.  In fact, since then, 85% of domestic terrorists turned out to be American citizens or permanent residents.  Most were American-born.  Of the 13 U.S. citizens involved in such fatal terror attacks, none were Iranian-American.

As to the charge that Iran is by nature an aggressive power, there can be little question that the Islamic Republic aggressively pursues its regional interests.  That, however, by no means makes its moves automatically antagonistic to Washington’s interests in the region.  If anything, as a Pentagon assessment concluded in 2014, its military strategy is ultimately defensive in nature and based on a feeling of being threatened, which makes sense when you think about it.  After all, when it comes to American power — from the 1953 CIA-British coup that overthrew Iran’s elected prime minister and installed the autocratic Shah to Washington’s support for Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein in his war of aggression against Tehran (1980-1988) to the present administration’s all-in support for the autocratic Saudis in an anti-Iranian partnership, they have legitimate reasons to feel threatened.

In addition, unlikely as it may seem to most Americans, on certain issues like a Taliban-free Afghanistan, the U.S. and Iran actually have had converging, if complex, interests. Additionally, though Iran once promoted Iraqi Shiite militias that attacked and killed U.S. troops (including my soldiers, Mike Balsley and Alex Fuller), today, both countries desire a relatively stable, ISIS-free Iraq. None of this is easy to swallow (least of all by me), but prudent strategy demands a dispassionate, rational assessment of inherently emotional issues.  Unfortunately, when it comes to Iran, that’s hardly an American predilection at the moment. 

The Company We Keep 

In 1957, the U.S. supplied a key regional leader with his first (“peaceful”) nuclear reactor, as well as the necessary scientific training for those who would run it and some weapons-grade uranium to power it. Then, in the 1970s, American experts began to fear that their partner might be seeking to develop nuclear weapons on his own.  A few years later, revolutionaries overthrew him and inherited that American-originated program. That leader was, of course, the man the Americans had installed as ruler of Iran in 1953, Reza Shah Pahlavi.

It always struck me as odd that Iran made the cut for the very exclusive membership in George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.”  After all, unlike those 15 Saudi hijackers and perhaps even the Saudi government, it had no connection to 9/11 and was “comprehensively helpful” in the initial takedown of the Afghan Taliban and the arrest of fleeing al-Qaeda fighters.

By contrast, consider just a few of Washington’s “partners” in the region:

* Saudi Arabia: this monarchy enforces a strict brand of conservative Wahhabi Islam not so terribly different from the basic theology of ISIS.  The Saudi government publicly executes an average of 73 people per year, including juveniles and the mentally ill.  Beheading is the favored technique. (Sound familiar?)  Nor are all the victims convicted murderers.  According to a 2015 Amnesty International report, “Non-lethal crimes including adultery, robbery, apostasy, drug-related offenses, rape, ‘witchcraft,’ and ‘sorcery’ are punishable by death.”  In addition to its citizens carrying out the 9/11 attacks, Saudi Arabia supported a branch of al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra) in the Syrian conflict.  Furthermore, its ongoing U.S.-backed air strikes against Yemen’s Houthi rebels have been killing numerous civilians and may have helped to cause and further intensify a disastrous famine. The U.S. response: a record-breaking $110 billion arms deal for the Saudis.

* Egypt: In the wake of a 2013 coup d’état led by General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi against an elected government, that country’s military gunned down hundreds of demonstrators.  Since then, its strongman has used “mass, arbitrary arrests,” tortured detainees, and conducted “extrajudicial executions” — all in the interest of retaining power.  The U.S. response: $1.4 billion in (mostly military) foreign assistance in fiscal 2017.  To top it off, President Trump recently invited Sisi to the White House, lauded the dictator’s “fantastic job in a very difficult situation,” and is planning a future visit to Egypt.

* Turkey: this formal ally boasts NATO’s second largest military and hosts an important U.S. airbase.  Unfortunately, Turkey is increasingly unstable thanks to a recent coup attempt, its ongoing war with Kurdish separatists, and an escalating intervention in Syria’s civil war.  Worse yet, after relaunching an internal war against Kurdish rebels, its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has taken the country into distinctly autocratic terrain in the wake of a narrow victory in a referendum that does away with the office of prime minister and further centralizes executive power in his hands.  Turkey’s deteriorating human rights record includes the pre-trial detention of more than 40,000 coup “suspects,” the summary dismissal of 90,000 civil servants, the shuttering of hundreds of offices of nongovernmental organizations and media outlets, and the imposition of a 24-hour curfew in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern part of the country. The U.S. response: $3.8 million in direct (military) assistance in fiscal 2017, and promises to continue arms sales which topped $2.3 billion last year.

This motley crew has one thing in common — they’re no angels. 

“Rip It Up”

Iran hawks live on both sides of the political aisle.  In 2015, for example, Hillary Clinton told an audience at Dartmouth College that Iran represents “an existential threat to Israel.”  Though she expressed tacit support for Obama’s then-pending nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — she added that “even if we do get such a deal, we will still have major problems... [Iran is] the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism.”

When it comes to real rancor toward Iran, however, you have to look to the right.  Senator John McCain, for instance, immediately cried foul about the JCPOA, calling it a “bad deal” likely to “nuclearize” the Middle East.  More colloquially, as both a candidate and as president-elect, Donald Trump repeatedly vowed to “rip it up,” while former governor and presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee accused President Obama of “marching the Israelis to the door of the oven.”

Despite the bellicose rhetoric, intelligence and congressional testimonyindicate that Iran is complying with the JCPOA.  Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey — not exactly a dove — believed that the deal reduced the risk of Iran weaponizing its nuclear power. All the appeals from the president, various pundits, neocons of every sort, and congressional hawks to withdraw from it also neglect an obvious reality: the JCPOA is a multilateral deal and none of our partners (Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany) will support “tearing up” the agreement.  Imagine the optics of a future American unilateral abrogation of an agreement Iran is complying with: the onus will be on Washington alone; its allies will continue to abide by the deal and, with genuine justification, Iran’s leaders will be able to depict the Americans as destabilizing “cowboys.” 

Here’s the reality of the present situation: despite decades of sanctions and the military containment of Iran, the U.S. has not significantly affected its policies or stance in the region.  Few in Washington display the courage to ask the crucial question: Why continue?  Why not a creative new approach — the gradual normalization of relations?

Though you wouldn’t know it, given the prominence of Iranophobes in Washington, the U.S. has little to lose.  Current policy is counterproductive in so many ways, while Washington’s never-ending bellicosity and threats to “rip up” the nuclear agreement only undercut Iran’s moderates and the eminently sensible President Hassan Rouhani, who recently won a smashing electoral victory against a hardline, fundamentalist opponent in which a stunning 73% of Iranian voters cast ballots. Why not make it more, not ever less, difficult for Iran’s conservatives to vilify the U.S.?

Forty Years of Failure

There’s an uncomfortable truth that Washington needs to face: U.S. policy toward Iran hasn’t achieved its goals despite almost four decades of effort since an American-installed autocrat was overthrown there in 1979.  Foreign policy hawks — Democrats and Republicans alike — will undoubtedly fight that reality tooth-and-nail, but as with the Cuban embargo, Iranian isolation has long outworn any imagined usefulness.  That ostracizing Iran remains fashionable reflects domestic political calculus or phobic thinking, not cogent strategy, and yet our new president just traveled to Saudi Arabia, a truly autocratic country, and in the wake of an Iranian election that was by all accounts resoundingly democratic, denounced that land as despotic and all but called for regime change

So here’s a question that, believe it or not, is okay to ask and is not actually tantamount to treason: What exactly does Iran want and fear?  It wants international legitimacy, security, and a reasonable degree of regional power (not world domination). It fears continued isolation, any coalition of hostile Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia (assisted by Israel), and U.S.-sponsored attempts at regime change. If you think that makes the Iranians sound paranoid, just check out the recent celebratory get-together in Saudi Arabia or remember how, just before the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, Newsweek quoted a senior British official summing up the situation in Washington this way: “Everyone wants to go to BaghdadReal men want to go to Tehran.”

In sum, U.S. policy in the Middle East is confused, contradictory, counterproductive, and dangerous.  It could leave Washington involved in a war with Iran. (And given our recent wars in the region, imagine where that’s likely to land us.)

The U.S. doesn’t require more enemies. Its hands are already full enough without additional faux “existential” threats or, as John Quincy Adams warned so long ago, eternally going “abroad seeking monsters to destroy.”

Oddly enough, the Trump administration has a unique opportunity to normalize relations with Iran.  While President Obama’s modest overtures toward that country were greeted with scathing partisan scorn, President Trump might just be able to garner enough Republican support to do so much more, were he ever to try.  At the moment, he clearly possesses no such plans, and yet, as only Nixon could go to China, perhaps only Trump can go to Tehran!

My small bit of advice, however: don’t hold your breath...


Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

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Copyright 2017 Danny Sjursen