Looking at the way the press in the US covered this story, I was deeply surprised to see pundits and other members of the American news media once again commenting on world events as if the Iraq War had never happened. Without recognizing how damaged American credibility has become as a result of the war — no less because it so egregiously abused the UN process through misinformation, bullying, and manipulation — it will be difficult for the American public to appreciate what other countries are doing.
This is right. What is more striking is how oblivious American pundits and journalists are to how diminished U.S. credibility, especially when it concerns disarmament and nonproliferation issues in the Near East, constantly undermines U.S. efforts to compel Iran to limit or eliminate its nuclear program. This is especially true for those who are supposed to understand such things, or who at least build their reputations around the illusion that they understand them. Leave it to Friedman, the globalization guru himself, to misunderstand completely the changing dynamics of international relations in a multipolar world order. Just as Prof. Özel says, Friedman continues to view the world before the Iraq war as if it were still the early 2000s, and so he seems to understand the cooperation of emerging-market democracies with an authoritarian Islamic government within the shoddy framework of “democracy vs. stability” and concludes that anything that contributes to international stability must necessarily come at the expense of democratic reform and human rights. If Turkey and Brazil have made a deal with Iran, they must be on Iran’s “side” and therefore against Iran’s democrats. Obviously, this is a simplistic, absurd way of seeing the world, but this is the way that so many punidts and journalists saw it before the war started.
Noah Millman has very carefully dissected the flaws in Friedman’s argument that I criticized last night, and we agree that Friedman’s wish to aid Iran’s opposition is directly at odds with the confrontational policy course he supports. Millman writes:
Meanwhile, there’s precious little evidence that a confrontational policy – granting for the sake of argument that such a policy could be successful in delaying or even ending the Iranian nuclear program – does anything to bolster the opposition or to improve the prospects for liberalization. The leadership of the opposition opposes harsh sanctions and emphatically opposes any military action by the West against Iran.
One of the more cynical political maneuvers of the last year has been the adoption of the cause of the Green movement by Iran hawks in the West. It has been quite effective for the purposes of lending the political cover of opposition to authoritarian rule to a confrontational course of sanctions and perhaps eventually military action. This has allowed Iran hawks to win over other Westerners who genuinely sympathize with the opposition and have come to loathe the Iranian government to such an extent that they cannot tolerate the thought of fully engaging with it. Even though a confrontational course will do nothing for the opposition, and it will almost certainly destroy its political hopes, many of the opposition’s would-be friends in the West have sided with the Iran hawks because they find the hawks’ hostility to the Iranian government emotionally and morally satisfying. Millman wonders how Friedman could fail to see the importance of several of his favorite themes when it comes to Iran, but I think Millman underestimates how important this emotionally satisfying anti-regime posturing is to people like Friedman.
This underscores that actual Iranian democratization and liberalization matter far less even to many of the Green movement’s sympathizers than we might think. What seems to matter more is staking out a sufficiently anti-regime position that allows these people to hold themselves out as friends of Iranian reform, which then allows them to denounce the governments that are actually doing the constructive work of engaging with and investing in Iran. As for the hawks, Iranian democratization and liberalization are secondary or tertiary concerns to the extent that they matter at all, and hawks express support for these things mainly because they believe that a more democratic, liberal Iran would be a more compliant, pro-American one. Of course, as we have seen with Turkey and Brazil’s diplomatic free-lancing and greater assertiveness in international affairs, democratization does not necessarily produce the obedient regional powers that many in the U.S. would like to have.
Where Millman may be slightly mistaken is in his proposed offer of a “carrot” to Iran. Overall, I think he is right that the U.S. has a lot to offer Iran in terms of economic exchange and investment, and it would benefit both countries to integrate Iran more fully into the global economy, but Millman may overstate the extent to which Iran’s ability to make this transition depends on the goodwill and cooperation of the U.S. Increasing trade with Turkey and Brazil is one hint that Iran’s integration into the global economy is happening with or without U.S. help or approval. Emerging-market nations may account for as much as 51% of global GDP in 2014, and already made up 45% of it two years ago, and their share will only grow larger over time. The largest emerging-market economies are in countries whose governments are friendly or willing to do business with Iran. Apparently the administration and much of the chattering class are unwilling to see it, but Turkey and Brazil have done the U.S. a favor by demonstrating rather dramatically that we cannot continue to count on our political and economic power, great as it still is, to be able to pull the rest of the world in directions it does not want to go.
The administration has been operating on the assumption that Iran is increasingly isolated in the world, but Turkey and Brazil have shown clearly that this was never true. Iran’s economic integration with the rest of the world will continue despite Washington’s best efforts to isolate it. Instead of Iran missing its chance to “board,” Washington may find that it has missed its best opportunity to make a sustained, constructive opening to Iran, and various emerging-market nations will take advantage of our continued self-imposed isolation from Iran and its market.