Mark Landler is a White House correspondent for the New York Times. Under the title “Through Diplomacy, Obama Finds a Pen Pal in Iran”, Landler wrote of President Barack Obama’s deep “belief in the power of the written word,” and of his “frustrating private correspondence with the leaders of Iran.” (NYT, Sep. 19)
What is also frustrating is the unabashed snobbery of Landler’s and the NYT’s narrative regarding Iran: that of successive US administrations trying their best and obstinate Iranian leaders—stereotyped and derided—who always fail to reciprocate. This is all supposedly changing though since the new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, who they present as different and approachable, decided to break ranks with his predecessors.
This is of course hardly an appropriate framing of the story. While a friendly exchange of letters between Rouhani and Obama is a welcomed development in a region that is torn between failed revolutions, civil wars and the potential of an all-out regional conflict, it is not true that it is Rouhani’s personality that is setting him apart from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Rouhani’s ‘charm offensive’ as described by the Times is a ‘process’ that ‘has included the release of 11 prominent political prisoners and a series of conciliatory statements by top Iranian officials.’ It is natural then, we are meant to believe, that Obama would make his move and apply his writing skills in earnest. Israel was not mentioned in the story even once, as if the fact that Israel’s decade-long advocacy of sanctioning and bombing Iran has not been the single greatest motive behind the deteriorating relations between Washington and Tehran, long before Ahmadinejad was painted by US media, NYT included, as the devil incarnate.
Dominant US media is unlikely to adjust its attitude towards Iran and the rest of the Middle East anytime soon: the perceived enemies will remain enemies and the historic allies—as in Israel only—will always be that. While that choosy discourse has been the bread and butter of US media, from elitist publications like NYT to demagogues like Fox News, that one-sidedness will no longer suffice as the Middle East region is vastly changing in terms of alliances and power plays.
Iran’s internal politics is multifarious, and the country’s location in a geopolitically complex region makes it impossible, needless to say unfair, to confine the country’s existence to the US whims and expectations. It is US impulses, not the Iranian’s leader lack of letter writing skills that made the relationship extremely difficult since the breakup 34 years ago. Since then, it has been one pretense after the other. At the heart of the US argument is Israel’s security—a doctrine that simply means total Israeli military domination over its neighbors. US insistence to rule over a region it perceives as its domain since the fading of British and French influence in the oil-rich region has its many, violent at times, implications. But there were also many wasted opportunities that could have assured both the US and Iran that mutual respect and cooperation were a possibility worth exploring.
Former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami (in office 1997-2005) was a reformist, and he too was seen as ‘different’. In fact, he did try to reach out to the US, but aside from a few symbolic gestures involving both parties, to no avail. The balances of power were extremely skewed in favor of the US, and politicians with sinister ambitions understood well the danger of reciprocal diplomacy with Iran.
The Obama administration is not particularly keen on peace for its sake, but is realistic enough to understand that the balances of power are constantly shifting. If the US continues with intractable attitude, it will leave the space open for its opponents to gain ground, and could find itself mired in new conflicts with dangerous consequences. Russia, whose political lot in the Middle East has grown to an unprecedented extent, delivered a masterful stroke when it capitalized on US Secretary of State John Kerry’s apparent gaffe regarding Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. On Sep 14, Moscow’s proposal to avert war, turned into an agreement, and in record time the mood had completely shifted from one geared towards an imminent war, to one with ample possibilities.
Of course, while the current civil war is tearing Syria to shreds, Iran and its allies—as well as its enemies—have been key players in the conflict. Now that an agreement has been reached regarding Syria, Tom Curry, a National Affairs Writer with NBC News reported that Obama is hoping the Syria agreement “could point the way to a diplomatic solution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.”
Preparing for all possibilities, Rouhani began a quest to fortify his country’s own alliances. In the recent 13th Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Kyrgyzstan, Rouhani showed willingness to resolve problems surrounding its nuclear weapons program. Empowered by the dissipating chances of war against Syria, and Russia’s growing fortunes as a diplomatic arbitrator, Iran sees an opportunity for a dignified solution.
Evidently, Israel and its Washington allies are not happy. To offset a backlash, Kerry selected Israel as his first destination after the signing of the Syria chemical weapons agreement on Sep. 14. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had warned that Rouhani was no different than his predecessor, must now find a way to restate his country’s relevance, and will continue to find ways to push for war. Republican Senator John McCain’s tireless advocacy for military action is not bearing fruits. His song ‘bomb, bomb, bomb Iran’ couldn’t even deliver a limited strike against Syria. Pro-Israel lawmakers such as Ted Deutch and Peter Roskam are merely urging their government to double its efforts to prevent Russia’s arming of Iran with advanced S-300 air defense systems.
Too little too late. Russia knows well that any turning back on its Iranian ally will not bode well for its longer term interests in the region. Andrei Arashev of the leading Russian think tank Strategic Culture Foundation is calling for “strategic alliance” with Iran, a sentiment echoed elsewhere. To achieve that alliance, but also to ease tensions with Washington, the Russian Kommersant reported that Moscow might offer Antey-2500, an alternative air defense system with equal efficiency. But there is more as “Russia is ready to execute the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline project, ignoring the US sanctions on Iran,” reported Pakistan’s The New International on Sep. 19, citing a Russian minister’s comments in a meeting with Pakistan’s petroleum minister in Islamabad.
It really matters little whether Obama is a true pen pal or not, the same way that his oratory skills have long been disregarded as extraneous. The issue here has much to do with the political landscape in the Middle East, the failed attempt at war in Syria and Iran’s own alliances, starting with Russia. Obama’s alleged morally-driven expectations from Iran’s leaders and his supposed need for a trustworthy Iranian pen pal is all but mere fiction promoted by the New York Times. This strange logic begins and ends there.