Even if Iran ended its nuclear program forever, the two sides disagree over so many issues that their conflict will almost certainly continue to be fought on the margins and in the shadows
Iranian school girls stand in front of a satirized drawing of the Statue of Liberty, painted on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, as they hold posters of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei / AP
The alleged Iranian terror plot exposed last month served as a reminder of just how wide the gulf between the United States and Iran has become. While the ongoing conflict over its nuclear pursuits is generally the top Iranian priority of U.S. policy makers and analysts -- as the overwhelming attention on this week's International Atomic Energy Agency report on the Iranian nuclear program demonstrates -- the breadth of issues on which the United States and Iran are fundamentally at odds suggests that, even if the nuclear question were resolved tomorrow, U.S.-Iran ties would be unlikely to change for the better.
When he was campaigning in 2007 and 2008, Barack Obama pledged to extend an unprecedented overture to the Islamic Republic. But events in Iran -- namely, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's apparent fraud in the 2009 election and the subsequent violent crackdown on protesters -- and the diplomatic logjam over the nuclear issue have so far blocked any progress in improving relations. On three occasions in as many years, U.S. diplomats have sat down with high-level Iranian officials to discuss confidence-building measures as part of the six-party body negotiating the nuclear issue. But each time, the talks produced no progress, leaving the Obama administration little other option but to pursue additional sanctions and pressure. Even on technical matters that garnered wide support among experts (such as the recent proposal floated by Ahmadinejad to give up 20 percent enrichment in return for nuclear fuel purchased on the open market) there has been insufficient political will within Washington to pursue direct talks.
Vali Nasr, a former senior advisor [with the State Department, described in a recent interview how the diplomatic push never really got off the ground. "We really didn't have an engagement effort with Iran," he said. Western capitals demand that Iran suspends its nuclear program, while Tehran demands as a precondition for any negotiations that the world acknowledge its right to enrich uranium. Getting beyond this seemingly simple impasse has taken up the bulk of Obama's first term.
When the Justice Department announced it had uncovered the Iranian terror plot, the major international incident that followed was only the latest downturn in the already sour U.S.-Iran relationship. The points of conflict between the two sides are myriad: Iran's nuclear activities, support for global terrorism (including refuge to al Qaeda figures), domestic human rights violations, support for the Taliban, working against the U.S. in Iraq, aiding the crackdown in Syria, sponsoring Hezbollah and Hamas; the list goes on. Whenever one side has sought to address an issue, history has intervened to quash any possibility of reconciliation. It's no wonder analysts are fond of saying the U.S. and Iran never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
Some writers in the U.S. advocate a grand bargain as the only way out of the three-decade deadlock. By recognizing and accommodating Iran's position as a leader in the region and scaling back U.S. commitments accordingly, they say, the two states can have peace. But precisely because the list of grievances is so long, a grand bargain would be very unlikely to work. Could the U.S. and Iran realistically expect a single deal to address nuclear enrichment, human rights, and their divergent interests in the many Middle Eastern states where both are involved? It's doubtful. The paradox of a grand bargain is that if you don't solve everything all at once, you can't solve anything.
In the absence of cooperation, Iran and the U.S. are locked in strategic conflict. This conflict is asymmetric; it utilizes cyber warfare, espionage, and proxy forces. Western forces should expect more provocative acts from Iranian swift boats in the Persian Gulf, and Iranians should expect more computer viruses and more scientists targeted by assassins. Iran is extending its navy to expand its global reach, and if the evidence behind the recent terror plot holds up, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps may be seeking to expand its operations into America's backyard.
If forced to, the U.S. could probably contain even a nuclear-capable Iran without difficulty. The U.S. rightly decided against an airstrike on IRGC bases in retaliation for the terror plot, as it has so far with any plans for a surgical strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. It would be nearly impossible avoid escalation after such a strike, possibly to outright war.
For now, Iran's political leaders appear too internally divided to radically alter the trajectory of their foreign or nuclear policies. The bad news is that this makes it harder for the U.S. to alter those Iranian policies; the good news is that this makes it easier for the U.S. to anticipate Iran's future moves. Since neither side wants a head-to-head clash, the conflict will almost certainly continue to be fought on the margins and in the shadows. This has been acceptable to the U.S. because it's exactly the kind of conflict we're so good at keeping up.
The most pressing challenge for the U.S. in its ongoing conflict with Iran is to avoid escalation.
As long as the two sides are unable to cooperate systematically on issues of concern, they should find ways to avoid a major provocation such as a U.S. attack or unintentionally inviting an Iranian decision to openly pursue nuclear weapons.
It may be tempting to call this a new Cold War, but there's at least one important difference: the U.S. has exceedingly superior capability on nearly every plane or area of potential conflict. Regardless of how unpopular the U.S. is in the region, Iran has a much harder time extending its influence beyond its borders in a way that might shift the regional balance of power in its favor. With the Arab Spring, its soft power in the region is trending downward.
This competition has its risks for the U.S. too. If Washington overreacts to provocations, overextends its commitments, or overestimates the threat it faces from Iran, then the U.S. can in fact lose. But if we recognize Iran not as an existential threat but rather a strategic competitor whose behavior can be constrained, then there is no reason this conflict cannot be managed effectively.
Patrick Disney is currently a graduate student focusing on Iran and nuclear nonproliferation at Yale University. He previously served as the Assistant Policy Director for the National Iranian American Council.
The comedian's n-bomb at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner highlights a generational shift in black culture.
Georgia McDowell was born the daughter of farmers and teachers in North Carolina in 1902. She was my great-grandmother, and she taught me to read, despite the dementia that clouded her mind and the dyslexia that interrupted mine. I loved Miss Georgia, though she kept as many hard lines in her home as she had in her classrooms. One of the hardest lines was common to many black households: The word “nigger” and all of its derivatives were strict taboos in person, on television, and on radio from any source, black or otherwise, so long as she lived and breathed. She’d kept the taboo through decades of teaching black students and raising black children. For most of my childhood, the taboo was absolute.
When Apple announced in 2013 that its next iPhone would include a fingerprint reader, it touted the feature as a leap forward in security. Many people don’t set up a passcode on their phones, Apple SVP Phil Schiller said at the keynote event where the Touch ID sensor was unveiled, but making security easier and faster might convince more users to protect their phones. (Of course, Apple wasn’t the first to stuff a fingerprint reader into a flagship smartphone, but the iPhone’s Touch ID took the feature mainstream.)
The system itself proved quite secure—scanned fingerprints are stored, encrypted, and processed locally rather than being sent to Apple for verification—but the widespread use of fingerprint data to unlock iPhones worried some experts. One of the biggest questions that hung over the transition was legal rather than technical: How might a fingerprint-secured iPhone be treated in a court of law?
The billionaire’s bid for the nomination was opposed by many insiders—but his success reveals the ascendance of other elements of the party coalition.
In The Party Decides, an influential book about how presidential nominees are selected, political scientists John Zaller, Hans Noel, David Karol, and Marty Cohen argue that despite reforms designed to wrest control of the process from insiders at smoke-filled nominating conventions, political parties still exert tremendous influence on who makes it to general elections. They do so partly through “invisible primaries,” the authors posited—think of how the Republican establishment coalesced around George W. Bush in 2000, long before any ballots were cast, presenting him as a fait accompli to voters who’d scarcely started to think about the election; or how insider Democrats elevated Hillary Clinton this election cycle.
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
The Massachusetts Supreme Court will decide whether a local shrine should be tax-exempt—a decision that could have broad implications for faith organizations in America.
Property-tax battles are rarely sexy. But a case now in front of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, about whether the 21 religious brothers and sisters who run the Shrine of Our Lady of LaSalette in Attleboro should have to pay taxes, could have huge repercussions. The Court’s decision will be an important part of the ongoing debate in America about who defines religious practice—believers or bureaucrats—and whether religion itself should be afforded a special place under the law.
The case centers on a colonial-era law in Massachusetts that exempts religious houses of worship and parsonages from property taxes if they are used for religious worship or instruction. The shrine has enjoyed this perk since its founding in 1953. But in recent years, the City of Attleboro, nestled between Providence and Boston, has faced a tightening budget. It began looking to see where it could collect more revenue. The shrine, the only major tourist attraction in town, was an obvious target for tax collectors.
For some, abandoning expensive urban centers would be a huge financial relief.
Neal Gabler has been a formative writer for me: His Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity was one of the books that led me to think about leaving scholarship behind and write nonfiction instead, and Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination was the first book I reviewed as a freelance writer. To me, he exemplifies the best mix of intensive archival research and narrative kick.
So reading his recent essay, "The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans," was a gut punch: First, I learned about a role model of mine whose talent, in my opinion, should preclude him from financial woes. And, then, I was socked by narcissistic outrage: I, too, struggle with money! I, too, am a failing middle-class American! I, too, am a writer of nonfiction who should be better compensated!
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Home,” the second episode of the sixth season.
Every week for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
She dominated among the white working class in Kentucky and West Virginia in 2008, but many of those voters have deserted her this time around.
In the 2008 Democratic primary, Appalachia was the heart of Clinton country.
Hillary Clinton did better against Barack Obama in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Arkansas—her longtime home state—than anywhere else in the nation. She captured more than two-thirds of the Democratic vote in Kentucky and West Virginia in May of that year, landslides that gave her campaign a late jolt and enough momentum to stay in the race for the duration of the primaries.
Clinton returned to Kentucky on Monday for the start of a two-day bus tour through Appalachia, and her strength there eight years ago now seems hard to fathom—even to her. The white, working-class voters that embraced her message of resilience in 2008 have deserted her for Bernie Sanders in many primaries in 2016; she has relied instead on the African American and Latino voters who preferred Obama in 2008. Clinton has won the cities, but Sanders has trounced her in rural America.