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.
Some fans are complaining that Zack Snyder’s envisioning of the Man of Steel is too grim—but it’s less a departure than a return to the superhero’s roots.
Since the official teaser trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice debuted online in April, fans and critics alike have been discussing the kind of Superman Zack Snyder is going to depict in his Man of Steel sequel. The controversy stems from Snyder’s decision to cast Superman as a brooding, Dark Knight-like character, who cares more about beating up bad guys than saving people. The casting split has proved divisive among Superman fans: Some love the new incarnation, citing him as an edgier, more realistic version of the character.
But Snyder’s is a different Superman than the one fans grew up with, and many have no problem expressing their outrage over it. Even Mark Waid, the author of Superman: Birthright (one of the comics the original film is based on), voiced his concern about Man of Steel’s turn toward bleakness when it came out in 2013:
New research confirms what they say about nice guys.
Smile at the customer. Bake cookies for your colleagues. Sing your subordinates’ praises. Share credit. Listen. Empathize. Don’t drive the last dollar out of a deal. Leave the last doughnut for someone else.
Sneer at the customer. Keep your colleagues on edge. Claim credit. Speak first. Put your feet on the table. Withhold approval. Instill fear. Interrupt. Ask for more. And by all means, take that last doughnut. You deserve it.
Follow one of those paths, the success literature tells us, and you’ll go far. Follow the other, and you’ll die powerless and broke. The only question is, which is which?
Of all the issues that preoccupy the modern mind—Nature or nurture? Is there life in outer space? Why can’t America field a decent soccer team?—it’s hard to think of one that has attracted so much water-cooler philosophizing yet so little scientific inquiry. Does it pay to be nice? Or is there an advantage to being a jerk?
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Changing neighborhoods may be a class issue, but in America, that means it's also a racial one.
Ask city-dwellers to describe what, precisely, gentrification is you’ll get an array of answers. The term is a murky one, used to describe the many different ways through which money and development enter poorer or less developed neighborhoods, changing them both economically and demographically.
For some, gentrification and gentrifiers are inherently bad—pushing out residents who are often older, poorer, and darker than the neighborhood’s new occupants. For others, a new group of inhabitants brings the possibility of things residents have long hoped for, better grocery stores, new retail, renovations, and an overall revitalization that often eludes low-income neighborhoods.
Rebel groups that employ terror in civil wars seldom win or gain concessions—but they tend to prolong conflicts, a new paper finds.
Nearly 14 years into the war on terror, there are signs of terrorism all around us, from Memorial Day tributes to the victims of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the raging Congressional debate over reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act.
Yet some of the most basic information about terrorism remains surprisingly elusive. For example: Does it work?
There have been some attempts at answering the question, but many of them are either largely anecdotal or geographically constrained. Other studies have focused on international terror. But as political scientist Page Fortna of Columbia University notes, the vast majority of terrorism isn’t transnational—it’s localized, fought in the context of civil wars and fights for territorial control. Many of the intractable conflicts the U.S. is fighting today fit this definition: ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other groups in Iraq and Syria; Boko Haram in Nigeria; Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya; Yemen’s civil war; and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Is terrorism an effective tool when used in those conflicts?
In an interview, the U.S. president ties his legacy to a pact with Tehran, argues ISIS is not winning, warns Saudi Arabia not to pursue a nuclear-weapons program, and anguishes about Israel.
On Tuesday afternoon, as President Obama was bringing an occasionally contentious but often illuminating hour-long conversation about the Middle East to an end, I brought up a persistent worry. “A majority of American Jews want to support the Iran deal,” I said, “but a lot of people are anxiety-ridden about this, as am I.” Like many Jews—and also, by the way, many non-Jews—I believe that it is prudent to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of anti-Semitic regimes. Obama, who earlier in the discussion had explicitly labeled the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an anti-Semite, responded with an argument I had not heard him make before.
“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” he said, referring to the apparently almost-finished nuclear agreement between Iran and a group of world powers led by the United States. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”
Advocates say that a guaranteed basic income can lead to more creative, fulfilling work. The question is how to fund it.
Scott Santens has been thinking a lot about fish lately. Specifically, he’s been reflecting on the aphorism, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for life.” What Santens wants to know is this: “If you build a robot to fish, do all men starve, or do all men eat?”
Santens is 37 years old, and he’s a leader in the basic income movement—a worldwide network of thousands of advocates (26,000 on Reddit alone) who believe that governments should provide every citizen with a monthly stipend big enough to cover life’s basic necessities. The idea of a basic income has been around for decades, and it once drew support from leaders as different as Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon. But rather than waiting for governments to act, Santens has started crowdfunding his own basic income of $1,000 per month. He’s nearly halfway to his his goal.
The former secretary of state jettisons sweeping rhetoric, and focuses on specific policies.
Hillary Clinton has been an official candidate for president for five weeks, and she still hasn’t done the thing most candidates do on day one: given a speech laying out her vision for America. Nor is she planning on doing so anytime soon. Politicoreports that Hillary’s “why I’m running for president,” speech, initially scheduled for May, has now been delayed until June, or even later.
There’s a reason for that: The speech is unlikely to be very good. Soaring rhetoric and grand themes have never been Hillary’s strengths. That’s one reason so many liberals found her so much less inspirational than Barack Obama in 2008. And it’s a problem with deep roots. In his biography, A Woman in Charge, Carl Bernstein describes Hillary, then in law school, struggling to articulate her generation’s perspective in an address to the League of Women Voters. “If she was speaking about a clearly defined subject,” Bernstein writes, “her thoughts would be well organized, finely articulated, and delivered in almost perfect outline form. But before the League audience, she again and again lapsed into sweeping abstractions.”
Why agriculture may someday take place in towers, not fields
A couple of Octobers ago, I found myself standing on a 5,000-acre cotton crop in the outskirts of Lubbock, Texas, shoulder-to-shoulder with a third-generation cotton farmer. He swept his arm across the flat, brown horizon of his field, which was at that moment being plowed by an industrial-sized picker—a toothy machine as tall as a house and operated by one man. The picker’s yields were being dropped into a giant pod to be delivered late that night to the local gin. And far beneath our feet, the Ogallala aquifer dwindled away at its frighteningly swift pace. When asked about this, the farmer spoke of reverse osmosis—the process of desalinating water—which he seemed to put his faith in, and which kept him unafraid of famine and permanent drought.