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 First Lady took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention, and united a divided hall.
Most convention speeches are forgotten almost before they’re finished. But tonight in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that will be replayed, quoted, and anthologized for years. It was as pure a piece of political oratory as this campaign has offered, and instantly entered the pantheon of great convention speeches.
Obama stepped out onto a stage in front of a divided party, including delegates who had booed almost every mention of the presumptive nominee. And she delivered a speech that united the hall, bringing it to its feet.
She did it, moreover, her own way—forming a striking contrast with the night’s other speakers. She did it without shouting at the crowd. Without overtly slamming Republicans. Without turning explicitly negative. Her speech was laden with sharp barbs, but she delivered them calmly, sometimes wryly, biting her lower lip, hitting her cadence. It was a masterful performance.
When something goes wrong, I start with blunder, confusion, and miscalculation as the likely explanations. Planned-out wrongdoing is harder to pull off, more likely to backfire, and thus less probable.
But it is getting more difficult to dismiss the apparent Russian role in the DNC hack as blunder and confusion rather than plan.
“Real-world” authorities, from the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia to FBI sources to international security experts, say that the forensic evidence indicates the Russians. No independent authority strongly suggests otherwise. (Update the veteran reporters Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef cite evidence that the original hacker was “an agent of the Russian government.”)
The timing and precision of the leaks, on the day before the Democratic convention and on a topic intended to maximize divisions at that convention, is unlikely to be pure coincidence. If it were coincidence, why exactly now, with evidence drawn from hacks over previous months? Why mail only from the DNC, among all the organizations that have doubtless been hacked?
The foreign country most enthusiastic about Trump’s rise appears to be Russia, which would also be the foreign country most benefited by his policy changes, from his sowing doubts about NATO and the EU to his weakening of the RNC platform language about Ukraine.
For the party elders, day one of the convention was about scolding the left back together.
Against a restive backdrop, the party’s top lieutenants were forced into the role of prime time peacemakers, tasked with encouraging Democratic unity in a party that has only lately acquiesced to tenuous detente. They did so through a combination of alarmist truth telling—borne from the reality of a Trump-Clinton matchup that has lately gotten tighter—and cold-water scolding about party division—driven equally by frustration and exhaustion.
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
The Democratic chairwoman had few supporters—but clung to her post for years, abetted by the indifference of the White House.
PHILADELPHIA—As Debbie Wasserman Schultz made her unceremonious exit as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, what was most remarkable was what you didn’t hear: practically anybody coming to her defense.
The Florida congresswoman did not go quietly. She reportedly resisted stepping down, and blamed subordinates for the content of the leaked emails that were released Friday, which clearly showed the committee’s posture of neutrality in the Democratic primary to have been a hollow pretense, just as Bernie Sanders and his supporters long contended. She finally relinquished the convention gavel only after receiving three days of strong-arming, a ceremonial position in the Clinton campaign, and a raucous round of boos at a convention breakfast.
Psychologists have long debated how flexible someone’s “true” self is.
Almost everyone has something they want to change about their personality. In 2014, a study that traced people’s goals for personality change found that the vast majority of its subjects wanted to be more extraverted, agreeable, emotionally stable, and open to new experiences. A whopping 97 percent said they wished they were more conscientious.
These desires appeared to be rooted in dissatisfaction. People wanted to become more extraverted if they weren’t happy with their sex lives, hobbies, or friendships. They wanted to become more conscientious if they were displeased with their finances or schoolwork. The findings reflect the social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s notion of “crystallization of discontent”: Once people begin to recognize larger patterns of shortcomings in their lives, he contends, they may reshuffle their core values and priorities to justify improving things.
Two new novels ponder the still-urgent question of what could have compelled young women to do such terrible things.
The most fascinating part of the Manson story has always been the girls.
Not the man who cobbled together bits of hippie philosophy, Scientology and How to Win Friends and Influence People to gather followers who’d do his bidding and help make him a star (and when that didn’t work out, kill people to try to start a race war). The ones willing and vulnerable enough to be gathered. Who wanted a community to belong to.
Even now, no one knows whether Charles Manson believed his own insane manifesto, or was just using it as a tool to get what he wanted. But the girls believed. Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins—they believed. They belonged. And then, on two infamous evenings in 1969, they helped kill seven people.
Stock-market crashes, terrorist attacks, and the dark side of “newsworthy” stories
Man bites dog. It is one of the oldest cliches in journalism, an acknowledgement of the idea that ordinary events are not newsworthy, whereas oddities, like a puppy-nibbling adult, deserve disproportionate coverage.
The rule is straightforward, but its implications are subtle. If journalists are encouraged to report extreme events, they guide both elite and public attitudes, leading many people, including experts, to feel like extreme events are more common than they actually are. By reporting on only the radically novel, the press can feed a popular illusion that the world is more terrible than it actually is.
Take finance, for example. Professional investors are fretting about the possibility of a massive stock-market crash, on par with 1987’s Black Monday. The statistical odds that such an event will occur within the next six months are about 1-in-60, according to historical data from 1929 to 1988. But when surveys between 1989 and 2015 asked investors to estimate the odds of such a crash in the coming months, the typical response was 1-in-10.
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.