September 30, 2011

Rhetoric, Reactionaries, and Repercussions

What do the political spheres in the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have in common?  They both possess groups with a penchant for dramatic acts and belligerent rhetoric that serve no purpose other than to provoke the other side and raise the specter of war.

Take the recent provocative boasts by Iranian officials that they plan to send warships off the United State’s eastern seaboard.  This came on the same day that it announced it had begun mass-producing new cruise missiles for its navy.  While Iran’s ability to follow through with such threats is highly questionable, the fact that these threats ratchet up tensions and raise the risk of conflict is not.

But for all of the bluster coming out of Iran, the U.S. has plenty of its own policymakers who are just as guilty of saber-rattling and equally culpable for the rise in tensions.
For we can all but guarantee that references to Iran’s latest empty threats to make their way into plenty of talking points on both sides of the aisle this election season as candidates and pundits serve up red meat to brandish their “tough on Iran” credentials.  And as sanctions legislation is pushed through Congress, Iran’s bluster and bluffs will only be given validation by Republican and Democratic hawks eager to grease the skids for enacting harder-line U.S. policies.
And one only need look at the revelation of the Obama Administration’s decision to sell bunker busting bombs to Israel–bombs that could be used to strike Iranian underground nuclear facilities–as a signal that the U.S. is providing Israel with the means to carry out the military option, which the U.S. has so consistently reminded Iran remains on the table.  The deal happened to make headlines at the same time as perceptions that the President’s support among Jewish voters was declining reached a fever pitch domestically.
Yet as an armed conflict would be disastrous for both our countries, why is there such a seeming enthusiasm for war and why do not more moderate groups step in?
The reason is two-fold.  On the one hand, hawks on both sides continue to fuel the feud through their rhetorical one-upmanship that only increases the tension.  Every time a hardliner on the Iranian side spouts off with provocative rhetoric, there is neoconservative counterpart on the U.S. side the next day who seizes on that rhetoric to advance their case for more hawkish policies.  The brinkmanship is a vicious cycle of escalation.
At the same time, these hardliners have succeeded in framing the debate in such a way that to come out with anything less than war mongering rhetoric is to look weak on foreign policy or to be abandoning the revolution, in the U.S. and Iran respectively.  Thus, in such a political environment, cooler heads are often prevented from taking the steps necessary to reduce the chance of war.
In light of such a dynamics, the calls by the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen for the U.S. to set up channels of communication between Tehran and Washington, is all the more laudable.  For as groups in each country continue their saber rattling with little concern for the increasing risk of conflict, reason seems to dictate that steps must be taken to deescalate and avoid a destructive conflict that serves neither side’s interests.
Yet already we have already seen hawks in both countries doing their best to put the kibosh on Mullen’s hotline idea.  The Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi quickly rejected the idea, and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton railed against a hotline that would help protect U.S. soldiers in the field because talking can only “enhance Iran’s prestige.”
Given that Iran poses little threat to the U.S. homeland and is not the existential threat to Israel that is often claimed, and given that the path to war we are on can only lead to disastrous outcomes, why do we continue to let hardliners in the U.S. and Iran frame our foreign policy options?

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