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Stephen Gottlieb: Iran

Iran’s position looks a bit stronger once the war in Gaza shifted everyone’s gaze.  But let’s use the breather to understand the bombast about Iran which will surely return.

Public bombast is not an effective or accurate way to get so-called messages to the other side. What goes on in private is vastly different. Diplomacy is private until public deals are reached and announced.

That bombast, that competition to see who can say tougher things about Iran, is for us – it’s for domestic politics. When an occasional administration takes its public bombast too seriously, as the Bush Administration did, we are all in trouble. The public stuff is posturing. Only the private exchanges confront reality.

When we, at home, take that political theatre too seriously, we are in trouble. And we may be. Trita Parsi, who spoke recently at the Writers’ Institute at the University at Albany and also at Sienna College, outlined the problem.

Of all the countries in the Middle East, Iran is one of the few that have had lengthy direct dealings with Israel. And Iran actually acceded to American demands when the leaders of Turkey and Brazil, with Obama’s blessing, flew to Iran and convinced the Iranians to agree to send nuclear fuel from Iranian stockpiles to the west for conversion into medical supplies. But weeks after giving Turkey and Brazil the go-ahead, congressmen in tough races here at home pressured Obama to look tough toward Iran by rejecting it. Iran had rejected it earlier also for reasons of domestic politics – opponents of Ahmadinejad did not want him to get the credit for improving relations with the Americans. Diplomacy takes time.

Nobody on either side is crazy. There are high stakes games going on, in which Iran’s bombast is aimed at the Sunni Arab world, including its outrageous denials of the Holocaust, and American bombast about the bomb is missing the reality of Iranian politics but may bring about what we claim to fear.

Iran knows that India’s bomb begot Pakistan’s bomb and that India immediately went from a large, and overwhelming, traditional force, to a mere nuclear equal of Pakistan. Think of Bahrain and every other Sunni neighbor with a bomb! Iran isn’t crazy. But loud public screaming about American superpower can spook them or, more likely, leave Iran with only one counter-threat left in this high stakes back and forth about bombs and sanctions.

In other words the most important lesson for the American and pro-Israeli public is to stand down and get our politicians to stand down, drop the posturing, and show some confidence that given a chance, and patience, diplomacy can make Iran part of a much more peaceful neighborhood.

Presidents and Secretaries of State are not supposed to overreact. Lots of people who should know better but see political points are pushing for tougher, nastier language filled with threats. That’s not smart. Politicians who pander, by demanding tougher language and nastier threats, should be punished, not rewarded, for getting in the way of good sense.

If you’re interested in learning more, I’d suggest Trita Parsi, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran. His work is a real eye-opener. One only hopes that the kind of good sense he shows can spread among the American public and our representatives.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.