Stephen Gottlieb: Dealing With Iran | WAMC

Stephen Gottlieb: Dealing With Iran

Mar 16, 2021

The only thing wrong with democracy in America is that some people don’t agree with me! Seriously, I have my blind spots too.  But it’s also true that the public finds it difficult to hold different things in mind at once. That’s one of the hardest things about playing the piano – one has to control two hands doing different things at the same time. Coordination is hard and hard for the brain, although over time we learn to do it for the things that we have to do every day. When it gets to law or foreign affairs, coordination is a constant issue, enough to give one a headache. But good law and good policy depend on it.

Lots of Americans have a very poor opinion of Iran. But which one? I know lots of Persians who are truly lovely. Whether you realize it or not, you’ve started to hear many Persian-Americans as newscasters or actors in Hollywood and elsewhere. I must say that a complement from Persians is a thing of beauty. I’m sure I would have had a much happier wife if I had been able to learn their skill at complements. Their friendship is strong and permanent.

So perhaps what people mean is their attitude toward the Persian government – but even that isn’t simple. Should they hate America because they despise Trump? Or love America because of their hard-earned respect for Obama – no pushover for them but he understood the lines they could not cross and sought to build trust that could strengthen over time, were it not for the recently defeated White House occupant. America isn’t any simpler for them than Iran is for us.

People, most people, react with great hostility to threats. We do. They do. Threats make us harden our position and try to force adversaries to back down. In that respect they are just like us.

For seven decades America tried to build foreign policy based on law – law that we as well as others would have to abide. As the delegates to the Constitutional Convention repeatedly commented, when one breaks a contract, the other is freed from obligations under it. Trump kept screaming that Iran was in breach. But they adhered to the contract long after we had pulled out, until they finally grew exasperated with us. And once we pulled out, they no longer had any obligations to us. So who was in violation of legal obligations and what does that mean, not only for Iran, but for the rest of the world?

Many people have been trying to get across to us that the rest of the world no longer trusts us. Sure, one can point to things that didn’t go our way over those seventy years, but if you take a closer look, we were calling the shots, and got lots of things we couldn’t have gotten otherwise, as long as we were trustworthy.

Biden apparently believes that his first foreign policy job is to pander to the people of America even though they’ve got it terribly wrong. Only if he can regain for America the trust others once had in us, can we move forward on the big issues that will take international cooperation. It won’t be by shouting. It won’t be by threatening. It won’t be by pulling out of our obligations and trying to blame the other guy. Honoring our commitment to Iran in the nuclear deal that we and several other nations made with Iran is no shame. It’s an important step in a constructive foreign policy.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

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