Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Notes Toward a New Iranian Cold War

Jay Solomon, The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East

I had a grim suspicion I’d dislike this book in Chapter One, when author Jay Solomon describes visiting Iran’s Holy Defense Museum. He describes a display of cars, in which Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated, putatively by Mossad, as “chilling,” “ghostly,” and “grisly.” As though memorializing the dead were morally offensive. The images he describes sound less awful than a typical Catholic crucifix, but they’re Iranian, so...

Solomon’s official press biography identifies him as “chief foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.” Reading this patchwork of innuendo, weasel words, and lies of omission, one wonders what back-of-the-matchbook journalism school Solomon attended. I’d expect rigorous, fact-checked evidence from somebody of Solomon’s standing. Yet I uncovered numerous half-truths, dissimulations, and prevarications by double-checking his claims on my smartphone. He barely even tries to conceal his equivocations.

For instance: very early, Solomon pitches Iran’s military ambitions, capabilities, and size in grim apocalyptic terms. He specifically sells the Qods Force, Iran’s special forces. He never mentions that, despite having six times the Navy SEALs’ manpower, they’ve never won long-term extraterritorial battles against state-based enemies. Iran’s biggest international conflict, the Iran-Iraq War, sputtered to a draw after eight years. Jane’s Defense Group notes one-party states seldom win overseas conflicts.

Or, Solomon says Iran’s religious dictatorship explicitly hates American capitalism. He never mentions why. This elides that American agents, prompted by global petroleum interests, overthrew a secular, democratically elected Iranian government in 1953. Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh had previously chased the Shah into exile; Americans reversed this. Sure, that was over sixty years ago, and America publicly regrets this now. But religious demagogues keep this memory alive.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaking to Iranian diplomats
in Vienna earlier this year (State Department photo)
Finally, Solomon writes that Ronald Reagan “concocted a plan to ship missiles to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. … The scheme became known as the Iran-contra scandal and nearly led to the impeachment of President Reagan.” Anyone old enough to remember the televised Congressional hearings knows that’s half the truth: Reagan’s Israeli allies urged hostage releases merely to sweeten the deal.

President Reagan commenced unauthorized diplomatic negotiations with a state enemy, Iran, sold them weapons for money, and shipped the proceeds to anti-Communist contra rebels in Nicaragua. Congress had expressly forbidden supporting the contras, accused of crimes against humanity. Reagan faced impeachment for circumventing Constitutional checks. Only Ollie North eating the blame saved Reagan from becoming another Richard Nixon, and Reagan redeemed his image only through years of PR campaigning.

We can debate whether Iran has proven itself an international bad actor. I believe it has, but for reasons other than Jay Solomon claims. Informed readers will notice multiple occasions where Solomon tells half the story, based on incomplete, spun, or sometimes largely fabricated evidence. This reads less like journalism, more like a book-length op-ed praising Cold War. My problems come across most acutely when Solomon actively belittles diplomacy.

Though Solomon concedes early that the Obama Administration’s diplomatic efforts probably averted war in 2013, he disparages diplomacy’s long-term efficacy. He notes that the administration’s concessions, particularly its economic compromises, are permanent, while Iran’s concessions on development and inspections have a ten-year sundown provision. Solomon would prefer, um, something. He’s vague on what he’d rather, but explicitly regards diplomacy as the art of giving bad guys what they want.

Former FBI lead international hostage negotiator Chris Voss writes that people who swagger into negotiations, making demands and talking tough, often feel morally vindicated, and look good on camera. They seldom get what they want, though. People who listen sincerely, make strategic horse-trades, and remain amenable to change—people who, in short, practice diplomacy—more often come out ahead. Would America rather act tough, or successfully defend its interests?

Because, seriously, that’s the dichotomy Jay Solomon offers. He chastises the Obama Administration for reversing nearly forty years of policy practice, saying a serious America doesn’t negotiate, it demands. But two generations of high-handed demands have permitted Iran’s leadership to retrench itself while, not coincidentally, black marketeers have enriched themselves circumventing America’s economic sanctions. This book’s thesis is, essentially, let’s double down on policies that demonstrably don’t work.

I tried remaining fair-minded. In drafting this review, I tried saying: Stripped of Solomon’s editorializing, this book might make an informative primer on American-Iranian diplomatic history. But I can’t even say that, because Solomon omits just enough information to frustrate informed readers, and mislead uninformed. By misinforming his readers and fanning flames, Solomon goes beyond mere disservice to the facts. I believe this book actively encourages nationalistic unawareness.

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