Sunday, March 7, 2010

Zbigniew Brzezinski on Iran: Still Clueless After All These Years

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By Barry Rubin

I remember it as if it were yesterday. January 20, 1977. I was visiting an esteemed professor at Georgetown University and we were talking about the new Carter Administration. The conversation went to Zbigniew Brzezinski who was going to be the new national security advisor. Mark my words, said the professor, who knew the man well and had studied international relations for decades, this country will live to regret that he is in office.

He was right. Brzezinski played a leading role in the mismanagement of U.S. policy toward the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis (for details, see my book Paved with Good Intentions).  Brzezinski is one of those people who has a huge reputation and yet it is hard to see why. Every few years he comes up with a grand theory and clever phrase to describe the status of the world. He's proven wrong, but both errors and theory are soon forgotten when he invents a new one. Since I worked in close proximity for several years I was able to observe this phenomenon first-hand.

Reportedly, he played a role as advisor when the Obama Administration was getting started. I don't think he plays any major role now but it shows the continuity of his influence with policymakers and prestige with the media.

Now Brzezinski has given us his view of the current situation of Iran. It is fairly typical of his opus. It's not that everything he says is bad. A lot of it is conventional and obvious: try to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons and if it does then warn it against using them, give guarantees to countries in the region, and provide some support to the opposition.

In the longer run, he adds, Iran will change:

"This is a country with a growing urban middle class, a country with fairly high access to higher education, a country where women play a great role in the professions," he says. "So it is a country which I think, basically, objectively is capable of moving the way Turkey has moved."

The problem here is not the over-optimism on Iran but the unintentional irony of his reference to Turkey. "The way" Turkey has moved is toward Islamism, the same direction that Tehran went in some thirty years earlier. And to apply what happened in Turkey in the 1920s, during a very different era, to the current situation in Iran shows a breathtaking lack of both knowledge and seriousness.

But more dangerous than this is the very conventionality of his response. The idea that, as Gerald Seib writes up the interview:

"There's a chance, he thinks, that Iran isn't seeking to possess actual nuclear weapons, but trying to become `more like Japan, a proto-nuclear power' with a demonstrated ability to make nuclear arms without actually crossing that line."

And that a U.S. policy can succeed in, again Seib's wording, succeed in "coaxing it into more responsible behavior." or that a U.S. defense umbrella "should be sufficient to deter Iran."

Because Brzezinski doesn't seriously consider the irrational (or perhaps it would be better to say radical ideology and high level of risk-taking) aspects of the regime while, even more important, not taking into account the political effect of Iranian nuclear weapons on a region he once called the "arc of crisis."  Will an Obama Administration have the credibility for its guarantees to be taken seriously by those whose survival is at stake and will consider appeasement a better bet?

Equally left out is how having the confidence engendered by the possession of nuclear weapons would make Iran bolder in subverting other countries and sponsoring terrorism without shooting off the missiles.

Again, a policy of guarantees plus containment, sanctions and supporting the opposition is certainly a framework for dealing with a nuclear Iran. Yet to set up such a system and think that it is sufficient or that the only threat is a direct Iranian nuclear attack in the current context of Washington thinking is to soothe policymakers into dangerous complacency. 

One day, someone will write a devastating intellectual biography of Brzezinski. I look forward to reading it.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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