Beards and those who hide behind them


I’ve heard a lot of reasons to oppose sanctions as a means to contain Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program — some more persuasive, some less so — but none as dumbfoundingly dumb as the straw men propped up Monday by Hillary Mann Leverett, the former Bush administration staffer who helped coordinate America’s post-9/11 dealings with the Islamic Republic.

Sanctions proponents, Leverett said, speaking on a panel on Iran and diplomacy Monday at J Street’s conference, are "reinforcing stereotypes of Iranian duplicitousness" in saying that Iran was an unreliable partner; she accused them of perpetuating "fundamentally racist" stereotypes by referring to Iranians as "carpet merchants" and suggesting the leaders were "hiding behind their beards."

I have encountered such racist stereotypes — among Sunni Arabs deriding Shi’ites. The trope I repeatedly encounter among sanctions proponents here (and, for that matter, in Israel) is that the regime is unrepresentative of an enlightened, freedom-loving people. This may be delusional, it may be beside the point when it comes to what Iran watchers say is wall-to-wall popular support for Iran’s advancement to nuclear power — but it’s pretty much the reverse of racism.

I have heard — from European diplomats and from oil businessmen — that the Iranians they deal with "start negotiating when the contract is signed," but this always clearly refers to unaccountable elites, and is never an indictment of Persian culture. I’ve heard pretty much the same from folks dealing with despots — white, black and purple — up and down the globe.

Leverett said she would denounce the equivalent description of Israeli rabbis as duplicitous as anti-Semitic — but such a description might not be out of the place if Israel’s rabbis were running the theocratic joint (credit where credit is due — this point was whispered to me by a furious Jamie Kirchick). In fact, more than a few Israelis I know would be first in line to make the accusation against their bearded fellows — except, Israel is not a theocracy, so it’s kind of beside the point.

Leverett’s other straw man was embedded in her warning that Iran might not take France up on its offer to join Russia in enriching its low grade uranium to medical research levels (as a means of preventing Iran from enriching it to weapons levels, and also for humanitarian reasons). France was not trusted because it abandoned its pledged nuclear assistance after the Shah was deposed in 1979, she said.

Not only is this hardly an excuse — who keeps promises made before bloody revolutions? — it is also not credible, unless one believes the Iranians are conveniently forgetting the post-revolution season of assassinations of Iranian exiles in France. I mean, I think it would be racist to believe that the Iranians are so stupid that they would not understand why the French would be less than enthusiastic about advancing the nuclear capabilities of a regime that was popping off folks in its banlieues.

Leverett repeated the proposal she has advanced in the past with her husband, Flynt, that the United States move toward a "grand bargain" with Iran, accommodating its regional ambitions as Nixon did with China in the early 1970s. That grand bargain with China recognized the inevitablity of such a deal at the time, and its utility in containing the Soviet Union; Iran is still reeling after widespread protests sparked by an election widely perceived as rigged. Would accommodating the regime emulate Nixon’s wisdom — and guts — circa 1973? Or would it be more reminiscent of George H. W. Bush’s moral failure after Tiananmen square in 1989?

Leverett exhibited a weird propensity I have seen in other speakers, one I call the "question time rally"; she was more persuasive when she dealt with provocative challenges, in this case in response to the notion that Iran’s ambition was to "wipe Israel off the map."

She noted, that as a Jewish student in Cairo in 1972, she heard similar threats and encountered much more pervasive anti-Semitism. Not only that, but Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president — like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today — denied the Holocaust. And, dealing with an accommodationist U.S. administration (again, Nixon’s), he started along the path to peace with Israel.

The session started off with maybe the best line of the conference so far: Mark Zivin, a member of the J Street advisory council, introduced panelist Trita Parsi, the founder of the National Iranian American Council — a staunch opponent of enhanced sanctions — by saying "I’m a proud member of AIPAC and NIAC, so if you have any other affiliations I can join, come on up."

Moderating the panel was Toni Verstandig, a senior Clinton administration staffer — and now a senior policy adviser at the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, the S. Daniel Abraham-funded group recently revivified with the hiring of Robert Wexler, erstwhile the soon-to-retire Florida congressman and leading Jewish surrogate for the candidacy of Barack Obama. Verstandig was asking the questions, but the way she framed them — noting Iran’s equivocation on the uranium enrichment deal, its missile tests and the revelation in September of a second nuclear plant — made her the panel’s most pronounced Iran skeptic.

Parsi argued against sanctions as likely to enhance Ahmadinejad’s standing, but also demanded that human rights should be a component of any U.S. dealing with Iran.

Rounding out the panel was Brian Finlay of the Stimson Center; he argued (in happily modulated and Canadian tones) in favor of sanctions, not necessarily because they will contain Iran, but because of the broader deterrence they would create for other nations contemplating nuclear weapons.

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