Washington Not Willing To Revise Attitude toward Iran

23 September 2013 | 12:33 Code : 1921769 Interview General category
An exclusive interview with Andrew Bacevich, Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University
Washington Not Willing To Revise Attitude toward Iran

September 22nd, 2013 - by Sara Massoumi

The spread of democracy, the establishment of regional stability, the defense of human rights: different excuses for the US’ political and of course military presence in the Middle East. US military bases in the Persian Gulf, the physical presence of American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, and of course its overt and covert support for militants opposing Bashar Assad in Syria all show that the US dreams of a Greater Middle East. Andrew Bacevich, currently Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University, is a retired career officer in the United States Army and author of several books, including ‘The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism’. The following is Iranian Diplomacy’s exclusive interview with Andrew Bacevich.

In one of your articles, you discussed that, for over three decades, the US has been fighting for a Greater Middle East. In your opinion, what are the US’ goals in this region?

The goals have varied.  Some presidents have sought stability.  Others have tried to promote democracy or to advance the cause of human rights -- as defined by Americans. All have imagined that doing so would serve US interests and elevate the standing of the United States in the eyes of the people actually living in the Greater Middle East.  At this particular moment, it's difficult to say exactly what the Obama administration thinks it's trying to do.  After the events of the past decade, from the Iraq War to the Arab Awakening, US policy is in complete disarray.

Do you think US policies in the Middle East promote democracy and help its credibility?

No, I’m afraid they don’t. There have been policy makers who have imagined that we can promote democracy but they have been naïve and our efforts to promote democracy have not lead to democracy. Certainly Iraq is the best obvious example of their failure.

Does the US have the power to define a new political order in this region?  

No. We can’t make any sort of political order in the Middle East. We don’t have sufficient power, we don’t have sufficient wisdom. People in Washington may think otherwise but they are wrong. There are powerful forces that are bringing about change throughout much of the Islamic world and the United States doesn’t understand those forces and certainly can’t direct or control those forces.

Following the Sept. 11th attacks, the US attacked Afghanistan with the excuse of fighting against terrorism. Hasn’t the war which was meant to combat terrorism led to the production and spread of more radical movements?

I don't know that we can say that US efforts have had the unintended effect of actually promoting terrorism and political radicalism.  But US efforts have certainly done nothing to reduce terrorism and political radicalism.  In that sense, US policy has failed abysmally.

Regarding the activities of al-Qaeda and the Salafis in Syria, it seems that the US and these old enemies are fighting on the same side against Bashar Assad. What are the consequences of this unity for US interests in the region?

I don’t think that I accept the characterization of opponents of Assad as terrorists.

What about al-Qaeda and the Salafi groups?

Yes, there are some groups that may be terrorists but I don’t think that is an appropriate characterization for all the opponents of the Assad regime.

So you don’t think that al-Qaeda has a strong hand in this conflict now?

From what I read in the press, I think they have some hand but I’m not in the position to tell how strong they are.

In a recent speech, Barack Obama considered the US as an exception and stressed how unique this country is. This issue was criticized by Putin. In your book entitled “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism”, you have explicitly talked about this issue. What negative impacts, do you believe, such viewpoints have had on the US’ reputation at the regional level?

American exceptionalism prevents us from seeing ourselves as we really are.  It imparts an inflated sense of our own historical importance.  It stokes fantasies, for example, that only the United States can lead or that the world should be remade in America's image. 

What are the roots of differences between Tehran and Washington? The Iranians have bitter memories of the US, from the US’ involvement in the coup that was launched against Mosaddegh, the US’ opposition to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and then its support of Saddam Hussein in the war imposed against Iran. Is there any possibility for direct relations between these two countries with a history filled with such hatred?

Your question goes to the heart of the matter.  What Americans remember differs from what Iranians remember.  Each side has its own history, which suits its own prejudices and preferences.

Are you hopeful that the Rohani administration will review relations between Iran and the US and is there an honest seriousness on the US side to move closer to Iran?

I am not especially hopeful.  I am not in a position to judge exactly what Mr. Rohani intends.  But I see little willingness on Washington's part to revise its attitude toward Iran.  In that regard, the ongoing Syrian crisis is not especially helpful.

Don’t you think that different crises, from Iraq to Lebanon and as you mentioned the Syrian case, make cooperation between Iran and the US inevitable?

I think it would be nice if it’s the case but I don’t see any evidence that Washington is particularly open to that kind of cooperation with Iran. Also on the Iranian side I think we are still waiting to see what the election of the new president will mean. There seem to be mixed signals coming from Tehran so we have to see whether or not there is a greater openness on the Iranian side but frankly even if there is on the Iranian side there doesn’t seem to be much openness on the American side.

Then how would you define the US’ mixed messages?

I don’t think the US has been sending mixed messages but I think the US is sending consistently hostile messages. 

Do you mean the sanctions?

Yes, sanctions and vague talk of military action if the United States perceives that the Iranian nuclear program has reached maturity .There certainly have been cyber attacks made by the US or by the US in cooperation with Israel meant to slow down the Iranian nuclear program. Those are hostile acts so it’s certainly true that when President Obama first came to office there were political gestures that suggested that he was interested in a new beginning not only with Iran but a new beginning with the entire Islamic world but those gestures didn’t lead to any substantial results. So it seems that the US’ gestures these days whether rightly or wrongly are pretty consistently hostile toward Iran.

These days, the US intends to launch a military attack against Syria based on the accusation that the Syrian government has killed innocent people. This is while the US did not take any measures with regard to the killing of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt. How would you assess the US’ double- standard policy in the region?

Well, the attack on Syria may or may not occur -- I hope it will not.  But I agree with the point implied by the question.  It's really quite extraordinary to compare Washington's fury at Assad's crimes with its acceptance of the Egyptian army's crimes.  To some degree, the explanation is to be found in American domestic politics.  President Obama created a problem for himself when he drew his notorious "red line." Much of what has ensued has been about his political adversaries trying to exacerbate that problem while Obama has been maneuvering for a way out.  President Putin has come to Obama's aid.

Regarding the latest agreement between Russia and the US over Syria‘s chemical weapons, what do you think will be the next step of the White House in solving the Syrian problem? Do you think military intervention is still a probable solution?

President Obama actually has never wanted to use force in Syria. He backed himself into a corner with his foolish remark about the red line and then when the Assad regime used the chemical weapons he found himself obliged to do something about this red line that has been violated but he quickly recognized that a US strike had no international support, no congressional support and no real support among the American people. I think the President welcomed the chance offered to him by Russia to back away from the trend of an immediate attack. Even if this agreement is implemented, the underlying problem of civil war in Syria will continue. It would be my expectation that before too long pressure here in the US will once again build up to try to get the President to intervene in this civil war. I don’t know whether or not that pressure will succeed but my point is that we shouldn’t assume that this crisis has been resolved just because of the agreement between the US and Russia regarding the Syrian chemical weapons.

Do you think that the White House has any plans for the day after Basher Assad’s downfall?

I don’t know but even if they had a plan it probably would be irrelevant to whatever ensues. There may well be a considerably chaotic situation. The President has been very clear and I think he means what he says that he has no intention to use US ground forces and enter Syria under any conditions. So if Assad falls and if the militants take over, it would be very interesting indeed to see what order forms in Syria or whether any order will form in Syria.

tags: assad iran US syria middle east