The fallacy of binary choices

Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment, 28 November – 5 December 2014

David Ignatius suggests that the Iran talks’ lack of agreement reflects a fundamental “impasse” in Tehran – and one that plainly remains unresolved. This, in short, explains their failure. Until it is resolved, Ignatius argues, no agreement with the US will happen.  This impasse derives, he suggests, from the binary choice (so far untaken) of Iran understanding itself, on the one hand, as a revolutionary ‘cause’, or as a pragmatic ‘nation-state’ that can entertain good relations with the West.

Ignatius quotes FM Zarif saying to him, that a final agreement “can change the course of our relations with the West.” He also quotes Hossein Shariatmadari (who he describes as a ‘hard-line ally’ of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s), saying to him that accepting the West’s terms would mean capitulation for the revolution: “The problem will be solved when one side gives up its identity, only then”. Ignatius encapsulates the problem thus: “Behind the standoff in Vienna is a deeper confrontation in Tehran. Hard-liners in Iran argue that the compromises necessary for a deal would undermine the radical Islamic Republic that was born in 1979: Agreement would signal that, as a recent cover headline in The Economist enthused (a bit prematurely): The revolution is over.”

Ignatius’ analysis is interesting, and has a ring of plausibility to it, since it contains an important grain of truth.  But essentially it is wrong. (And perhaps too, the Shariatmadari quotation suffers from an attenuated context – for the latter never opposed talks, but has been a harsh critic of the negotiators’ approach and tactics).

The analysis is interesting because something of it probably underpinned the American approach to the negotiations.  Iranian sources tell us that in the pre-Vienna, Oman meetings – far from showing new flexibility – the American side actually ‘walked back’ from some of its earlier proposals, and in Vienna, almost nothing new was broached.  This seemed puzzling because the opposite was generally expected.  Iranians speculated that some unseen pressures in Washington might have been in play (and for sure, Saudi FM, Saud al Faisal, was very much in evidence flitting around capitals and runways in the penultimate hours).

But no, it was not just external pressure. With Ignatius’ analysis as guide, John Kerry’s remarks (thrice repeated – in his Washington Post Op-Ed, and twice subsequently) become clear: “All along, these negotiations have been about a choice for Iran’s leaders … Now Iran must choose … What will Iran choose?”. At one level, the ‘choice’ was between the pain (of economic siege), and the task of “backing up its [Iran’s] words … that its program is limited to peaceful purposes”.

But, at another level, the choice – pace Ignatius – was between accepting that ‘the revolution was over’ (by Iran joining the globalized world), or remaining aloof from it, as a sanctioned, isolated, fading (in the view of The Economist) revolutionary ‘cause’.  No wonder Ignatius felt pressed to add (resignedly): “That logic [of supporting a revolutionary cause] can lead people to walk away from agreements, even ones in their rational interest”.

But was a deal in Iran’s rational interest?  It is true that there are ‘Atlanticists’ in Iran who would concur with Ignatius: they would like nothing better than to join the globalized market world, but these are a minority in Iran, and one which is shrinking.  What has occurred in Vienna has not just weakened, but “humiliated” the Atlanticists, in the words of one Iranian commentator.  This is also the view reflected in much of the Iranian press.

But strikingly, Ignatius’ and Kerry’s key premises are being questioned – not just by Iranians but by American Republicans, as George Will notes here. Henry Kissinger’s new book, World Order, deftly diagnoses (George Will writes) America’s bipolar mental condition regarding foreign policy, a condition that is perennial because it is congenital. “The conviction that American principles are universal,” Kissinger says, “has introduced a challenging element into the international system because it implies that governments not practicing them are less than fully legitimate.” This “suggests that a significant portion of the world lives under a kind of unsatisfactory, probationary arrangement, and will one day be redeemed; in the meantime, their relations with the world’s strongest power must have some latent adversarial element to them.”

It has not been just the conviction that America’s principles are universal that has underpinned the American approach towards negotiating with Iran, but also its corollary — that the globalised market and financial economy effectively divided the world between those who joined it, and those who are out of it, for whatever reason, and who should be regarded as potential trouble-makers and adversaries.  As Kissinger suggests, redemption comes only through committing one’s nation to the neo-liberalised ‘global world’.

This binary choice meme has deep roots in the US. In his influential The Pentagon’s New Map, Thomas Barnett calls globalization “this country’s gift to history” and explains why its wide dissemination is critical to the security of not only of America, but the entire world. A senior military analyst for the U.S. Naval War College, Barnett argues that America is the prime mover in developing a “future worth creating”, not because of its unrivaled capacity to wage war, but due to its ability to ensure security by bringing all nations into the fold of globalisation, or what he calls ‘connectedness’.  Eradicating disconnectedness, therefore, is “the defining security task of our age.”  Those states that refuse or cannot manage successfully liberal market globalisation are dangerous, Barnett writes, because they are not yet integrated into globalism’s “core.”  Until that process is complete, they will continue to lash out.

This then perhaps is something of the ‘choice’ that Kerry had in mind: the alternative of coercive diplomacy of sanctions and exclusion from the globalised world on the one hand, or the ‘rational choice’ of folding into globalism’s ‘core’.

It is of course a false choice, and one that significant numbers of the ‘non-West’ are rejecting. Neo-liberal globalism’s attractions may still exist for the cosmopolitan, wealthy elites, but in other respects, they have metamorphosed from offering the lure of general prosperity to something akin to its polar opposite.

I argued in the previous week’s Weekly Comment, that a ‘perfect storm’ of events have brought this about: In Europe and America, the ratchetting serial recessions have discredited the claims of globalism bringing general prosperity to all. The extremities of western monetary policy, conceived to combat these recessions (radical QE and ZIRP), rather than bringing growth, have created social disparity, a deep alienation from politics, and have laid the foundations for currency wars. This same monetization of debt too is destroying the petrodollar system, on which America’s global financial system is sustained (see here and here). And above all, the US Treasury’s recourse to using the Federal Reserve’s monopoly over any, and all, global dollar transactions to sanction and hurt all and sundry, is pushing the non-West to defend itself by setting up an analogue non-dollar global financial system.

Paradoxically, the creation of such a toxic mix – whereby the economic dysfunctionality oozing out globally from a US addictively dependent on zero interest rates and monetary expansion to keep its own financial system ‘afloat’, and, at the same time, so reliant on that same financial system’s coercive capabilities to keep America’s place in the world order afloat – finally has galvanized the push-back that may well bring down both structures (the financial and world orders).

In hindsight (always a wonderful thing), the Iranian negotiating team misread the terrain too. It imagined that with a ‘non-ideological’ team – with whom the West could be comfortable and at ease – the nuclear issue could be amicably settled.  (After all, the bones to an assured enrichment accord were set out long ago).  In short, the Iranian team may be guilty of having taken the western rhetoric too literally.

Ignatius likened the Iranian negotiation process to a labour dispute, whereas perhaps the reality was somewhat different. If the issue had been simply how to reassure the West that Iran was enriching for peaceful purposes, this dispute would have been resolved long ago.  But in fact, it was always, and essentially, about binary choice.  Perhaps a more appropriate metaphor for understanding the mechanics of binary choice is to liken it to when an applicant is being considered to join an insurgent movement.  In this case, his or her professions of loyalty and commitment to the movement are never accepted at face value.  Instead, he or she must be put to the test:  the applicant is asked to kill – and so, through this defining act, to prove commitment, and also because by so doing, he or she burns the bridges to their own communities: there is no way back.

The Iranian side thought that their professions of willingness to make enrichment transparent and assured were sufficient.  (And they did make substantive concessions – see here).  But they were wrong.  In reality, they were being put to a different test.  The Economist (indirectly) makes this pretty clear: the Iranian team was being asked to give evidence that the “revolution was over” (thus metaphorically to ‘kill’ it); its “messianic desire to pull down the world order” recanted; its dogma giving way to “everyday concerns like making money and doing business”; that religion would continue in its  “retreat” – and that all bridges back the past would be burned down: “Any deal must be future-proofed against the day when a hardliner returns to the presidency”, The Economist urged.

What may we conclude from all this?  Firstly, that Rouhani and his team, having raised popular expectations of a substantive and rapid resolution, now face the collapse of those expectations.  President Rouhani, and Iranian Atlanticists more generally, will be Vienna’s main victim.  The (likely correct) Iranian popular impression is that if the negotiating team could not secure an agreement in over a year’s negotiations, a further extension will not bring any different result.

And ‘Plan B’?  Iran will reassert the right of non-western states to be non-western; to seek to fill the ‘hollow human spaces’ of contemporary utilitarianism with non-utilitarian values.  It will continue to practice piety in the face of a post-pious West.

In practical and strategic terms, Iran will continue its ‘pivot’ eastwards.  Both Russia and China are seeking strategic partnership with Iran (just as the former are forging strategic alliances with each other). Iran will continue its policy of reducing its economic dependency on the West, and will take full advantage of the accelerating non-Western shift towards non-dollar trading.  It will work with Russia and other energy producers to end the petrodollar agreement, and together with like-minded energy producers, such as Russia, will challenge Saudi Arabia’s low oil price policy – both in and out of OPEC.

Next year, the new US Senate and Congress will likely pass further sanctions legislation on Iran.  In all probability, this will prove to be the straw that breaks the ‘Camel’s Back’ of international support for sanctions. We may then see the non-West part company with America, in response to the further coercing of Iran.

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