McCain Strikes a Pose, Recklessly

John McCain has been at his recklessly self-righteous best this past week, assured that he’s “on the right side of history” in trying to bully Barack Obama into inserting himself into the drama in Tehran.

McCain fancies himself a “student of history,” even though he’s apparently never considered the many reasons why it would be disastrous for an American president to loudly declare solidarity with the protesters in Iran—reasons that include, but are not limited to, the United States’ role in overthrowing Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953 (an event still as palpably felt by Iranians as the Kennedy assassination is by Americans), our subsequent quarter-century economic, political and military commitment to the despotic Shah and his hated SAVAK secret police, and our alliance with Iraq in an eight-year war that claimed one million Iranian casualties.

To his credit, Obama clearly recognizes this and has endeavored mightily not to give the hard-line Khameini regime exactly what it wants: a lecture from the Great Satan that would serve as the perfect reform-quashing propaganda.

It’s troubling, though, how much traction McCain has managed to gain for his prescription, with the media turning the question of America’s response into a test of wills between last year’s presidential candidates. That Obama has now weighed in somewhat more aggressively on the subject figures to embolden McCain further.

Sadly, this is what McCain and his neoconservative ilk seem to do best: conjure morally compelling but deceptively simplistic foreign policy arguments that create domestic political pressure for policies that would be wholly counterproductive. And when they get their way, they invariably end up strengthening the very hard-line forces in other countries that they purport to oppose.

Since the Islamic revolution 30 years ago, there have been multiple opportunities for a mutually beneficial rapprochement between the United States and Iran, a development that would likely ease Iran away from its paranoid posture and—slowly—transform its relationship with the world and with its own people. But it’s never panned out, and not infrequently thanks to the antics of the McCain crowd.

A perfect example came in early 1998, not long into the presidency of Mohammed Khatami, the reformist whose surprise landslide in June 1997 rattled two decades of assumptions about the nature of the Islamic Republic. Khatami, who had lived abroad and who spoke warmly of Western civilization (its “positive achievements are not few,” he said at the United Nations), aimed to build a relationship with the United States.

Despite his electoral mandate, this would be a tricky task, since his authority within Iran was checked by skeptical conservative forces, which viewed the West with far more suspicion and animosity than Khatami—and which could undermine any overture to the U.S. by drawing on the tortured history between the countries to whip the Iranian masses into a “Death to America!” frenzy. Still, Khatami’s startling landslide gave him some latitude to proceed. Success would depend on a positive response from the U.S., which would prevent Iran’s hard-liners from declaring the venture a waste of time.

So it was that Khatami, in January ’98, gave a much-anticipated interview to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and used it to extend some rather extraordinary olive branches to Washington. In the course of 45 minutes, he expressed regret over the 444-day siege of the U.S. embassy in Tehran two decades earlier, expressed his disapproval of the burning of the U.S. flag, and said that his fellow countrymen and –women “sense an intellectual affinity with the essence of American civilization.”

To the average American viewer, this may not have sounded like much, but among Iran’s hard-liners, Khatami’s conciliatory words prompted grave concern. (Here, a comparison can be drawn to American reactionaries who blasted Obama’s April trip to the Middle East as the “Blame America Tour.”) To mollify them (and to lay the groundwork for bolder steps), Khatami would need to show that his actions had stirred a tangible change in America’s posture—something that, in turn, would require American politicians to recognize his intentions and to respond similarly.

Enter McCain. As Ali Ansari notes in Confronting Iran, a history of the myths, misunderstandings and missed opportunities that have plagued U.S.-Iranian relations, the Arizona senator was asked to respond to the Khatami interview on CNN as soon as it was over. Instead of offering his own hand, McCain slapped Khatami’s away, fixating on and blasting away at the Iranian president’s criticisms of the Israeli government. (It apparently didn’t occur to McCain that domestic politics were at the heart of Khatami’s Israel comments.)

That set the tone for the Clinton administration’s formal response to Khatami. With the McCain crowd fomenting all of the usual popular suspicions about Iran, Clinton was penned in (especially when the Lewinsky scandal erupted days later). To return Khatami’s bold gesture with one of his own would open Clinton to hysterical, but emotionally potent, charges of appeasing an anti-Semite. Thus, the administration provided what Ansari aptly calls an “incoherent” response—one that confirmed the suspicions of Iranian hard-liners and strengthened their position against Khatami.

When, toward the end of his term, Clinton finally got serious about forging an opening with Iran, it was too late. Khatami, thanks in part to that early rebuff, had been politically castrated by the hard-liners and was—like Clinton in early ’98—penned in by his country’s reactionary forces. The hard-liners in both countries had enabled each other, and a brilliant opportunity was lost.

Nor is the Khatami saga the only such example of this. There was also President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s bid to create an economic opening to the U.S. in the mid-’90s, which culminated in a potentially momentous $1 billion oil deal between the Iranian government and Conoco in 1995. But the McCain crowd quickly scotched that one, too, haranguing Clinton with the familiar anti-Iran talking points until the president relented and killed the deal.

Shortly thereafter, then-Senator Al D’Amato, every bit McCain’s equal when it comes to anti-Iran hysteria, pushed through a total trade embargo against Iran, declaring that “we cannot sit back and allow this bloodthirsty band of terrorists to grow into a monster too big for anyone to handle.” Clinton, penned in by domestic politics, signed it. But even that wasn’t enough for McCain, who announced that there “should be a penalty in our relations with Russia and other allies if they do not get on board with us” with the embargo.

As Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert, said at the time: “Americans should understand that the rest of the world views this legislation as petty grandstanding for the domestic political market.”

Who knows what the state of U.S.-Iran relations might now be if any of the opportunities of the last three decades had been pursued? And who knows what life for the Iranian people might be like? At the least, things wouldn’t be any worse than they now are—and there’s a good chance they’d be quite a lot better. But don’t tell that to John McCain. He’s too busy being on the right side of history.