Tom Donilon and the myth of Iran’s “isolation”


November 28, 2011

Photo from Foreign Policy

President Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, spoke last week at the Brookings Institution on “Iran and International Pressure:  An Assessment of International Efforts to Impede Iran’s Nuclear Program”, see here.  His remarks provide as comprehensive and authoritative testimony as it is possible to find as to the strategic vacuity—and duplicity—of the Obama Administration’s Iran policy.  This is, of course, a subject we have explored regularly on Race for Iran.

Donilon’s remarks also reveal the profoundly ill-informed and deeply delusional assessments of Iran’s policies, strategic position, etc., that undergird U.S. policy.  In this regard, we want to focus on one of the more prominent themes in Donilon’s address:  the Administration’s claim as to “how profoundly the Iranian regime has been weakened and isolated, at home, in the region, and globally.”  This trope is becoming part of the evolving-yet-fundamentally-unchanging conventional wisdom about the Islamic Republic in Washington policy circles and among American political and media elites.  A couple of recent pieces offer badly needed doses of reality on the matter.

With regard to Iran’s purported international isolation, we want to highlight M.K. Bhadrakumar’s “BRICs Block the US on Middle East”, posted on Indian Punchline:  Reflections on Foreign Affairs, see here.  Bhadrakumar, a richly experienced retired senior Indian diplomat, provides a useful assessment of the deputy foreign ministers of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) in Moscow last week.  Here is his summary of the final communique, in five points (please take particular note of the fourth item):

–“BRICS has taken a common position with regard to what has come to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’.  The basic principles have been identified:  focus should be on peaceful national dialogue; no excuse for foreign intervention; central role of the UN Security Council.

–BRICS took a common stance on Syria.  The key sentence is, ‘Any external interference in Syria’s affairs, not in accordance with the UN Charter, should be excluded.’

–BRICS calls for a ‘thorough review’ of the appropriateness of the NATO intervention in Libya and suggests a UN mission in Tripoli to handle the current transition process, flagging specifically a role for African Union.

–BRICS rejected the threat of force against Iran and called for continued dialogue and negotiations.  Most significantly, it criticised the US-EU moves on additional sanctions, calling them ‘counterproductive’ measures that would ‘only exacerbate’ the situation.

–BRICS lauded the GCC initiative on Yemen as an example.”

Bhadrakumar notes that this “will be received well in Damascus and Tehran.  On the contrary, it is a setback for the US and its allies who are ratcheting up the tensions over Syria and Iran.  No doubt, India’s participation in the Moscow meeting is a matter of particular interest.  Washington will take note.  Russia virtually got the BRICs to censure US’s interventionist policies in the Middle East.”

We think the point that rising powers are becoming decidedly less tolerant of Washington’s hegemonic unilateralism is important, and will become an ever more significant aspect of international politics in coming months and years.  It is, of course, a trend from which the Islamic Republic can only benefit.

With regard to accounts of Iran’s international economic isolation, we want to highlight a piece published in The Guardian by Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a young academic at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.  (Adib-Moghaddam is the author of—among other things—Iran and World Politics:  The Question of the Islamic Republic, which has definitely been a stimulus to our own analysis of Western stereotypes about modern Iranian politics.)

In his Op Ed, see here, Adib-Moghaddam Adib-Moghaddam explains simply and clearly that

“the argument that Iran is economically isolated does not hold…According to the most recent UNCTAD report, foreign direct investment to the country has increased exponentially from $1.6 bn in 2008 to $3.6 bn in 2010.  This does not mean that there are no serious economic problems in the country…It means that there is another side to the Iran story that is subdued for ideological reasons.  Ultimately, the US and to a lesser extent the European Union are disqualifying themselves from the Iranian market during a period of intense economic calamity.  China and Russia say ‘thank you’.”

We agree that America and Europe’s ongoing determination to keep trying to isolate Iran—first and foremost, by isolating themselves from Iran—is economically as well as strategically ill-considered.  But Bhadrakumar and Adib-Moghaddam’s analyses also put the lie to another point that Donilon made, not in his Brookings speech but a few days earlier, see here, while talking to reporters in Indonesia during President Obama’s recent Asia tour:  “The isolation that Iran is undergoing right now…really is unprecedented.  They see themselves wholly isolated.” (emphasis added)  We are left, once again, wondering which is worse:  that the national security adviser to the President of the United States is prepared to say something so manifestly untrue with regard to Iran, or that the national security adviser to the President of the United States may actually believe his own statement.

In addition to the points about international investment flows to the Islamic Republic, Adib-Moghaddam’s Op Ed takes on the narrative (also emphasized at some length by Donilon), that “the Iranian state is likely to collapse under the pressure of sanctions”.  As Adib-Moghaddam elaborates, this narrative “maintains that Iran is running out of money and that its economy is teetering on the brink.  This has been repeatedly presented as an argument in support of sanctions or as an example of the incompetence of the Iranian state”.

But, Adib-Moghaddam points out, this narrative “does not correspond to the facts”, as reported by the World Bank as well as the International Monetary Fund.  He notes the Islamic Republic’s “early successes with the subsidy reform programme” and “advances in the financial sector, which is boosted by a buoyant stock market”.  He has other interesting things to say about various “soft factors that feed into the relative stability of the Iranian economy”, including its accomplishments in technological innovation and scientific research.

This helps undergird Adib-Moghaddam’s dismantling of conventional arguments in the West that “the Iranian state is collapsing”.  Beyond his economic analysis, he offers a succinct summary of “several interdependent reasons” why the Iranian state is likely to remain stable.  The manner in which Adib-Moghaddam formulates these reasons suggests a clearly pro-reformist predilection on his part, but the basic factors he identifies—“popular accountability”, a “committed base” supporting the state, and “no real penchant within the country for revolution”—are on point.  This, in particular, really caught our eye:

“there is no over-dependency on the west that would yield a legitimacy crisis (as in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben-Ali’s Tunisia and under the shah) and there is no subservience to Israeli demands. The Iranian government’s strident emphasis on “national independence” continues to garner support within Iranian society.”

Adib-Moghaddam concludes with the important observation, with which we entirely agree, that nuanced and informed assessments of economic, social, and political realities in the Islamic Republic

“are largely subdued in many analyses about Iran.  Instead, there exists an entire literature of instant expertise that is tied to the politics of the moment.  If the analysis of a country is wrong the policy prescriptions are bound to be wrong too.  Afghanistan and Iraq are very good examples of that relationship between the absence of sound knowledge on a country and strategic failure.”

It will be very difficult to repeat that admonition too frequently in the coming months.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



About B.J. Murphy

I'm a young socialist and Transhumanist activist within the East Coast region, who writes for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), India Future Society, and Serious Wonder. I'm also the Social Media Manager for Serious Wonder, an Advisory Board Member for the Lifeboat Foundation, and a Co-Editor for Fight Back! News.

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