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Sleepy in Washington

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Occasionally, even an Op-Ed columnist of great repute gets something so wrong that his views literally beg for a rebuttal. Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times today about Iran, and about (President) Obama's potential to negotiate with our adversary from a position of strength, or with "leverage", as he puts it. From where Mr. Friedman sits, in Bethesda, Maryland, Iran is looking "very Soviet" to him, a view that most Iranians sitting in Tehran, Iran, might disagree with. (Some of those Iranians, mistakenly I might add, are seeing Washington as somewhat Soviet these days.) The reason Friedman sees Iran this way is because of the precipitous drop in the price of oil, and he concludes that because of the bad economy, Iran will be under great pressure to negotiate with the United States on all matters of mutual interest; nuclear, Hezbollah, Hamas, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

While Friedman is correct in pointing out that Iran's economy is suffering, it is mostly because of President Ahmadinejad and his administration's mismanagement, which most Iranians understand. But as far as oil is concerned, consider this: in 2007, Mr. Ahmadinejad's government produced a budget for 2008 which was initially rejected by Parliament because it was partly based on higher revenues from oil than Parliament felt comfortable with, and Ahmadinejad was forced to revise the oil basis to less than $40 a barrel. Not $150. That's the number Iran was working with when oil hit $150 a barrel, so yes, the surpluses in revenue have indeed softened the blow of oil at $60 a barrel. But it should be remembered that under President Khatami, Iran's economy was considerably stronger, and Iran continued its nuclear program, its government subsidies, and its foreign policy strategies with oil at less than $20 a barrel, managing even to balance its budget. Assuming that one Iranian administration's economic mismanagement will force the Islamic regime to reconsider all of its long-term goals would be a fatal mistake, even more of a mistake than believing Iranian motivation and impulses stem from a "carpet bazaar" mentality.

Apart from the fact that it is an offensively colonialist and even racist generalization (and it matters not that the view is expressed to Friedman by an Iranian-American sitting at a think tank in Washington), it is far from the truth, and if anyone in an incoming U.S. administration is inclined to believe it, they will be in for a rude surprise if and when the U.S. and Iran eventually sit down to negotiate. Carpets may be Iran's best-known export after oil, and there is a section of the Tehran bazaar devoted to carpet sellers, but carpet salesman are viewed by Iranians much as we view car salesmen, or used-car salesman, hardly a view we would want the Iranians to consider representative of our politicians. (On second thoughts....) Anyone who has spent any time at all with the Iranian leadership; with politicians, diplomats, and the political class of mullahs, knows that they do not engage in "bazaar" tactics--far from it, in fact, for Iran has consistently shown over the past thirty years that some things, for example its national pride and its "rights" as they are keen to point out, are not now and will never be for sale. Not under any circumstances; not brutal war (Iran-Iraq in the eighties), not punishing sanctions, and not military threat by a superpower. Iran has managed to survive reasonably well under U.S. sanctions and pressure, and sometimes international isolation, for almost thirty years, and no future President of the United States should be under the illusion that he merely needs to walk into the Persian carpet store, "feign disinterest", and walk out with priceless concessions at a bargain basement price.

The U.S. may have more leverage with Iran under a President Obama, partly because he is not President Bush, but Senator Obama does not present "another challenge" for Iran's mullahs, as Friedman claims. I was in Iran in the late summer and into September, and every single Iranian politician (and mullah) that I spoke to was rather looking forward to an Obama presidency (and Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Parliament and a close advisor to the Supreme Leader publicly said so earlier this month). Iranian leaders do not consider "their rationale for being" resistance to a hegemonic American power; they will be extremely happy if America simply ceases to behave like a hegemonic power. Senator Obama indeed has an opportunity to end the "cold war" with Iran, but he will not end it if he believes he has more leverage than the Iranians do (umm.....Iraq? Afghanistan?), if he believes the drop in the price of oil will make the Iranians more likely to give in to American demands, or if he believes he knows the Iranians because he once shopped in a bazaar.

Thomas Friedman also rather gleefully tells us he "knows why" President Ahmadinejad is exhausted--again, it's because he's sleepless over the drop in oil prices. No, Mr. Friedman, that may be a worry for the President, but it is not his main concern. I spent some time the last few days with Mr. Ahmadinejad's Vice President, Esfandiar Mashaie, who was in New York on United Nations business. Mr. Mashaei, whose daughter happens to be married to the president's son and who is one of his closest aides, laughed off the reports of Ahmadinejad's "illness" and exhaustion. True, the president sleeps very little, but not because he can't fall asleep. And if Mr. Mashaei's attitude in my presence was any indication, the Iranian leadership is very far from believing that the U.S. might have some extra leverage in the coming months. Quite the opposite--Iranians believe they're holding all the cards now. Mashaie was almost gloating over the "end of empire", the "end of the American emperor", mainly because of the economic meltdown in the West but also because he and other Iranian leaders know full well that without Iran, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan will end happily for the U.S.

As for the little quip at the end of Mr. Friedman's column, about Arabs saying they admire Iran but polls show they wouldn't want to necessarily live there, what exactly is that revelation supposed to indicate? Why would Arabs want to live in Iran, a Persian country, with a different language (Farsi) and customs, and with a people who are in a different sect of Islam (Shia, as opposed to the majority Sunni Arab)? Why wouldn't Arabs prefer to live somewhere in the Arab world?

I've always felt that most Americans simply do not understand Iranians or understand their motivations, and this lack of understanding extends to the very highest levels of our government. I wrote my book "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ" in the hope that anyone who's interested to know more about Iran and Iranians, beyond the "carpet-bazaar" stereotype, might discover something they didn't know. Iran is perhaps the biggest foreign policy challenge that a new American president will face. I'm hopeful that he will not make the same assumptions about Iranians, erroneous assumptions that even "experts" make, that have so far led us nowhere. But Friedman is right about an opportunity for ending our cold war with Iran, and Mr. Obama, should he become president, would be wise to try to understand Iranians, beyond conventional wisdom and what the "experts" in Washington say.

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