History is more complex than the Iran debate allows

Posted on October 23, 2012


George F. Kennan: The key figure in early U.S. containment policy towards the Soviet Union

Whenever I have written about Iran, I have looked at the problems of numerous policies to deal with the country, rarely offering my own suggestions for solving the Iran problem. There are two reasons for this, one of which is that it is ridiculously complex and no one can really come up with what I call ‘single phrase solutions’ – like “Sanctions!” or “War!”. I share President Obama’s view that anyone claiming that Iran is an easy problem to solve “doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

The other reason why I mostly critique other commentators’ suggestions and don’t offer any of my own is that the ins-and-outs of the Iran debate fascinate me just as much as finding a solution. I look at underlying assumptions, the evidence they’re based on; the use and abuse of history to justify policies, etc. As I was trained as a historian, this last aspect of the debate fascinates me especially. No matter where commentators stand on the policy spectrum, they use history to justify their positions. With neoconservatives and other hardliners, attacking Iran is framed in the context of Appeasement and the run-up to the Second World War, as I explored on this blog a couple of years ago. One hardliner, the British Conservative MP Robert Halfon, has described the country as “the Soviet Union of the Middle East” – a description I mocked in my TRG column. Those who want a ‘grand bargain’, like Flynt and Hillary Leverett, have cited as precedent the Nixon administration opening up Mao’s China – an example that was mocked by academic Daniel Drezner. Yesterday, I became aware of the problematic history underpinning another single phrase solution to the Iran problem: containment.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been reading Lawrence Freedman’s excellent book A Choice of Enemies, about U.S. Middle Eastern policy since 1977, and he points out two problems with American attempts to contain both Iraq and Iran in the 1990s that are especially relevant to the debate today. In the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a deeply antagonistic confrontation, but both countries had had a long, strong diplomatic relationship with one another. Freedman points out that this history of regular communication created best practices and principles ‘facilitating crisis management, avoiding unnecessary upset, and, over time, identifying shared interests (most notably preventing nuclear war).’ Secondly, the Communist Party had a tight grip on internal affairs, and political power was highly centralised, thus, after an agreement with the United States had been made, ‘there was no question that the Soviet side could abide by any undertakings.’ Neither of these things existed vis-à-vis Iran in the ‘90s and they don’t exist today: for example, the U.S.-Iranian diplomatic relationship since the hostage crisis has been characterised by the occasional communication undermined by deep, mutual mistrust. Furthermore, the competing power centres in Iran make it ‘hard to move to any political agreements and then ensure that they [stick].’ If much of the reporting about the internal politics of the country is true, the decentralisation of power to competing factions in the regime has accelerated since 2009 (just see the seemingly bitter rivalry between Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad).

I know I ought to develop my Iran writings to go beyond just critiquing the bad use of history, but I think it serves an important purpose: It’s too easy for pundits and politicians to adopt a bad policy – or persuade people to support one – by using historical examples implying everything will turn out fine. As far as containment is concerned, it is too easy for people to think it worked in the Cold War, thus it will work with Iran too and everything will turn out okay in the end, as it seemingly did after the collapse of the Soviet Union. ‘Political and other leaders too often get away with misusing or abusing history for their own ends because the rest of us do not know enough to challenge them’, writes the historian Margaret MacMillan.

Professional historians ought not to surrender their territory so easily. We must do our best to raise the public awareness of the past in all its richness and complexity. We must contest the one-sided, even false, histories that are out there in the public domain. If we do not, we allow our leaders and opinion-makers to use history to bolster false claims and justify bad and foolish policies.