H.D.S. Greenway

No more waiting for 'barbarians'

By H.D.S. Greenway
June 2, 2009
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THE VERSES of Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy are loved for their irony, especially "Waiting for the Barbarians," in which the inhabitants of an ancient city-state are paralyzed into inaction because the barbarians are coming. But then:

"Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?"

"Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.

And some who have just returned from the border say

There are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?

They were, those people, a kind of a solution."

And so it is with Iranians today. For generations America, the "Great Satan," has been at the gates, overthrowing Mohammed Mossadegh in the '50s, serving the Shah through the '70s, shooting down a civilian airliner and backing Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, President Bush's "Axis of Evil," and on and on go the grievances, convincing Iranians that their ancient civilization risks destruction at the hands of the United States.

But now President Obama is saying there need not be barbarians any longer. And Iranians are asking what's going to happen to them without barbarians? The idea that the hostility of the "Great Satan" America might no longer be is of itself unsettling. For Iranians, the constant of American hostility has been "a kind of solution."

Of course, the "Great Satan" has its own lists of grievances: diplomats taken hostage for 444 days, the destruction of military barracks in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, the Hamas-Hezbollah connection, and, of course, the specter of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Americans, too, have their barbarians.

So how do these two sides get down to serious and productive negotiations after 30 years of demonizing each other? What happens when the "Great Satan" sits down with "Axis of Evil"?

Expect mixed signals from Iran, and long, drawn-out negotiations - difficult for Americans not known for their patience. Israel wants a timetable, and threatens its own attack on Iran. Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu wants to use the Iranian bomb issue to postpone any serious negotiations toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Obama wants to keep the possible use of force on the table because diplomacy not backed by the prospect of force can be ineffectual. In Iran's case, however, it would be better to take force and regime-change off the table. Everyone knows that US power is always waiting in the wings. America has plenty of leverage without threatening Iran.

As for Iran, it needs to keep its nuclear program on the negotiating table if there is to be any progress.

American-Iranian timing has long been out of sync. When Iran made a tentative overture toward changing the entire relationship, the Bush administration was not willing to talk to evil. When America made approaches, the Iranians drew back. Neither side was willing to contemplate that the barbarians could ever not be there. Yet for both there is great incentive for a better relationship - not the least being stability in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The example of Roxana Saberi, the American-Iranian journalist who was first given an eight-year prison sentence, and then released, exemplifies the confusion in Tehran over how to respond to Obama's advances. There will be other examples of confusion as factions within Iran work through their response to a change in the American approach.

The key issue for the United States is Iran's nuclear weapons option, which Iran is unlikely to let go of entirely. I believe the best the United States can hope for is the "last wire" solution whereby the Iranians have everything they need but do not take the last step to make a bomb. Iranians know that building a bomb could start a Middle East arms race. Iran knows that Israel has more than enough nuclear deterrence, and could be provoked into an attack.

In the end, however, it would be better to live with an Iranian bomb, using containment and deterrence as we did with the Soviet Union, than to go to war with all its consequences, foreseen and unforeseen.

Since the unrelenting hostility of the Bush administration failed in all its objectives toward Iran, it is time for both sides to cease looking at barbarians as "a kind of solution."

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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