US President Barack Obama isn’t likely to have a cheerful final year in the White House, despite what his press secretaries will constantly sell us. But he can step down in early 2017 knowing the major achievement of his presidency – rapprochement with Iran – has become the new status quo.
But as these columns have tried to describe, the real victor in this week’s lifting of heavy sanctions placed on the Islamic Republic is the much larger (and infinitely more important) concept of the “international community”. Mr Obama is simply the custodian of an idea which transcends his position as leader of the free world: everyone can and will be part of the international community.
The thing is: “global leadership” is exactly what it says it is. It's about ruling the world. In 2010, the Guardian’s Stephen Kinzer complained that bodies associated with the US State Department – such as the UN, Human Rights Watch, IAEA and IMF – aim to impose Western, “universal” standards on developing countries, and that they were doing more harm than good. He termed this ultimate policy “human rights imperialism”.
For example, any Iran policy that says Iran is Iran, that it is and likely will always be an Islamic Republic, that Islam and human rights imperialism are two different things, and that the way for the US to deal with Iran is to make the terms of the relationship clear and provide effective disincentives for Iranian transgressions, is a serious violation of the ultimate goal.
Because this says that Iran is not fully subject to the “global leadership” of the UN, Human Rights Watch, IAEA and IMF, that the world is not actually becoming one and that the best interests of the US and Iranian governments and populations may in fact be orthogonal. National sovereignty is absolutely allowed, so long as it is in line with the required direction as framed by the State Department. Just ask North Korea or the Islamic State about the consequences of non-conformity and attempts at alternative governmental.
In this way, human rights imperialism has spent the last two centuries attempting to corral the entire planet, using this same old script of protecting freedom and promoting democracy to smash every genuinely independent sovereignty which rules two sticks that can be rubbed together. Sometimes this process is successful, but not before many thousands of people often have to die. Are universal freedom and rights worth all this pain? The State Department seems to think so, as does Mr Obama.
None of this is to say the policy is objectively “bad”, it is simply a description of the world system. Throughout Mr Obama’s presidency almost every policy proposal for the Iran problem involved increasing the importance of the State Department, and/or decreasing the importance of the Defence Department. Foggy Bottom’s script is exactly the same as the Pentagon’s, however, it only thinks it can achieve the ultimate goal with fewer explosions.
Besides, only very ignorant people believe the United States military couldn’t atomise the entire Iranian armed forces in a matter of days to weeks. Yet in the 21st century, the true test of military victory is whether the country can become a responsible member of the international community once the bombs stop falling. Here the US is less confident. But there are always more ways to attach the leash around the neck of a recalcitrant nation-state.
Foggy Bottom understands the most direct route to bringing Iran in line with the international community would be to disassemble its nuclear programme from 50,000 feet. Iran had calculated that the US would be deterred by this nuclear programme, because owning a viable and deliverable nuclear weapon is one of the only known ways to avoid a country's otherwise inevitable inclusion in the human rights empire. Again, just ask North Korea (although this inevitability is creeping upon the Hermit Kingdom too).
Yet even the high priests at the State Department want to avoid any unnecessary pain and suffering in pursuit of its responsible global leadership project, especially when the alternative would empower its true rivals across the Potomac in the Pentagon in the great Washington power-struggle.
Foggy Bottom’s trick for success is, like dripping water on a rock, to convince Iranian citizens that the Islamic Republic should join the international community as an exercise of their “free choice”. It’s no surprise then that, according to World Bank statistics, as the penetration of the internet in Iran grew from scratching 1% in 2000 to a critical mass of 31.4% in 2013, the Iranian populace is now compelling the theocratic government to bend to the mighty will of global leadership and change its foreign policy. Checkmate.
Of course, no one in the US State Department is planning all this out in detail – it has been running on auto-pilot for more than 200 years since the British Empire ruled the world’s oceans. Nevertheless, the outcome is exactly conducive to Washington’s human rights imperialism. French philosopher Michel Foucault was convinced that knowledge is power, and the internet is a quintessentially American invention, packed to the brim with freedom and human rights ideas.
If countries aren’t irritated and constantly beaten or threatened, all these rogue states, liberation movements, jihadism, etc. will eventually settle down and become part of the international community. All humans everywhere will bend – that is the belief and structure of the world system. There are no aliens, only citizens we haven't naturalised yet.
Welcome to the international community club, Iran. We hope you enjoy the complimentary pancakes.