Iran and the Anatomy of Compromise

Yesterday, after months of terse negotiations, domestic pushback, and persistent gloating and ridicule by the opposite side, the Obama administration finally announced the signing of a deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The deal has already been hailed by the administration and its media supporters as a great leap forward towards peace in the Middle East and the resolution of long-standing tensions between the Islamic Republic and the United States. For most Americans, however, the spectacle of a hostile, theocratic, totalitarian dictatorship that has engaged in decades of violence against the United States being granted the right to set the terms of its own nuclear inspections and to—despite characterizations to the contrary—narrow the potential window that it would need to develop functioning nuclear weapons is utterly confounding. There must, many will reason, be some greater reasoning behind such a move by the administration; there must be some detail of which I, an American citizen not party to the negotiations, am not aware that would justify and explain what is effectively a unilateral concession by the United States to a country whose legislature openly cries for our destruction.

Sadly, there is not. The actions of the Obama administration, first paying Iran to come to the negotiating table only to hand it what it could not have achieved on its own, defy the logic of a self-interested foreign policy directed by leaders who are primarily concerned with the safety of their own country. It is easy to read the ulterior motivations of the President Obama, in the last year and a half of his second term, desperately searching for a foreign policy legacy, and pressured by foreign parties who wish to do business with Iran and to avoid the stricture of international sanctions. Having proven with ObamaCare that no matter how disastrous a policy he can conjure up, he can still claim a legacy with the right amount of spin and get forty-plus percent of the population’s approval, such a choice is easy and the actual wellbeing of America is expendable.

The nihilistic pursuit of grandeur by this president has been an everyday fixture since 2009. Thus, let us set aside President Obama’s nature for the moment and simply consider the prima facie merits of dealing with Iran. Let us assume that President Obama is genuinely more concerned with the safety and benefit of the United States than he is with his own place in the history books. We do not normally deal in fiction in this publication, but let us exercise our imaginations for the moment.

The questions are then: “are productive negotiations with the Islamic State plausible?”, “Is it reasonable to think that mutual gain could result from dealing with such a government?”, and “What does it mean to compromise with a militant dictatorship?” Faced with these questions, most commentators today would offer a barrage of cautiously optimistic, shades-of-gray answers. Leftists would undoubtedly treat the idea of ever refusing to deal with anyone as entirely out of the question; on this view, everyone, no matter how evil or irrational, can be dealt with by the superior mind of the progressive. Conservatives would broadly oppose anything resembling the current deal, insisting that negotiations are possible within limits, but they continue to struggle in defining those limits on principle; they know what concessions are excessive when they see them, but defining them in theory is a task that still eludes them.

To cut through the mire of such political questions often requires digging below the political level to the philosophical. Fortunately, that task and this very question have been addressed by a philosopher—not this week, nor in the course of these negotiations with Iran, nor in the US’s fourteen-year saga of involvement in the Middle East. It was addressed fifty years ago by philosopher Ayn Rand in reference to the involvement of the Soviet Union in the United Nations and the fundamental impossibility of battling dictatorship with the world’s worst murderer as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. In her essay on that subject, “The Anatomy of Compromise,” she set forth three general rules as to the conditions under which compromise was beneficial or destructive. They are as follows:

“ 1. In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.

2. In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins

3. When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the benefit of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.” [1]

Consider the relevance of these propositions to the US-Iranian deal. What are the basic principles of the respective countries? The United States is the nation of the Enlightenment, crafted by men who believed in reason, the value of man’s life, and the inviolability of his freedoms. Though it has strayed far from the founding ideals that have made it great and unique in history—the protections of individual rights and the belief in government as the servant of a people and not their master—those principles were so deeply embedded in its structure that a century of socialist thought and effort (let’s call the “progressive” charade what it really is) have not been able to fully transform it. We are a nation on the brink, but the fact that that brink is still before us and not miles behind our backs, out of sight, is perhaps the greatest testament ever made to the work of our founders.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been, for three decades, the epitome of political backwardness. Embracing the same claims to legitimacy as some of history’s most detestable villains—nationalism and theocracy—it thrives on conflict, aggression, and the vilification of everything that has generated wealth and progress in the Western world for three hundred years. It threatens its neighbors and hangs dissidents in the streets. It violently punishes and imprisons those Iranians who speak out against it, threatening candidates and activists. It is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American citizens over the last several decades, to say nothing of those casualties resulting from its covert involvement in military actions against US soldiers. Its legislature cries for “death to America” as its diplomats sit at the table with our own. Its greatest obstacle has been the memory of those old enough to remember the freer, more secular country that it was in decades past, who sought reforms and resisted its attempts to regress toward a seventh century ideal. It is everything that the United States was created to oppose.

What, then, can be the result of collaboration or compromise between these two powers? The empowerment of Iran—both internationally and over its own people—and a loss of safety to the Western world. When a power that loses from conflict attempts to compromise with one that thrives on it, no terms can ever be mutually beneficial. As militarily active as the United States has been in the last century—often irrationally and to its own detriment—the nature of its still largely free economy makes war a drain on the country as a whole. Between mounting debt, higher taxes, and an oversized role for government in the economy, wartime is a detriment to a free economy. The productive power of capitalism (even in a mixed economy such as ours) so outstrips the short-term stimulus of government spending that no amount of armories and bullet factories can begin to match it.

By contrast, a statist economy such as Iran’s thrives on conflict. Its political leaders, unable to maintain economic growth and steady output, seek wartime controls and military drafts as solutions to low productivity and high unemployment. Peace would require that they compete in an international market—something that they cannot do against free economies. Thus, peace becomes anathema. Unable to command the lasting loyalty of their people or to answer challenges to their legitimacy with rational arguments, they appeal to ideology, declaring their actions to be the will of God or history. Unable to cultivate a legitimate pride in their country through productive accomplishments, they reach for the false pride of nationalism and declare their country superior to all others not by any moral standard but because it is theirs.

To quote Rand again,

“Statism needs war; a free country does not. Statism survives by looting; a free country survives by production… Observe that the major wars of history were started by the more controlled economies against the freer ones… Men who are free to produce, have no incentive to loot; they have nothing to gain from war and a great deal to lose. Ideologically, the principle of individual rights does not permit a man to seek his own livelihood at the point of a gun, inside or outside his country. Economically, wars cost money; in a free economy, where wealth is privately owned, the costs of war come out of the income of private citizens—there is no overblown public treasury to hide that fact—and a citizen cannot hope to recoup his own financial losses (such as taxes or business dislocations or property destruction) by winning the war. Thus his own economic interests are on the side of peace.

In a statist economy, where wealth is “publicly owned,” a citizen has no economic interests to protect by preserving peace—he is only a drop in the common bucket—while war gives him the (fallacious) hope of larger handouts from his master. Ideologically, he is trained to regard men as sacrificial animals; he is one himself; he can have no concept of why foreigners should not be sacrificed on the same public altar for the benefit of the same state.” [2]

The self-sacrificial character of our compromise with Iran is so stark, so articulated to any who wish to recognize it, that only one thing makes possible the charade of treating it as legitimate. That is the third of Rand’s rules. Far from being clearly and openly defined, the basic principles of both of these countries are being obfuscated and denied by the one side that could gain from them: our own. Rather than embrace the right of all other countries to prohibit Iran’s advance toward nuclear weapons in any form, the Obama administration is endorsing conditions that top nuclear experts warn would make Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon easier and more difficult to monitor. Rather than consider the security of our best ally in the region, Israel, it has excluded them from the negotiations and created in Iran a new customer for Russia’s sale of ballistic missiles—sure to be used should Iran make good on its repeated threats to attack Israel. Rather than extol the virtue of Western values and condemn Iran’s barbarity to its own people and the world at large, thereby claiming the moral high ground against the morally lowest figures in the world, it has followed in the footsteps of Woodrow Wilson in 1919, treating the Iranian regime as an equal just as Wilson insisted the world do for Germany.

Like Wilson in 1919 and Clinton in 1994 with North Korea, Obama and those who support the deal tell us that this will lead to a peaceful solution and a better relationship between the US and Iran. By all of the reasoning here detailed, I see that as impossible, and were it not for the horrors that might arise, the tragedy of war, and the great costs of blood and gold that it would exact on our country and others, I would be tempted to quote Ms. Rand again and say, when the worm turns and in years to come a newly empowered Iran comes looking for war, “Brothers, you asked for it.”

[This article has been edited from its original form to include hyperlinks to relevant articles. No text has been changed in the process. — Ed.]

[1] Rand, Ayn. “The Anatomy of Compromise,” Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal. p. 145.

[2] Rand, Ayn. “The Roots of War,” Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal. p. 37-38


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