“The mass-man has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.”-Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (1930)
The starkly anti-intellectual ethos of Donald Trump’s presidency did not arise in an historical vacuum. Though uniquely ominous from the crucial standpoint of time, it was spawned by the same loathing of education, wisdom and science that had earlier animated the Third Reich. And while Trump’s unhappy and dissembling America is certainly not Nazi Germany – e.g., there exist here no purposeful programs of aggressive war or mass murder – this nation’s leader has willfully abandoned reason and truth in favor of contrivance.
If this abandonment were not sufficiently worrisome, the Trump-orchestrated pattern of deception and denial is now taking place together with unprecedented disease epidemic. This means, inter alia, a broadening variety of tangible intersections between political and biological hazards to the American People. Sometimes these reinforcing intersections will display more than simply additive or accreted effects.
In these especially fearful cases, wherever the “whole” cumulative impact exceeds the arithmetic sum of constituent “parts,” the pertinent intersections will be “synergistic.” This conclusion is not subject to any sensible evaluation. This is because it is true by definition.
Time deserves pride of place. Already, we are at the eleventh hour, well past the point of any ordinary citizenship apprehensions concerning bad governance. Without hyperbole, and at a moment when such a manifestly unfit president’s ideological anti-Reason coincides with worldwide disease plague, an entire nation is being challenged to draw deeply upon its dwindling intellectual reserves.
Without any exaggeration, this evolving and deteriorating American struggle will soon revolve around the most rudimentary elements of physical survival.
Whatever their plausible particularities, the alternative national outcomes here will include anything but “greatness.” Then, even presidentially hand-tossed red hats will not save the United States.
How did we get here, and – more importantly – where should we reasonably expect to end up? In reply, Donald Trump represents the more-or-less predictable expression of a perishing society, one that keeps itself reassuringly distant from any mind-challenging thought. When Mr. Trump noted proudly, during his 2016 campaign, “I love the poorly educated,” it was by no means an off-the-cuff or seat-of-the pants observation. Rather, it was an updated and same-sentiments version of Joseph Goebbels 1934 Nuremberg rally shriek: “Intellect rots the brain.”
When Donald Trump argues (daily) that Covid19 deaths would decline if only the country performed less testing, there are too few audible gasps of disbelief. Similarly less than proportionate exclamations of citizen incredulity greeted the president’s earlier prescription for individual injections of commercial disinfectants, or his concurrent claim that only one-percent of infected patients suffer any palpable harms.
What exactly have the other 99% been experiencing?
Prima facie, how could all this not have elicited uniformly insistent calls for Trump’s immediate resignation? Could there possibly have been any more explicit or compelling evidence of presidential unfitness? What does one say about an “advanced” society that does not cringe collectively at such abhorrent nonsense, and refuses to make clear that gibberish is intolerable to rationality-based calculations of a modern nation-state?
If this is all an example of Trump’s “America First,” it is also the reductio ad absurdum of a country that continuously accelerates its own misfortune.
Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.”
There is more. Before the pandemic, US citizen excursions into absurdity were witnessed most predictably at Trump “rallies.” At these intentionally incoherent gatherings, replete with obscenity-laced screams and ritualistic phrases, the president’s faithful chanted in atavistic unison, in a crudely meaningless and deranged primal chorus. Now that such gatherings are no longer deemed safe, even for those who ordinarily take comfort in rhymes, Trump-organized expressions of anti-reason and anti-science have shifted to the streets.
There is ample precedent here. Said Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, “Whoever can dominate the street will one day conquer the state, for every form of power politics and any dictatorship run state has its roots in the street.”
More recently, US President Donald J. Trump threatened: “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump. I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough – until they go to a certain point and then it would be very bad, very bad.”
“Bikers for Trump?” This proud endorsement from a president who never sets foot at any university and who openly questions the medical insights of accomplished epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci? Credo quia absurdum. Albeit reluctantly, we must respond in this once-unimaginable moment, “I believe because it is absurd.”
For the United States, at least in principle, there may exist some still-promising supplications to reason and science. But any such foreseeable entreaties would first require a society that can take itself seriously, not that has wittingly exchanged banal observations and empty chatter for genuine intellect and learning. Under no imaginable circumstances could these sensible pleas be spawned by a servile society of suffocating mass-men or mass-women.
Candor is indispensable. Truth is exculpatory. At this point, actually meeting the entry-level requirements of a thoughtful society must remain little more than a vague hope.Nonetheless, a simple though dignified model for national improvement does remain available. To wit, back in the nineteenth century, Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson had called upon his fellow Americans to embrace “plain living and high thinking.”
Today, of course, it is all too evident that Emerson’s sensible nineteenth-century plaint for enhanced equilibrium (personal and social) went unheeded.
In the glaringly rancorous “Trump Era,” there is no longer any credible pretense concerning integrity or “mind.” Plainly, intellect and dignity are both strikingly out of political fashion. At least in the most cantankerous Trump-dominated realms of decision-making, “high thinking” is no longer regarded as worthwhile or advantageous. For this president, who seemingly learned a great deal from his de facto kindred spirit, Joseph Goebbels, it is very obviously a liability.
It was Goebbels, too, let us not forget to mention, who “taught” that the most utterly stupendous lies are sometimes most readily believed. A pertinent example would be the Final Solution and corresponding Holocaust denial.
There is more. Though heavily ironic and not generally understood, looking behind the news is every American’s first obligation of good citizenship. In these once sacred domains, spaces where discernible residues of reason are still permitted to dwell, we may discover certain immutably core truths of American political life. Accordingly, when citizens look conscientiously behind the news, they will better understand that even the tiniest hint of science or “high thinking” is being treated by Donald Trump as an affront, as an epithet, as an unseemly sign of independent thinking.
Could there be any conceivable excuse for not looking in this direction?
Always, let us be fair. The organized and corrosive subordination of intellect by a US president was by no means an original “contribution” of Donald J. Trump. After all, American society has never been a conspicuous example of appropriate obeisance to learning or enlightened considerations of “mind.” But it does remains a defining and defiling signature of this fully dissembling American presidency.
For sensible and still-thinking Americans, there should be little residual ambiguity about what is currently unraveling. Beyond any reasonable doubt, this unhappy country backs further and further away from any merit-based standards of policy assessment. Now locked fixedly into a regressive trajectory of political and cultural decline, America’s cumulative ambitions are systematically being reduced to narrowly shallow credos and derivatively empty witticisms.
“I love the poorly educated,” said candidate Trump back in 2016.
“Intellect rots the brain,” said Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
There is more. Relevant policy examples abound. It should hardly come as a surprise that virtually all Americans are already victims of this president’s once-vaunted “trade wars” and “currency wars.” The principal long-term beneficiaries of this Trump-induced incoherence, of course, will be Russia and China. The only corollary question, therefore, should be this one:
Why is such gravely injurious presidential irrationality still acceptable to millions of rhythmically chanting and “loyal” citizens?
As fearful disease combines with a foolishly belligerent Trumpian nationalism, what can these deluded citizens possibly be thinking?
These questions need to be suitably answered. Always, science must begin with identifiably tangible questions. These core queries cannot be overlooked, minimized or ignored. Americans, it follows, must much more sincerely inquire:
“How can a US president so willfully ignore and accept his Russian counterpart as his puppet master?”
Even in the wholesale absence of “high thinking” within the Trump White House, it should at least be unambiguous that one superpower president has become the all-too-witting marionette of the other. Could any observation be any more apparent?
At what point do Americans candidly acknowledge that in any measured comparisons with geopolitical reality, the current US presidency might effectively represent The Manchurian Candidate on steroids?
There are even more serious questions. As a nation, when shall we finally agree to bear truthful witness on Constitutional governance? Can there be any doubt that there is vastly more significance to these founding principles than the oft-misinterpreted Second Amendment? Surely this country must ultimately be about much more than just some basic right to bear arms. Surely we ought to be more than merely perplexed or bemused when a sitting president declares that he may choose not to accept the results of the upcoming election.
“The man who laughs,” warned dramatist Bertolt Brecht about an earlier European charlatan, “has simply not yet heard the terrible news.”
Do Donald Trump’s “faithful” supporters believe that Mr. Trump actually has lawful authority to defy an election outcome? How could they have such a belief? Have they ever glanced at the US Constitution?
It’s a silly question. The president himself has never looked at this document, or at any of the associated judicial histories or decisions, If he has no need of facts – that is, if he can learn sufficiently “in his own flesh” – why should ordinary citizens leave the card room or the golf course?
For explanations, cultural context remains vital, even determinative. Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency did not arise ex nihilo, out of nothing. Recalling classic American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson, what exactly has gone so terribly wrong with American “high thinking?” How, more precisely, have we managed to allow a once-still-promising and rising nation to slide uncontrollably toward national misfortune?
Again, the core element of time deserves pride of place. In our inherently unsteady nuclear age, any such misfortune could sometime include irreversibly catastrophic wars. With such a dreaded inclusion, We the people might even need to witness a wholly unanticipated fusion. This would be an explosive alloy of disease plague and apocalypse.
It could not be a pleasing fusion.
Before answering such critical queries – and any properly serious replies must take informed account of expanding worldwide nuclear proliferation – the operational genre we select must be precise. In this connection, for example, whenever we speak of Donald Trump we ought not speak of “tragedy.” Authentic tragedy, unlike common buffoonery, chicanery or gratuitously-induced misfortune, is ennobling.
From Aristotle to Shakespeare, true tragedy has demanded a victim, whether individual or societal, who suffers undeservedly.
This key demand has not been met today.
In the incessantly profane play being directed by US President Donald J. Trump, a national leader who reads literally nothing, nothing at all, Americans are not tragic figures. After all, we are not just the passive victims of a disjointed and contrived presidency forced illegitimately upon us in 2016. As long as we refuse to speak out at less delicate levels of truth-telling – and this refusal means much more than just showing up to vote in 2020 – we will richly deserve our consequent losses.
In America, the “emperor” is naked, stark naked He has always been naked. His policies, drawn from deepening swamps of incoherence, will not improve. They cannot improve. Ever.
In the nuclear age, it now bears repeating, our future losses could be incalculable and irremediable.
More immediately, they could be unendurable.
At that point we Americans would not represent the tragic victims of some unstoppable national decline. Instead, we would stand for the pathetic “spillover” of a hideous and once-preventable melodrama.
At that point, continuing the theatrical metaphor, our defining genre will have become parody and pathos. It will be as humiliating as it is lethal. In all likelihood, that finally expressed Trump-induced genre would represent a dreadful and hideous farce.
There is more. Amid all these consequential “theatrical” matters, we may have less to learn from Aristotle or Shakespeare than from 20th century psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Even a cursory glance at the two seminal thinkers from Vienna and Zurich should remind us of ever-present dangers posed by “mass.”
Freud and Jung were both strongly influenced by the Danish Existentialist thinker Soren Kierkegaard (who personally preferred the term “crowd” to “mass”) and by German-Swiss philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who spoke woefully and without guile of the “herd.”
Whatever term analysts might now decide to favor, one key point remains unassailable: When an entire nation and society abandon the most basic obligations of critical thinking, “mind” and “reason” (this observation about “reason” should also bring us to the insights of German post-War philosopher, Karl Jaspers), we can expect incremental deformity and eventual tyranny. Nietzsche, in his masterpiece, Zarathustra, was even more specific.
“Do not seek the higher-man in the marketplace,” the prophet had warned presciently. But the demeaning marketplace is exactly where America found and elected Donald J. Trump. Translated into the more prosaic terms of our current American presidential dilemma, this ought to remind us that the mundane skill sets acquired in the worlds of real-estate bargaining and casino gambling do not “carry over” to high-politics and diplomacy.
As one might say right here, back home in Indiana, “Not hardly!”
Now, in essence, American national leadership requires some serious figures of historical literacy and tangible erudition, not the crudely half-educated impresarios of “deals.” In America, snake oil can still be sold under the various sacrilizing markings of some alleged public policy. But the product still remains snake oil.
In the end, every society represents the sum total of its individual souls seeking some sort or other of “redemption.” This search is never properly scientific – after all, there can be no discernible or tangible referent for a human “soul” – but some important answers may still occasionally lie outside mainstream scientific investigations. Though science must always be our signal analytic guidepost, these sorts of “eccentric” answers ought not be disregarded.
At times, they should be consciously sought and carefully studied.
Not only the blustering American emperor, but also those still awed by his mind-stifling parade of gibberish, are “naked.” Shamelessly naked. Recalling American poet T S Eliot, in President Donald Trump’s deeply fractionated American republic, We the people cheerlessly inhabit a “hollow land” of stultifying submission, crass consumption, dreary profanity and immutably shallow pleasures. Bored by the embarrassing banalities of American daily life, and beaten down by the grinding struggle to stay hopeful amid ever-widening polarities of disease versus health, wealth versus poverty, weary US citizens (people who have every right to vote, but not to keep their teeth) grasp anxiously for any available lifelines of distraction.
In 2016, this presumed lifeline was a false prophet of American “greatness.”
In 2016, legions of Americans unaccustomed to reading anything of consequence were easily taken in by a staggering mountain of cheap red hats and breathtakingly inane slogans.
For Donald Trump, cynical simplifications represented his planned and eventually successful path to electoral victory. In this regard, nothing has changed.
“Intellect rots the mind” said Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in 1935.
“I love the poorly educated,” said US Presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016.
Such points considered, it is small wonder that the cavernous American Opiate Crisis is already deep enough to drown entire libraries of a once-sacred poetry.
Small wonder, too, that in a nation of so much institutionalized pain and private desperation there exists a pervasively growing cry for a delusionary “anesthesia.”
In part, because of the indifferent and ineffectual stewardship of America’s current president, both this singular nation and the wider planetary system of which it is a part are at significant (even existential) risk. Where, then, shall we meaningfully seek any still-lingering public demands for human improvement and collective survival? Where might we still discover any usefully reinforcing visions of social cooperation and personal growth?
In principle, at least, more thoughtful concepts are now de rigeur. Misdirected by the incessantly hollow claims of “American Exceptionalism” and “America First,” we have somehow managed to forget that world politics is essentially a system. It follows, among other things, that US prosperity is perpetually linked to the calculable well-being of other states and other societies.
We are not alone on this crumbling planet.
It’s not terribly complicated. In brief, this is an historical moment where one simplifying gastronomic metaphor can actually make succinct sense: We are all, incontestably, in the “soup” together.
There is more. Until now, we have unceremoniously ignored the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s altogether clear warning from The Phenomenon of Man: “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself’ is false and against nature. No element can move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.”
We have also ignored almost everything else of commendably real intellectual importance. Should there remain any sincere doubts about this indictment, one need only look at the current state of American higher education. In many ways, this is now just another obvious expression of Nietzsche’s (Zarathustra’s) “marketplace.”
In Donald Trump’s America, we the people are no longer shaped by any suitably generalized feelings of reverence or compassion, or, as has already been amply demonstrated, by even the tiniest hints of some plausibly complex thought. Now, our preferred preoccupation, unhidden, lies with a closely- orchestrated hysteria of indulgence in other people’s private lives and (with even greater and more visceral enthusiasm) their palpable sufferings. In German, there is even a specially-designated word for this pathology of the human spirit.
The Germans call this schadenfreude, or taking an exquisite pleasure in the misfortunes of others.
For the most part, this voyeuristic frenzy is juxtaposed against the always-comforting myth of American superiority. In the end, this particular myth, more than any other, is apt to produce further declension and despair. This is the case even when an American president chooses to physically wrap himself in the flag, a once-frequent Trump embrace of rare and visually defiling repugnance.
“I belong, therefore I am.” This is assuredly not what philosopher René Descartes had in mind when, back in the 17th century, he urged greater thought and expanding doubt. It is also a very sad credo. Unhesitatingly, it screams loudly that seeming social acceptance is equivalent to physical survival, and that even the most sorely pretended pleasures of inclusion are worth pursuing.
A push-button metaphysics of “apps” reigns supreme in America. This immense attraction of smart phones and social networks stems in large part from our barren society’s machine-like existence. Within this increasingly robotic universe, every hint of human passion must be shunted away from any caring human emotions, and then re-directed along certain uniform and vicariously satisfying pathways.
There are jurisprudential issues. Though international law obliges the United States to oppose all crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity – and despite the fact that this binding international law is an incorporated part of the municipal law of the United States – America’s president remains silent on war crimes, whether committed by America’s allies or by its adversaries. In part, these terms of relationship must be bound together because it has become substantially unclear in Trump’s inverted universe exactly who is friend and who is foe.
When Donald J. Trump says of North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un “We’re in love,” the rest of us are in real trouble.
There is more. We may still argue, and quite correctly, that human beings are the creators of their machines, not their servants. Yet, there exists today an implicit and hideous reciprocity between creator and creation, an elaborate and potentially murderous pantomime between the users and the used. Quite openly, our fragmenting American society is making a machine out of Man and Woman.
In what must amount to an unforgivable inversion of Genesis, it now seems plausible that we have actually been created in the image not of God, but of the machine. Mustn’t we now ask, at least those residually few Americans who would courageously remain determined thinkers and policy doubters, “What sort of redemption is this?”
For the moment, we Americans remain grinning but hapless captives in a deliriously noisy and stultifying mass. By relentlessly disclaiming any dint of interior life, we are somehow able to proceed with our imitative lives, very tentatively, of course, and – in absolutely every existential sphere – at the lowest possible common denominator.
Expressed in more tangible pre-pandemic terms, our air, rail and land travel is too often insufferable, especially when compared to other western democracies. Our universities, institutions in which I have lived for more than the past half century, are generally bereft of anything that might ever hint at serious learning. For the most part, these places have obligingly become submissive adjuncts to the larger corporate and entrepreneurial worlds. Unsurprisingly, they are not generally places of any analytic education.
America’s universities have been effectively dedicated more than anything else to private wealth accumulation and correspondingly to institutional self-promotion. In this country, let us be candid: “You are what you buy.” Or in what amounts to a grotesque inversion of Descartes, “I don’t think, therefore I am.”
In the blatantly anti-intellectual Trump Era, this already intolerable trend merely continues to worsen. Considered together with ongoing disease pandemic intersections, some of which could be authentically synergistic, this trend could become literally murderous or even quasi-genocidal.
There is still more pertinent detail to consider. Across the beleaguered American landscape, the “hollow land,” our once traditionally revered Western Canon of literature and art has largely been replaced more “practical” emphases on job preparation, loyalty-building sports and “branding”(quantitative rankings.) Apart from their unhappy drunkenness and broadly tasteless entertainments, the once-sacred spaces of “higher education” had managed, pre-pandemic, to become something wholly unrelated to learning. Most visibly, though rarely acknowledged, our universities had been morphing into a vocational pipeline to mostly nonsensical and unsatisfying jobs.
Sometimes, as in the unambiguous case of onetime “Trump University,” they are incapable of meeting even these minimal expectations.
It is high time for candor. For most of America’s young people, learning has become an inconvenient and burdensome commodity, nothing more. At the same time, as virtually everyone already understands, commodities exist for only one overriding purpose. They exist, like newly minted college graduates themselves, to be bought and sold.
Beware, warns Zarathustra, of ever seeking virtue or quality at the marketplace. This is a place only for buying and selling. It is a venue for “deals.”
Though faced with genuine threats of plague, war, impoverishment and terror, millions of Americans still choose to amuse themselves to death with assorted forms of morbid excitement, public scandal (remember Schadenfreude), inedible foods, and the stunningly inane repetitions of a wholly illiterate political discourse. Not a day goes by that we don’t notice some premonitory sign of impending catastrophe. Still, our bewildered and drug-numbed country continues to impose upon its exhausted and manipulated people a devaluation of challenging thought and a breakneck pace of unrelieved and unrewarding work.
Small wonder that “No Vacancy” signs continue to hang securely outside our psychiatric hospitals, childcare centers and ready-to-burst prisons, not just at our Covid19 intensive care units.
In all purposeful societies, as Ralph Waldo Emerson had already understood, the care of individual “souls” remains the most urgent responsibility. Conceivably, there could emerge a better“American Soul,”but not until we should first agree to shun the variously inter-penetrating seductions of mass culture – that is, (1) rank imitation; (2) shallow thinking; (3) organized mediocrity; and (4) a manifestly predatory politics of ethnicity, race and class. Of course, any such far-reaching rejection will not be easy. It will take time. And time is something we no longer have.
The alternative would be for us to embrace an intolerably “hollow” future, one offering not a national life of any excellence or promise, but the American poet’s “cactus land” – a decaying country ever more willing “to receive the supplication of a dead man’s hand.” This would represent an unalterably lethal embrace, one earlier described in generic terms by 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as “a sickness unto death.”
Amid this existential pathology, hope would quickly give way to abject surrender and to a dreadfully expanding despair.
When an aspiring tyranny fuses its doctrine of anti-science with a spreading plague or pandemic, the myriad dangers of “mass-man” can become insurmountable. Moreover, these intersecting and potentially synergistic dangers can turn most glaringly portentous when the citizenry no longer has any attention to spare for critical reasoning. At that woeful point of declension, longtime democratic traditions notwithstanding, it could agree to follow a misguiding piper anywhere.
Lemming-like, and with nary a serious thought, the American mass would then march dutifully, in humiliating lockstep, and, if “necessary,” toward collective extinction. In a cumulatively grotesque American “triumph” of mass-man, it would know how to end the unraveling story. This means it would “rally” boisterously above the now endless fields of corpses, declaring unreservedly, and with commonly self-satisfied convictions, “America is Great Again.”
 As used herein, of course, the term “mass-man” is gender neutral, and applies equally to male and female citizens of the United States.
 “It must not be forgotten,” says Guilllaume Apollinaire in The New Spirit and the Poets (1917),”that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.”
“To lure many away from the herd, for that I have come. The people and the herd shall be angry with me. Zarathustra wants to be called a robber by the shepherds.” (See Zarathustra, Part 1).
 See especially Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952).
 Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung thought of “soul” (in German, Seele) as the very essence of a human being. Neither Freud nor Jung ever provides a precise definition of the term, but clearly it was not intended by either in any ordinary religious sense. For both, it was a still-recognizable and critical seat of both mind and passions in this life. Interesting, too, in the present context, is that Freud explained his already-predicted decline of America by various express references to “soul.” Freud was plainly disgusted by any civilization so apparently unmoved by considerations of true “consciousness” (e.g., awareness of intellect and literature), and even thought that the crude American commitment to perpetually shallow optimism and material accomplishment at any cost would occasion sweeping psychological misery.
See, T S Eliot, The Hollow Men (1925).
 One has to wonder just how many Americans can even afford to have essential dental care. As a practical matter, for a great many Americans (both poor and aged) teeth are simply no longer affordable.
 In the words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).Moreover, the specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”
Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics
The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.
Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.
These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.
The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.
“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.
The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.
To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.
Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.
In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.
Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.
Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.
To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting; guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.
Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.
“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.
Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.
The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”
Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn
US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.
So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.
Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”.
That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.
The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards.
That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.
The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.
Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer
When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?
But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.
So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point.
Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.
Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.
I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.
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