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Iran is an opportunity, not a target

ASK THIS | February 27, 2008

Longtime New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer writes that a better understanding of Iran's history exposes the folly of pre-emptive military action. By contrast, negotiations offer tantalizing possibilities.

By Stephen Kinzer

Q. How should history inform our understanding of Iran's current position and role in the world?

Iran is one of the world's oldest civilizations.  Its people are proud and, like their government, want Iran to be taken seriously as a regional actor.  Iranians have a longstanding view that the West does not want their country to develop economically.  This view helps shape their broadly shared opinion that Iran has a right to a nuclear energy program.

Many Americans are familiar with only one episode in the history of  US-Iranian relations: the hostage crisis of 1979-80.  Few realize that the miltants who seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran have stated that they were primarily motivated by fears that the events of 1953 were about to be replayed.  In that year, the Shah fled his country but was placed back on his throne after a coup organized by CIA agents working in the basement of the U.S. embassy.

The 1953 coup brought an end to democratic rule in Iran.  That makes it difficult for Iranians to take the American leaders seriously when they demand that Iran democratize itself.  Iranians naturally react by thinking, "We had a democracy until Americans took it away from us."

Q. What would be the effects of an American military strike against Iran?

Some of the effects are easy to predict. The Iranian population, which is now strongly pro-American, would naturally erupt in outrage.  There would be an instant and perhaps devastating spike in violence against U.S. forces in Iraq.  Violence would also likely erupt in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Muslim countries.  Iran might retaliate by firing missiles at Israel and U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf.  The cause of democracy in Iran would be set back by a generation. Iranians would rally around their government, as all people do when their country is under attack, thereby giving a new boost to a regime that is now highly unpopular.  Iranian nuclear scientists whose homes are bombed and whose children are killed would have a special motivation to use their knowledge in ways that could be devastating to the U.S.

If the events of 1953 and the history of other U.S. interventions are a guide, though, the most devastating effects of such an attack would be ones we cannot now predict.  No one in 1953 could have foreseen that the CIA coup in Iran would have produced the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which in turn set off the Iran-Iraq war that brought the U.S. into its death-embrace of Saddam Hussein, and that also led the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan, thereby setting in motion the U.S. war there that led to the rise of the Taliban and al Qaeda.  The lesson is that when a big power violently intervenes in the political development of another country, it sets off consequences no one can imagine.

Q. Doesn't Iran's support for militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, its nuclear program and the repressive nature of its government make it so dangerous that the U.S. must seriously consider pre-emptive military intervention there?

The more troubled outsiders are by Iran's behavior, the more urgent negotiation becomes.  It is precisely governments that seem destabilizing or threatening or hostile with whom we should negotiate.  The Iranian government has several times signaled its interest in direct, unconditional and comprehensive negotiations with the United States.  It is in America's urgent interest to begin such talks.

Q. If talks between the U.S. and Iran begin, what might come out of them?

The success of any negotiating process cannot be guaranteed before it begins.  If the U.S. and Iran sit down for serious and broad-ranging talks, however, they may find that not only do their interests not make them logical enemies, but that they have many strategic goals in common.

Iran is eager to stabilize Iraq, and has more ability to do so than any other country, including the United States.  If the U.S. wants to withdraw its troops from Iraq but also assure that a new bloodbath does not follow the withdrawal, Iran can be immensely helpful.  Iran has no interest in stabilizing Iraq, however, as long as it fears that the U.S. might use a stable Iraq as a platform from which to attack Iran.

Iran can also make decisive contributions to stability in Afghanistan.  Iran is even more worried about the prospect of upheaval and collapse in Pakistan than is the U.S.  Iran is a bitter enemy of radical movements like the Taliban and al Qaeda, and was fighting them at early stages when the U.S. had not yet begun to consider them serious threats.  Iran, like the U.S., is eager to prevent the spread of Russian influence in the Middle East.  Iran's oil industry is in a parlous state, and American companies have the capital and expertise to rebuild it.

No other Muslim country in the Middle East offers such tantalizing possibilities as a potential partner of the United States.  The path of negotiation is practically cost-free.  Not to pursue it is to pass up the greatest opportunity the U.S. has in the world today to rearrange the global strategic balance in ways that could decisively strengthen American national security.

Iran's Biggest Response
Posted by K. Ackermann
06/04/2008, 03:22 PM

The main Saudi oil terminals are a very short flight for Iranian missiles.

Iran not only can pummel them, but it can sink ships - even their own ships, in the shipping lanes of the strait.

They can greatly disrupt, and keep disrupted 40% of the worlds oil.

Economies strain, crack, break, and crumble under that kind of pressure.

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