Thursday, February 21, 2008

What Would it Take to Launch a War with Iran?

Yesterday, the Seattle Times ran an editorial by Bruce Ramsey entitled "What Would it Take to Launch a War with Iran." The editorial was a result of a meeting with Ramsey during a Folly of Attacking Iran Tour stop in Seattle featuring Stephen Kinzer, General John Johns and myself.

A key tenet of the tour is that we can not allow the possibility of a military strike and its resulting disastrous consequences to fall off the radar of the American public's agenda. As Ramsey notes in his editorial: "What matters is not only the Constitution; it is the outcry. Government does what it can get away with — and in the last year of the Bush presidency, it is still an open question how much that is."

Another key tenet of the tour is that diplomacy is the most viable option for resolving long-standing tenstions between the U.S. and Iran and a much lower-risk option. While sustained, direct, unconditional talks with Iran may not be possible during this administration, we must work to create the environment for diplomacy to succeed.

Being on this tour, I have gone back and re-read much of Stephen Kinzer's most excellent book, "All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror." This book should be required reading for every American to understand our complex relationship with Iran. We were actually allies. One of the first people to die in Iran's 1906-1911 Constitutional Revolution was a Nebraskan named Howard Baskerville. Baskerville is still regarded in Iran today as an "Iranian hero from America."

Under the Truman adminsitration, the U.S. supported Iran in its struggle to nationalize oil. But when Eisenhower became President and with the appointment of John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State, the U.S. chose to side with the British on the oil issue, because concerns that Iran could fall to the communists trumped everything else.

Iranians have not forgotten the fact that the U.S. helped orchestrate the overthrow of their only democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosadegh in 1953. U.S. support for Mohammed Reza Shah, who was a brutal dictator, fomented the 1979 Islamic revolution that lead to clerical regime today.

Iran's experience in the struggle to nationalize it's oil and Britain's attitude towards Iran has many similarities to the current standoff between the U.S. and Iran. Britain conducted a vigorious sanctions campaign and moved carriers into the Persian Gulf to threaten Iran. But there were those in Britain, like Earl Mountbatten who "told his superiors in the Admirality that instead of listening to the 'notoriously bellicose' Herbert Morrison's advice on how to 'cow these insolent natives,' Britain should realize 'economic and military threats could only make things worse.'" And indeed they did. (All the Shah's Men, page 95)

Like Earl Mountbatten, there are many today who are issuing the same warnings and noting that preconditions for negotiations are a recipe for failure. One must understand Iran's history to realize it will not cow to economic and military threats. The most viable solution is sustained, bilateral direct, unconditional talks with Iran.

I believe that media missed some of the more valuable key findings of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, including:

  • Iran is a rational actor that makes decisions regarding its nuclear program on a cost-benefit analysis; and
  • Iran could halt its nuclear program if it was given opportunities perceived as credible by its leaders to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways.
Much work must be done to create the conditions where an offer is perceived as credible. First, the U.S. should determine which elements of the offer made by Iran in 2003 to settle outstanding disputes might remain a feasible basis for talks. Dropping preconditions for talks on the nuclear program is absolutely necessary as it would signal to both Iran and European allies that the US is sincere in its repeated expressions of preference for real diplomacy.

In the near term, the U.S. could offer confidence-building measures to help bridge the enormous gap in trust between the two countries. At a minimum, the U.S. should pledge non-interference in Iran’s domestic affairs, which is, in any case, its legal obligation as stipulated in the Algiers Accord signed in 1981 to end the hostage crisis. The Bush administration could also repeal Office of Foreign Assets Control restrictions that prohibit U.S. non-governmental organizations from obtaining licenses to work inside Iran, or offer to replace engine parts in the aging fleet of Iranian civilian aircraft. The U.S. could also lift restrictions on visas, allowing for an increase in citizen exchanges, which would in turn foster the growth of constituencies in Iran calling for a government that is fully integrated into the international community. For its part, Congress can divert the regime change slush fund money (a.k.a. the so-called “democracy promotion” funding) in the foreign operations bill to other programs.

There is time, albeit limited, for the US to desist from its punitive measures and its threats of more to come, and to pursue responsible and effective policy of bold, tough-minded direct diplomacy instead.

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