By JOHN CRISP
The scent of war with Iran is in the air. This is surprising, since many experts agree that our military options for Iran lie somewhere between very, very few and nonexistent. Journalist James Fallows, for example, reported in the December 2004 “Atlantic Monthly” on a group of experts and strategists who convened a war game with options for military action against Iran. Their conclusion: Prudent military alternatives for Iran do not exist.
Besides, war ought always to be the last resort. It’s available, of course, if diplomacy fails, but creative diplomatic possibilities with Iran are far from exhausted. In fact, Iran is a country that we should to be able to get along with.
True, its current president is given to extreme, inflammatory positions, but we shouldn’t allow him to obscure a surprisingly long democratic tradition in Iran that has been characterized at various times and in various degrees by legitimate elections and free speech. President Ahmadinejad’s outrageous pronouncements have raised his profile abroad, but they’ve cost him politically with the moderates at home.
Furthermore, Ahmadinejad’s bizarre Holocaust-denying fantasies have worked against our appreciation of the healthy attraction that moderation and modernization have for the Iranian people. Vali Nasr argues this point credibly in “The Shiite Revival,” and recently “New York Times” columnist and Middle East expert Thomas Friedman does, as well.
In fact, Friedman compares Iran and our old pal Saudi Arabia to argue convincingly that in many respects Iran is much more of a natural ally for us than Saudi Arabia. He suggests that dramatic unilateral steps on our part, like re-opening the United States embassy in Tehran and offering 50,000 student visas to young Iranians, would spark a spirited debate within Iran about its leadership. I suspect he’s right, and it’s possible that such actions would lead to the end of Ahmadinejad. Perhaps it’s worth trying before we go to war.
The fly in this optimistic ointment, of course, is the issue of nuclear weapons. Iimagining them in the hands of a semi-fanatical president who has called for the destruction of Israel is daunting and scary. Nevertheless, if Iran wants the bomb, it’s not hard to understand why. Undoubtedly many Iranians, even moderates, are anxious about the troops on two of their borders and the second carrier group moving into the Persian Gulf, particularly since the troops belong to a country that’s made no secret of its desire for regime change in Tehran or of its self-professed addiction to oil.
Nevertheless, the prospect of nuclear weapons in Iran is a grim one. But there’s some hope to be found in “How to Keep the Bomb from Iran,” an article in the September/October 2006 issue of “Foreign Affairs.” Stanford political science professor Scott Sagan first undermines the positions of those who think that, should Iran get the bomb, nuclear deterrence can be relied upon to protect us, as it seems to have done during the Cold War. Nuclear proliferation among nations like Iran would be, he argues, a very different matter.
But he argues also against the position that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is inevitable. He points out that nations seek nuclear weapons for specific, concrete reasons. Iran is a classic case, he says, of a country that seeks nuclear weapons in response to an external security threat. And he argues convincingly that efforts to achieve nonproliferation have been successful in the past when the conditions that drive nations toward nuclear weapons have been meliorated. Some might call this appeasement, but I call it careful diplomacy in a dangerous world.
One of our mistakes before our invasion of Iraq was not paying enough attention to the experts on the Middle East who counseled more caution. As the scary prospect of war with Iran looms ahead, we must pay more attention to experts like Nasr, Friedman, and Sagan before we resort to the less complex but more dangerous alternative of military action.
War with Iran is unthinkable; but just because something is unthinkable doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Extreme caution and the creative exploration of all diplomatic possibilities are essential. If necessary, we can always fight later.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail: jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)