Iranians are now beginning to die for lack of medicines kept out by U.S.-imposed sanctions. I recently questioned (and videoed) former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about her notorious defense of sanctions that killed over a half million young Iraqi children. She said she’d been wrong to say what she’d said. She did not comment on the appropriateness of what she’d done. I asked her if what we were doing to Iran was also wrong, and she replied, “No, absolutely not.”
So, somehow it is good and proper for us to be killing Iranian children — although perhaps not to be talking about it.
I suspect that some of the reasons why we imagine there is a greater good being served by such actions are the same reasons no U.S. president will go to Iran in the manner in which Nixon went to China. Of course, the common political wisdom in the United States holds that the president who went to China had to be a Republican. By the same logic, the president who goes to Iran must be a militarist power-mad servant of the corporate oligarchy from the Republican party and not a militarist power-mad servant of the corporate oligarchy from the Democratic party. That wouldn’t do at all. And yet, U.S. conduct toward Iran has varied little from Bush to Clinton to Bush Jr. to Obama/Clinton, H. A hopeless spiral of delusional counter-productive approaches toward the Islamic Republic of Iran needs to be broken by a 180 degree turn, and it won’t make much substantive difference who does it, as long as it doesn’t come too late.
Whether the authors intended exactly that or not, the above is the lesson I take away from an excellent new book by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett called “Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
It has been U.S. policy for decades not to engage with Iran, and — misleading rhetoric notwithstanding — it still is. “More than any of his predecessors, in fact, Obama has given engagement a bad name, by claiming to have reached out to Tehran and failed when the truth is he never really tried.”
The Leveretts trace official U.S. policy on Iran to a trio of myths: the myths of irrationality, illegitimacy, and isolation.
The evidence of irrationality on the part of the Iranian people or the Iranian government is very slim. I can find much more irrationality in the U.S. public and government. Iranians, in fact, are better at distinguishing between our people and our government than we seem to be at making that distinction on their side. Iran has funded Hizballah and HAMAS, and we call those groups terrorists. But we call any militants opposing Pentagon interests terrorists. Iranian leaders have made comments verging on anti-Semitic (and routinely distorted into outrageous anti-Semitism), but nothing approaching the things Anwar Sadat or Mahmoud Abbas said or wrote before they were deemed rational actors with whom the U.S. and Israel could (and did) work.
Iran’s policies have been defensive, not aggressive. Iran has not threatened to attack or attacked others. Iran has refused to retaliate against chemical weapons attacks or terrorism or our shooting down a commercial jet or our funding efforts within Iran to manipulate its elections or our training of militants seeking to overthrow Iran’s government. Iran has refused to develop chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Unlike Britain, Russia, or the United States, when provoked Iran has refused to invade Afghanistan, choosing wise reflection over hot-tempered anger. Look at the polling across the Middle East: people fear the United States and Israel, not Iran.
Iran’s approach to the United States over the years has been rational and forbearant. In 1995 the Islamic Republic of Iran offered its first foreign oil development contract to the United States, which turned it down. Iran aided President Clinton by shipping arms to Bosnia, which Clinton turned around and condemned Iran for when the story became public. In 2001, the President of Iran requested permission to pray for 911 victims at the site of the World Trade Center and offered to assist in counterterrorism plans, but was turned down. Iran assisted the United States with its invasion of Afghanistan and was labeled “evil” in return. The current president of Iran wrote long friendly letters to President Bush and President Obama, both of whom ignored them except to allow their staffs to publicly mock them. The Iranian government repeatedly proposed substantive dialogue, offering to put everything on the table, including its nuclear energy program, and was turned down. The Obama administration gave Turkey and Brazil terms it was sure Iran wouldn’t agree to; Iran agreed to them; and the White House rejected them, choosing instead to grow outraged at Brazil and Turkey.
Iran tried to believe in the change in Obama’s (no doubt domestically intended) rhetoric, but never encountered any substance, only fraud and hostility. That Iran attempts civil relations with a nation surrounding and threatening it, imposing deadly sanctions on it, funding terrorism within its borders, and publicly mocking its sincere approaches is indication of either rationality or something almost Christ-like (I’m inclined to go with rationality).
War is immoral, illegal, and counter-productive. That doesn’t change if the people bombed are living or suffering under an illegitimate government. Here in the United States an unaccountable Supreme Court rewrites our basic laws, unverifiable privately owned and operated machines count our votes, candidates are chosen by wealth, media coverage is dolled out by a corporate cartel, presidents disregard the legislature, and high crimes and misdemeanors are not prosecuted. And yet, nonetheless — amazing to tell — we’d rather not be bombed. I don’t give a damn whether this scholar or that scholar believes the Iranian government is legitimate or not; I don’t want any human beings killed in my name with my money.
That being said, common claims of illegitimacy for Iran’s government are myths. Western experts have predicted its imminent collapse (as well as its imminent development of nukes) for decades. Iranian elections are far more credible than U.S. ones. A government need not be secular to be legitimate. I might favor secular governments, but I’m not an Iranian. I’m a citizen of a government that has been seeking to control Iran’s government for over a half century since overthrowing it in 1953; I don’t get to have a voice. Iranians are gaining in rights, in education, in health, in life expectancy (the opposite in many ways of the course we are on in the United States). Iranian women used to be permitted to dress as they liked but not to pursue the education and career they liked. Now that has largely been reversed. Iranian women are guaranteed paid maternity leave that outstrips our standards. Iran’s approach to drugs is more rational than our own, its approach to homosexuality more mixed than we suspect, its investment in science cutting edge.
All of that being said, the Iranian government abuses its people in ways that need to be addressed by its people and should have been directly addressed by the Leveretts’ book.
I also want to quibble with the Leveretts’ account of the 1979 revolution in light of the views of some who were there at the time. I’m not convinced that Khomeini led and directed the revolution from the start. I’m willing to believe that secular pro-democracy activists did not represent the views of all Iranians. There’s no question that significant support swung to Khomeini and the mullahs who claimed power. But Khomeini’s supposed leadership was news in the West before it was ever heard of in Tehran. The Shah was not opposed for his secularism, but for his surveillance, imprisonment, torture, murder, greed, expropriation of wealth, and subservience to foreigners. The Leveretts admit that Khomeini originally proposed a government with less power for himself and then revised his plans, but they claim that he only did so in response to secularists’ insistence that he hold no power at all. Not the strongest defense of tyranny I’ve ever encountered.
The authors then cite a public referendum of December 2-3, 1979, in which, they say, “the new constitution was approved by 98 percent of participating voters.” Sounds impressive, right? Guess what choices the voters were offered: an Islamic republic or the Shah! Of course they chose the Islamic republic! But to turn around and claim that 98% voted against a secular republic is misleading. During the 2003-2013 U.S. war on Iraq, a U.S. Democratic-Party group called MoveOn.org polled its membership. Did they support House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plan for more war or President George W. Bush’s? Of course, they overwhelmingly chose Pelosi’s. MoveOn then turned around and claimed that their people opposed Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s proposal to end the war. Such votes should be given no more dignity than they deserve.
How the government of the 1980s came to be does not tell us everything we should know about today’s government, but nothing you could tell me about today’s government would have any relevance to the morality of bombing the people of Iran.
The United States has sought to isolate Iran and failed dramatically, with Iran now chairing the Nonaligned Movement. It has sought to use economic and other pressures to overthrow the government, and instead strengthened it. In 2011, Obama opened a “virtual embassy” to propagandize the Iranian people for “regime change.” In 2012 it removed the terrorist designation for an opposition terrorist group called the MEK. Imagine if Iran did such things to us, rather than just being Muslim or whatever it is that it’s actually done to us. The Leveretts present a long and unrelenting history of incompetence and irrationality . . . from the U.S. side. They have been reduced, reasonably enough, to something that sounds ridiculous: longing for Richard Nixon.