By Stephen Kinzer
May 11, 2008
The ominous sound of war drums is once again echoing from Washington. Hardly a day goes by without new and more vivid threats against America's newest supposed enemy, Iran. It seems almost unbelievable that the United States, so bloodied and weakened by its adventure in Iraq, would contemplate an attack on another Middle Eastern country. Yet some American leaders seem bent on it.
Just a few months ago, the prospect of an American attack on Iran appeared to recede after U.S. intelligence agencies released an "estimate" asserting that Iran is not seeking to build nuclear weapons. In recent weeks, though, the Bush administration has come up with a new argument. The U.S. must consider attacking Iran, it now says, because Iran is stirring up trouble in Iraq.
It may well be true that groups in Iran are training guerrillas to cross into Iraq and fight U.S.-sponsored factions there, even killing American soldiers. Logic also suggests that Iranian leaders, under constant threat from two nuclear-armed powers, the U.S. and Israel, might wish to develop nuclear weapons of their own.
Americans have every reason to fear these developments. An angry, anti-American Iran with nuclear ambitions could gravely threaten Israel and U.S. interests in the Middle East. Attacking Iran, however, would intensify rather than ease those threats.
It is easy to foresee some of the results that might follow an American bombing campaign against Iran. They include a wave of revenge attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan; a surge of terrorism against Western targets; a retaliatory Iranian attack on Israel; a closing of the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world's oil passes; and rage in neighboring Pakistan, a frighteningly unstable country that has both nuclear weapons and powerful political factions sympathetic to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
An American attack on Iran also would greatly strengthen President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is now so unpopular among Iranian voters that he may not even seek re-election next year. People everywhere rally behind their leaders when their country is attacked. It is contrary to U.S. interests to take steps that would strengthen the Ahmadinejad faction, which makes no secret of its contempt for reason and the rule of law.
In the face of an imminent threat from Iran, and in the absence of alternatives, the U.S. might be justified in risking even these awful consequences. But there is an alternative, one the U.S. has never tried: direct, bilateral, comprehensive and unconditional negotiations.
It is by no means certain that negotiations with Iran would succeed. Before taking military action, however, the U.S. should at least offer to talk. Attacking Iran without exhausting all peaceful alternatives would not only be immoral, it would further isolate the U.S. and thereby weaken its national security.
If negotiations with Iran begin, the U.S. might soon discover that these two countries share many security interests.
Iran can help stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is Al Qaeda's bitter enemy. Iran is terrified of instability in Pakistan. Iran wants to limit Russian influence in the Middle East. Iran's oil infrastructure is in a state of collapse and needs billions of dollars in investment, something the U.S. is well-positioned to provide.
Unlike most other countries in the region, Iran, with a constitution that dates back to 1906 and a long tradition of competitive elections, is fertile ground for democracy. Negotiations that draw Iran back into the world community could not only help defuse a crisis that threatens to spiral into catastrophe but might also lead ultimately to the emergence of a peaceful and prosperous Iran. That is why all of Iran's pro-democracy campaigners, from exiled dissident Akbar Ganji to heroic Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, are pleading with Washington to abandon its snarling threats and test the negotiating option.
Some in Washington, however, evidently believe that the U.S. should do nothing to promote the emergence of nationalist democracies in the Middle East that might be reluctant to do Washington's bidding. This is a terribly short-sighted policy. Iran has always had and will always have influence in the Middle East. The United States should accept that fact and work to create an Iran that pulls the region toward democracy. Otherwise Iran will choose another big-power partner, most likely Russia or China-not a desirable outcome for the U.S.
There are three possible ways for the U.S. to deal with growing threats from Iran. One is to do nothing, which will allow Iran to intensify its nuclear program in ways that could profoundly threaten the region and global stability. The second is to launch a military attack, which would have devastating "blowback" consequences for the U.S., Israel and the Western world. The third is negotiation. This option is so low-cost that it seems folly not to try.
Stephen Kinzer teaches journalism and political science at Northwestern University and is the author of "All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror." He is scheduled to testify Tuesday before a Chicago City Council committee that is considering a resolution urging negotiations with Iran.