American and Iranian: 2 homelands at an impasse

What are we to do about the nuclear ambitions of an tyrannically run country, with an oppressive record of human rights violations? How about treating it as an sovereign state with the same rights as our country?
Crosscut archive image.

A 2009 protest in Tehran over the count of ballots in the Iranian presidential election.

What are we to do about the nuclear ambitions of an tyrannically run country, with an oppressive record of human rights violations? How about treating it as an sovereign state with the same rights as our country?

Let's acknowledge a few things here.

The Iranian government is tyrannical. It's corrupt and it has a heavy record of human rights violations. All this explains the sea of people protesting in the country in city streets since the disputed June presidential election. The tides of discontent have been ebbing and flowing for years, tempered by things like the near-decade long war with Iraq and fueled by the regime's own harsh crackdowns.

The 1979 revolution was the result of decades of friction between the Iranian population and the U.S.-back Shah. It didn't happen overnight, and the struggle to change the current regime's policies will take a lot of time and pain. As an Iranian with family there, I don't say this lightly.

So, there's all that.

Then there's the more immediate story of the multinational political throw down over Iran's nuclear program. This tense dance, make note, is just part of the process. And once the music stops, we will still be left to deal with each other.

Taking military action against Iran would be foolish. Actually, it would be light-up-the-sky stupid. A détente is inevitable, and here's why:

The only workable solution is a diplomatic one. It won't be easy and, no, the Iranian government isn't always an ideal diplomatic ally. But why would it be? It sets us up with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in our hour of need and President Bush places it on the "axis of evil." Additionally, long-standing sanctions have prevented anyone from selling Iran even passenger airplane parts, leaving Iranians to travel and crash with 30-plus year-old Russian planes.

The Iranian government says it's interested only in nuclear energy, not weapons. Nuclear warheads, it says, are un-Islamic. Of course, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's government has a tenuous relationship with the truth (as does ours, at times), so it's fair to apply rigorous skepticism to its claims.

Still, there are no weapons at this point, a fact that remains undisputed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, even in its recent toughly worded report. Environmental issues with nuclear energy aside, doesn't a sovereign nation have a right to pursue it? The list of countries already doing so is long, and according to the World Nuclear Association, the U.S. has the distinction of being at the top of that list.

With 104 nuclear reactors (and a plan to build more), we are the largest producer of nuclear energy and no one is trying to force us into having our uranium enriched overseas, as was the case with an offer put before Iran. It was rejected, and the U.S., in turn rejected Iran's counter offer.

Iran's right to develop nuclear energy on the same terms as countries such as Japan, Germany and Brazil (who don't have weapons, but have the capability to build them) without being bullied by the U.S. is a rallying cry among its population.

When I was in Iran in 2006 — I produced a series of articles for the Seattle P-I upon my return — I observed a population that supported its government on this issue. While there's not much in the way of reliable polls on the topic (although this University of Maryland one is worth a look) , there'ꀙs reason to believe that this is still the case.

The support for nuclear weapons seems more muted, though some Iranians see having them as a potential insurance against military threats. As one former fighter pilot asked me, referring to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, "You think they would have actually attacked Iraq if they actually believed it had a nuclear bomb?"

Ideally, no country would have access to such a horrifically destructive force. But that's just not the case. The U.S. has nukes. China does. As do India, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel, etc.

We don't have a legitimate argument for preventing Iran from having what we and others have. While I hesitate to put the U.S. in a parental role, accepting one country's nukes (e.g., Pakistan) while cracking down on another's, that, essentially, is the role the U.S. has put itself in. Yet, that Pakistan is more unstable than Iran is a given. When the Washington Post in March asked David Kilcullen, a top adviser to Gen. David Petraeus and an insurgency expert, what he considered "the real central front in the war on terror," he replied, "Pakistan. Hands down. No doubt."

And yet, having lost the sanctions battle with Pakistan, we've been paying to guard its nuclear facilities for nearly a decade.

President Obama recently spoke again of further sanctions against Iran. Okay. Economic sanctions are the typical fall-back position in these situations and are the better, if questionably effective choice (Iran is not Libya); especially if the only other alternative is an air strike. However, looking at what the trade sanctions did to Iraq in the 1990s, before we visited a drawn-out militaristic Armageddon upon it, this doesn't seem like a smart, humanitarian solution. Aside from the fact that Iran hasn't responded favorably to sanctions so far, harsher ones are likely turn the population against the U.S.

That the U.N. even has the muscle to push a new set of sanctions forward at this point is questionable. Russia is "alarmed" but soft on the Iranian issue and China appears to be sitting this one out. Even within the region, Iran will be tough to isolate, with Turkey and Syria pushing back against U.S. demands. And, as Massachusetts Institute of Technology Security Studies Program researcher Jim Walsh aptly points out, "Unfortunately, you can build centrifuges faster than you can impose sanctions."

So, we can't force Iran out of its nuclear intentions, whatever they are. Pragmatism might prompt Iranian leaders to abandon their current course, but that seems unlikely at this point, as, internally, doing so would certainly be taken as a sign of weakness. Approaching Iran as an autonomous state — one with the same rights as ours (energy, weapons, and all) — is the only way to get beyond this impasse.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors