That was the question on everyones mind at a recent political talk I gave in a small college town in Texas. I ran through some of the many reasons such an attack would be ill-advised, bordering on insane:
--U.S. forces are bogged down in a failed war in Iraq and have limited capacity to fight anywhere;
--Iran is militarily a much more formidable opponent than Iraq, and its people are even less likely than Iraqis to welcome the U.S. military;
--Iranian nuclear sites are dispersed around the country, making it difficult for U.S. (or U.S.-backed Israeli) air strikes to achieve the stated goal; and
--any aggression in a region already enraged about U.S. bullying, prison torture, and war crimes would risk setting off an uncontrollable conflict that would be potentially catastrophic, leaving U.S. troops in Iraq and American citizens everywhere exposed to heightened dangers.
Given all that, I asked the audience, can you imagine any sane politician or policymaker deciding to invade or bomb Iran?
Even though all this is obvious, I asked, are you still worried that the Bush administration is going to bomb Iran?
YES! they shouted back.
So, many in the United States -- and even more people around the world -- are scared that among top U.S. policymakers, rational arguments can easily be trumped by ideology, willed ignorance, and self-delusion. While U.S. military commanders likely view an attack on Iran as dangerous folly -- and are the likely source of leaks to journalists about the planning process, perhaps in an attempt to derail such plans -- civilian leaders seem to be insulated from reality and responsibility.
Indeed, the fanatics in the Bush administration pose a serious threat to peace and are an impediment to the pursuit of justice in the world. But that should not obscure the other lesson of the current crisis around Irans nuclear program: We are dealing with the consequences of 60 years of dangerous U.S. policies around the world.
Lets remember the basics of post-World War II U.S. policy in Iran: A CIA-supported coup in 1953 overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeqs government after his nationalization of the oil industry, leading to more than two decades of harsh rule by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi enforced by a brutal secret police, SAVAK. Support for the shah, who played a key role as a mostly obedient U.S. surrogate in the region, continued through Republican and Democratic administrations alike -- including that of Jimmy Carter, the so-called human-rights president. All that is well documented, but the public memory of U.S.-Iranian relations and the 1979 Islamic revolution typically is reduced to the hostage crisis, in which the United States casts itself as a victim of crazed Muslims gripped by irrational hatreds.
But we forget history at our own peril. Today many of our problems around the world are a result of what has been called blowback -- support of reactionary forces for short-term advantage has often created unforeseen problems. A bit more attention to those decades of immoral and shortsighted U.S. policy around the world would suggest a new course, one that requires the U.S. public to do what doesnt come naturally in this ahistorical, propaganda-driven society: Study honest accounts of our history, evaluate the facts, and apply basic legal and moral principles. Thats not only the right thing, its the sensible thing to do out of self-interest.
We can start with a simple question: If Iranian leaders do indeed want to acquire nuclear weapons, why might that be? Other major players in that part of the world (Pakistan, India, China) have nukes, as does Irans primary regional enemy (Israel). And lets not forget that the occupying army in Irans next-door neighbor belongs to the United States, whose president has designated Iran as a member of the axis of evil. Iranians no doubt have observed that of the two other original members of that exclusive club, one is thought to have nuclear weapons (North Korea) and one quite clearly didnt (Iraq). Which one got invaded?
What does Iran want? As would any nation in its position, Iran seeks security guarantees -- exactly what the United States refuses to give. As U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton put it this spring, the Iranians must know everything is on the table and they must understand what that means.
Got it, Mr. Ambassador, we understand: The United States, once again, is ignoring a fundamental principle of international law. The U.N. charter states that nations shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.
So, everything is on the table, including bombing, which has many people nervous. But we should remember this is not a new U.S. policy. Go back to President Carters 1980 State of the Union address, in which he outlined the Carter Doctrine: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.