One reason arguing for smart diplomatic engagement with Iran is challenging in this country is the excessive hyperventilating about the threat from Iran. I saw the epitome of this in a meeting with one congressional staffer several years ago who told me, “I wake up every morning afraid Iran is going to nuke the U.S.” Irrational concerns like this only lead to irrational policies, and that’s more or less what we’ve seen from our government on Iran. While I certainly don’t want Iran (or any other country for that matter) to have nuclear weapons, there are much more productive ways to deal with any concerns about Iran than saber-rattling, sanctions and military action, and the imminence of a threat from Iran is greatly overstated. Roger Cohen has an important piece in the New York Times putting the threat from Iran in perspective:
I read with interest in a recent piece by my colleagues John Markoff and David Sanger that “in the past year Israeli estimates of when Iran will have a nuclear weapon had been extended to 2014.” Given that various Israeli leaders have predicted that Iran would have a bomb in 1999 or 2004 or just about every year since 2005, that’s a decade and a half of the non-appearing wolf at the door.
Sure, such predications are necessarily haphazard, the Natanz centrifuges may now be Stuxnetted by computer worms, and Iranian scientists have resembled Iranian pistachios: up for sale. Still there is a dangerous pattern here of Israeli and U.S. alarmism.
Cool heads are needed. Untenable Nazi allusions, rampant in the case of Iran, demean victims of the Holocaust and lead to disastrous wars. A bloody war has been fought in Iran’s western neighbor. So let’s recall that Saddam Hussein told his captors he had cultivated nuclear ambiguity as a deterrent even though his program was precisely zilch.
And what of Iran’s program? Iran remains a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are at Natanz; the number of centrifuges being used to make low-enriched uranium (far from weapons grade) has dropped 23 percent since May 2009 and production has stagnated; U.S. intelligence agencies hold that Iran has not made the decision to build a bomb; any “breakout” decision would be advertised because the I.A.E.A. would be thrown out; the time from “breakout” to deliverable weapon is significant.
I’m with Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who this year told the Washington Post: “Iran will muddle along building its stockpile but never making a nuclear bomb because it knows that crossing that line would provoke an immediate military attack.” The Islamic Republic is a study in muddle but lucid over a single goal: self-preservation.
This estimate seems right on, and regardless of how close Iran might be to developing a nuclear weapon, we need to try pragmatic, tough-minded diplomacy and avoid disastrous military action. Despite some statements to the contrary, it is not something the US has engaged in seriously with Iran, and it offers the best hope for progress.
Most politicians in the US, however, are stuck in old thinking about sanctioning Iran, and some unfortunately look at it as a viable alternative to war—which would surely be worse, but sanctions are also counterproductive and hurt Iranians. Jason Rezaian, and Iranian-American journalist from California whom I met when I was in Tehran in 2009, has done great reporting on the ground that confirms our position that sanctions in Iran hurt the wrong people and don’t turn Iranians against their government:
On the first day of a recent Iranian workweek, a day after U.S. President Barack Obama gave a rare televised address to the Persian-speaking world, Tehran residents were seething.
They didn’t like the president’s message that the severe economic sanctions the United States and other countries have imposed on Iran are its leadership’s own doing. The sanctions are overly aggressive and unjust, they said — a perhaps reasonable view given how difficult life is becoming for them.
“Obama … said that these sanctions are meant to affect the Islamic republic government, but without affecting people it can’t affect the government,” said Maryam, a 26-year-old graduate student who works part time for a company that imports construction material.
“It affects every aspect of our lives: transportation, the ingredients in the food we eat, even my university dues are all up considerably since this time last year, and no one in our family is earning any more money than we were then. We’re just happy to still have work.”
Although Obama said harming individuals is not the aim of the sanctions, it has so far been the only discernible result.
The evidence is piling up that the sanctions are hurting the very people that Iranian human rights activists like Shirin Ebadi warned they would. In the op-ed we worked on with Melina Raissnia, she told the story of how sanctions are affecting small businesses here in the US as well as innocent workers in Iran. Yet Iran hawks like Brad Sherman want to continue “turning the screws” on Iran, upping the ante by blocking civilian aircraft parts (I’ve flown on the planes there, and they definitely felt a bit rickety).
It’s time for our politicians to heed the voices of Cohen and others who want to take a rational approach to the threat from Iran and implement policies that could actually alleviate tensions rather than inflaming them and potentially leading the US down the road toward more conflict we can’t afford.