A Quiet Moment For Iran

As public sentiment in the United States appears to be congealing about Iran, it would be worth taking a few minutes to quietly review the facts as they have been presented to us. It is entirely possible that our government knows more than they are telling, but as a nation ostensibly somewhat involved in the decisions of our leaders, we can only make a judgement as to whether an attack on Iran is acceptable based on the information we are given. If the information is not sufficient to justify an attack, then we should demand more proof before we give our consent. This, then, is an attempt to bring together the information available in one place, where it can easily be reviewed, in order to understand the choice we are being asked to make.The primary justifications we see for a pre-emptive strike on Iran are shockingly similar to the reasons we were given for a pre-emptive strike on Iraq. First, there is the argument that Iran is a totalitarian regime, led by a madman, which has a history of abusing its people and has unpredictable and violent intentions toward the rest of the world (read as the United States and its allies). Secondly, there is the contention that Iran is creating weapons of mass destruction, in this case nukes, which it intends to use as a threat, and possibly as the central force in an attack against the United States and its allies.

Taking these in order, let’s examine the premise that Iran is an evil empire with nefarious aims toward both its own people and those of other countries which it opposes. Iran has long struggled with conflict between progressive, reform-minded Presidents and a conservative, Islamic religious power. With the election of the ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, however, these two national forces were once again aligned. Although technically a democratic election, it is worth noting that more than 1,000 candidates were disqualified by the Guardian Council before the election, in secret and upon uncertain criteria. However, since accepting the Presidency, Ahmadinejad has carried through with his declared intentions of bringing the focus of the government back to protecting and promoting the welfare of the Iranian citizens. The creation of the Reza Love Fund, for example, is an attempt to use some of the money from Iran’s enormous oil revenue to help individuals in Iran to purchase their own homes. The policy of Iran at this time seems to be a strong “Iran first!” stance, which is not wholly without merit, given the Iranian history of compromising national interests in order to placate western aims. Certainly, there is much in Iran’s political history to indicate prior abuse of Iranian citizens, such as the capture and torture of Iranian citizens opposed to the government by the secret service agency, SAVAK, in the 1970’s. Ahmadinejad himself appears to have been involved in governmental crackdowns on dissidents within Iran’s borders as a leading member of the OSU, an organization dedicated to the furtherance of Islamic principles in educational facilities. His involvement with branches of the Special Brigade of the Revolutionary Guards, which is suspected of organizing terrorist attacks outside Iran’s borders, is a cause for further concern with regard to his intentions for Iranian foreign policy. It is worth noting here, however, that since taking office Ahmadinejad has publicly declared his intention of working with other nations of the world against terrorist organizations in an effort to increase international respect for Iran.

Ahmadinejad has alarmed much of the rest of the world with his adamant stances on both Israel and nuclear research and development, so it is worth taking a few moments to examine his statements on those issues in depth. Being devoutly Muslim, Ahmadinejad has followed the example of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. Khameni does adamantly oppose what he views as the “occupying regime” in Israel, and firmly believes that the entire Muslim world should support the Palestinians. In a statement on October 30, 2005, Ahmadinejad stated that he agreed with the Imam in his statement that the “occupying regime must be wiped off the map”. However, nowhere in any of his statements, or those of Khameni, is there explicit expressed intent to attack Israel. The goal espoused is to support the struggle of the Palestinians in their attempt to wrest back control of their homeland from the “oppressors”. Whatever one may feel personally about the conflict in Israel, it must be conceded that the government of Iran expressing support for the Palestinians is not the same as a declared intent to attack. As of yesterday, however, a general in the Revolutionary Guards stated that if the United States were to attack Iran, that Iran’s first retaliatory strike would be Israel. Note that this statement does not issue from either the President or the Supreme Leader, but it is worth bearing in mind, anyway. And while we are on the topic of military strikes, it is worth pointing out that President Ahmadinejad does not, in fact, have the ability to order a military strike of any kind. That authority is reserved for the Supreme Leader.

As to the Iranian stance on nuclear development, the presumed crux of United States outrage with Iran, it is true that Ahmahdinejad has refused to bow to international pressure to halt Iran’s nuclear research program. It is also worth noting, however, that there has been absolutely no evidence presented from any nation in the world that Iran’s nuclear program is for non-peaceful purposes. The most that has been presented is circumstantial evidence, in the form that Iran has continued it’s nuclear program despite international calls for it to stop; that Iran has purchased missiles capeable of carrying nuclear warheads, that Iran has recently become unwilling to accept more extensive inspection of its nuclear facilities. However, if one researches the history of the Iranian nuclear program, it is easily understandable why they might take this stance, even if their program is for entirely innocent purposes.

Iran began its nuclear program, with the assistance of the United States, in 1957. In 1974, the Shah established the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and stated that nuclear weapons were one goal of the program. However, after the 1979 Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini stopped all work at the nuclear facilities in Iran due to the strong Islamic belief that all weapons of mass destruction are immoral. Throughout the Iran-Iraq war which followed, and in the face of Iraq’s stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons and Israel’s nuclear advancement, Iran never restarted its nuclear weapons research program.

After the brief hiatus imposed by Khomeini, the Iranian government did attempt to restart their civilian nuclear research program, but encountered difficulty when other nations and the IAEA bowed to United States pressure and would not offer assistance. In 1995, Iran signed a contract with Russia to complete work on one of two reactors in Bushehr. In 1996 China sold Iran a conversion plant, much to the dismay of the U.S., though both Russia and China claim to have based their decisions on extensive assurance that Iran’s nuclear ambitions were for peaceful purposes only. Iran’s credibility was somewhat damaged in 2002 when Iranian dissidents came forth with information on two secret Iranian facilities: an uranium enrichment facility in Natanz and a heavy water facility in Arak. Since this time, Iran has been under increasingly heavy scrutiny by the IAEA, but to date they have found nothing to support allegations that Iran is pursuing a secret weapons program. In 2003 Iran voluntarily suspended its research program, and allowed tougher IAEA inspections in order to quell the rising tide of international doubts as to its intentions. The IAEA found nothing to indicate anything other than research aimed at producing nuclear energy. The United States, however, continued to rant against the Iranian research program, claiming that there was no way that a nation so rich in oil and natural gas could need nuclear energy; there must be ulterior motives. In fact, Iran had stated for two decades that it recognized its supply of these resources to be finite, and expressed its desire to convert to other energy sources so as to be able to use its petroleum for other purposes and for export. In November of 2004, Iran again agreed to suspend its nuclear research under a deal with the EU. But in August of 2005, President Ahmadinejad ordered the program reopened–despite protests from the United States and Britain. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly asserted that the program is for energy research only, and has invited cooperation from other nations.

Given Iran’s history of repeatedly halting its program and allowing extensive inspections, only to be told again and again that it will not be allowed to pursue a nuclear research program, despite the fact that it is allowed to under Article Four of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of which it is a signatory nation, it is not hard to imagine why they would now take such a defiant stance to international pressure to end it again. Russia has offered to sell Iran nuclear fuel, and some other nations seem inclined to follow suit, but given the nationalist stance of the current administration, and the history of the region (complete with having had their oil reserves divvied up by western nations in the past) it is easy to understand why Iran would prefer to retain its independence. The United States has claimed the intention to negotiate, but thus far all negotiation has hinged on Iran shutting down its research program before the U.S. will even sit down at the table.

So what are we to make of this information? Certainly, there is reason to suspect corruption in the Iranian government, but this is true of nearly all governments everywhere. Looking at President Ahmadinejad’s history, it seems likely that he is a religious fanatic, and probably not a very nice guy. But based on his actions since assuming the Presidency, there appears to be nothing that we can point to which indicates that he is engaging in violence either at home or abroad. He is primarily interested in advancing the wealth and technology of the Iranian people. President Ahmadinejad doesn’t have the power to declare war or create a nuclear weapons program, anyway–that power is reserved to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Khamenei, as it happens, believes Israel is overrun with invaders, and supports the Palestinians, but condemns nuclear weapons as immoral and doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to attack anyone. In the meantime, Iran’s nuclear research facility continues apace, but so far as anyone can tell, it is entirely within the bounds allowed under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

If we carry through with bombing Iran on these grounds, we may well come to regret it. Of course we all remember the mistake we made in accepting the invasion of Iraq based on assurances of WMD. Even if the war in Iraq was reasonable on other grounds, we opened ourselves up to international criticism and civil division by rushing in on faulty evidence. We should be wary of making such a mistake again. The tensions between Iran and the United States could possibly be eased if we would just sit down at the table with them…not with the intent of denying what they correctly view as their legal right to pursue nuclear energy, but with the intent of working with them to create a situation where they get what they want (nuclear power) and we get what we want (assurance that it is only nuclear power). And even if we could not reach an acceptable compromise there, we would garner some desperately needed international respect for trying to be reasonable. We must not let fear be the guiding force in our foreign policy. Fear only clouds our judgement and makes us vulnerable to manipulation. Extensive information, sound logic and reason can and should be the basis for our international policy. Let us use this opportunity to step up and become the kind of leader the rest of the world wants to follow.