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Barack Obama's presidency

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Taking a Rational Look at Iran

By Ivan Eland
June 15, 2009

Editor’s Note: A dangerous habit of the U.S. political/media system is to exaggerate foreign threats and to demonize selected leaders, a pattern that’s led the United States into bloody conflicts in places as diverse as Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Now, the target is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran, with the chattering classes on TV news and in the U.S. print media jumping to conclusions about rigged elections and baiting President Barack Obama to join Israel in taking a hard line. In this guest essay, the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland urges a more rational view of the crisis:

One election in Iran will not significantly change U.S.-Iran relations — only a change in U.S. thinking and policy will do so.

Historically, the U.S. government, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, has painted relatively poor third world regimes that don’t toe the empire’s line as “evil” — Moammar El-Gadhafi’s Libya in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1990s, North Korea’s Hermit Kingdom since the 1950s, and Islamist Iran since the Iranian Revolution in 1978.

Most of these faraway lands haven’t provided — or will be unlikely to provide — much of an actual threat to U.S. territory or Americans in it. But during and after the demise of the Soviet Union, to justify the bloated U.S. world-girdling empire and bloated military establishment, these minor autocratic regimes had to be demonized and their threats elevated.

The problem is the U.S. then begins to believe its own overheated rhetoric and decides that the threat from these pathetic countries requires drastic military action.

In 1950, after North Korea invaded South Korea — then a poor non-strategic country (believe it or not, although now much wealthier, it’s still not very strategic to the United States) that the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff believed would come under the natural influence of the nearby Soviet Union — the United States panicked, sent troops to South Korea, and became involved in a stalemated war.

In the 1980s, needing an enemy to justify big increases in the U.S. defense budget, Ronald Reagan began harassing Libya, which only resulted in blowback terrorist attacks against U.S. targets.

Of course, the U.S. build up of the Saddam monster had been long forgotten after the monster turned ugly and invaded the tiny nation of Kuwait. Although even if Saddam had taken Saudi Arabia, oil would have flowed because the commodity is valuable, Saddam was in dire financial straits, and he would have had to sell it.

After the United States severely crippled the much smaller and poorer Iraq in the first Gulf War — removing any remaining hyped threat to Persian Gulf oil — the U.S. just couldn’t restrain itself from taking advantage of 9/11 to get rid of the wicked Saddam once and for all.

As the U.S. government has done with the authoritarian regimes of all of these countries, it has excessively demonized Iran’s fundamentalist rulers, but unlike with the others, it has never gone directly to war with Iran.

Many feared that the George W. Bush administration would attack or invade Iran, but one of the silver linings of the horrible quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan was that Bush didn’t have many military resources to spare to go after Iran’s nefarious mullahs.

After the U.S. demonizes a country’s rulers, it then regularly generates excessive hopes for change in those countries. With President Obama’s overture to Iran and the Iranian election, naive hopes have already begun to set in of genuine change in Iran and in its relations with the United States.

The real problem is that even though Obama wants to negotiate with Iran, he still shares Bush’s unrealistic concept of where he wants Iran to go. The United States would like Iran to become more democratic, help stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq, give up its nuclear program, and stop its support for Hamas and Hezbollah — Israel’s enemies.

Although its elections are not perfect, Iran has been — and still is — the most democratic country in the Middle East other than Israel. The United States is embarrassed that its diabolical foe is much more democratic than its autocratic and repressive allies of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Hating the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran, in the past, has quietly worked with the United States in Afghanistan to stabilize that nation. In Iraq, although the U.S. and Iranian interests sometimes diverge, both countries have an interest in stability there (it’s right next door to Iran), and both countries are supporting the Shi’i-dominated government.

Iran is unlikely to give up its nuclear program, because the entire political spectrum — from fundamentalists to reformers — supports it. Although Iran is moving toward obtaining the ability to make a nuclear weapon and a long-range missile that could deliver it as far as the United States, it still has a way to go and also has to engineer the warhead so that it is small enough to fit on the missile.

Even if Iran accomplishes all of those objectives, it would still have only a few measly warheads for any attack on the United States, which could be deterred with the thousands of warheads in the most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world.

The Iranian government would be unlikely to give any nuclear weapons to the militant groups it supports — Hamas and Hezbollah — because it paid much money to develop the warheads, and because if the groups used the weapons, it would invite sure catastrophic retaliation against Iran if traced back there.

Like all autocratic rulers, Iran’s fundamentalist leadership’s most important objective is staying in power, and getting nuked into cinders does not facilitate that goal.

The real reason that the U.S. government is so concerned about Iran is not its threat to the United States but its threat to Israel — both nuclear and non-nuclear through support for the militant groups.

But frankly, that should not be the U.S. taxpayer’s problem. The American Constitution allows for the U.S. government to “provide for the common defense” of the United States, not to provide a defense for Israel.

In short, the United States could get along better with Iran — no matter who is president in the United States or Iran — if U.S. expectations for change in Iran were more realistic and the U.S. government’s threat perceptions of Iran were diminished through rational thought.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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