As we are about to enter the last fifty days of this campaign season, many Americans are falling into the same trap that forces of mainstream politics set every four years. The trap this year has been reincarnated in the form of a flurry of trivial issues relating to lipsticks, pigs, moose burgers and other issues that have no impact whatsoever on the future of this country, but are only designed to distract people from the issues that will impact the quality of life of every single American in real and substantial ways in the next four years. One of the issues is how America responds to what is perceived to be a challenge from Iran.
I moved to the United States from Iran in 1999 when I was 16 years old. I love this country deeply and moved here on my own because of the very same reasons that most other immigrants move to America: freedom, democracy and opportunity. While I was not too engaged in American politics then, the reaction of the Bush administration to the attacks of September 11 made me deeply distressed about the direction that Republicans were taking this country.
As far as the military aspect of the struggle against terrorism was concerned, I believed Afghanistan was the right front for America to take on this challenge. The Taliban were in fact directly responsible for allowing Al Qaeda to directly organize within their country and plan the attacks. However, the administration proceeded to manufacture an "axis of evil," consisting of Iran, North Korea and Iraq, three countries that had nothing to do with 9/11. But I was rightly concerned most about the impact of these policies on the repressive policies of the Iranian regime. Anyone who is familiar with geopolitics in the Middle-East will tell you that Iran and Iraq were two enemies that kept each other in check. Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iran and Iraq entered an 8 year war. I was in Tehran for the entire war and remember the TV screen going red and alarms going off as we ran to our underground basement to take refuge every time Saddam's planes were about to drop bombs on Tehran. So in 2001 when the Bush administration began to make the case for attacking Saddam, I knew there could only be one winner from such military action: the mullahs who rule Iran.
It turned out exactly as I expected. In the ensuing years following the American invasion, Iran has not only opened diplomatic ties with Iraq, but Iranian Mullahs are much more influential on Iraqi affairs than Americans are. But the anti-Iranian rhetoric since 9/11 and especially since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June of 2005 has had an even more detrimental effect on America's position in the region.
One of the reasons Ahmadinejad came to power was the dire economic conditions in Iran. But there is only one reason that can explain why Iran moved so much to the right on foreign policy, picking the hardliner Ahmadinejad with a style that showed a drastic departure from that of the former Iranian President Khatami (1997-2005), a reformer who opened up many aspects of Iranians' social lives, called on the West and the East to engage in a "dialogue among civilizations" and was one of the first world leaders to condemn the 9/11 attacks, issuing the following statement: "On behalf of the Iranian people ... I denounce the terrorist measures, which led to the killing of defenseless people [on September 11th], and I express my deep sorrow and sympathy with the American people." The reason why many Iranians picked Ahmadinejad was because they saw President Bush as a bully for going after Iran's nuclear program that has now become a matter of national pride. Ahmadinejad and other hardliners understood that they could use the American hostility to rally the people around themselves and cut the legs from under the reformers. In the current American election, Ahmadinejad and other hardliners undoubtedly hope for McCain and Palin to get elected, because they understand that America is simply not in the position to start a full-fledged war with Iran and the Republicans' anti-Iran rhetoric will only help Ahmadinejad the way Bush's has.
Seven years after 9/11, many people in America incomprehensibly still seem to have a hard time deciding whether McCain or Obama can be more effective in policy toward Iran. As someone who lived in Iran for 16 years and now works full-time on Iranian matters, let me say in no unclear terms: there is no rational justification whatsoever to think McCain would be a better choice in any respect on a matter relating to Iran. This is not a close-call. Barack Obama's declared policy of dialogue with Iranian leaders is clearly the superior choice for anyone who is interested in putting the country and interests of the United States first.
Think about what the current situation in Iran is and what will most likely happen if either Obama or McCain get elected. The main issue that seems to be the matter of concern is Iran's nuclear program. The program is, of course, nothing new. Americans helped the late Shah Pahlavi in Iran establish the program over 30 years ago. Neither has Iran done anything as it relates to its nuclear program that has violated any international law or agreement. Iran is a lawful member of Non-Proliferation Treaty, under which it has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. That's what Iran has been doing. The reason that the program has become a matter for concern is seemingly because of Iranian President Ahmadinejad's anti-Israeli government statements that were then taken and mistranslated to imply that Ahmadinejad intended to "wipe Israel off the map," something that he never said or meant and has consistently rejected the notion that Iran will or should do any harm to the people in Israel. I know this; I'm fluent in Farsi and have personally read the original transcripts.
The fact is Iranian leaders, starting with Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution, have produced such empty rhetoric for domestic consumption for 30 years because they support a single-state solution with Jews and Arabs living in one country. Iran has not attacked another country for over a hundred years. Besides, if any country violates any component of NPT, IAEA and the UN are the institutions that are in charge of taking appropriate measures. The fact is Bush and his counterparts in Israel have been using Ahmadinejad's words to distract people from their own failures at home. Bush's popularity rating stands at a percentage in high 20s and Prime Minister Olmert in Israel resigned a few weeks ago amid a messy corruption scandal.
The fact is Iran poses no threat whatsoever to the interests of the United States. But let's see what will happen if McCain and Palin are sent to the White House. As McCain has repeatedly shown, he has a tendency to escalate conflicts. His reaction to the Russian-Georgian and that of Republicans in general has been extremely outdated and can no longer be relevant in the post Cold War world. He is likely to fall in line with Bush's policy on Iran as he has on every other issue and maintain the harsh rhetoric. Ahmadinejad, who is surely hoping for this, will then use McCain's rhetoric to neatly consolidate support around himself as Iranian elections in June of 2009 approach. He is even likely to continue to make controversial statements on Israel before the U.S. elections because the Bush/McCain rhetoric is so predictable. The slogan in the U.S. these days is that "if you want four more years of Bush, vote for McCain." I'd add that with McCain, you're most likely to get four more years of Ahmadinejad, too.
Barack Obama's policy, however, has a much bigger potential to deescalate this war of words, and even more importantly, strengthen the democracy movement in Iran. Obama has said that he would be willing to talk to the Iranian leader - whoever that may be at the time he decides to hold talks - and offer incentives in return for more accountability on Iran's nuclear program. What makes this strategy potentially effective has less to do with how Iranian leaders will respond and more with how many different opinions they will have on such an offer. There are two major schools of thought among Iranian leaders: economically conservative capitalists, like Rafsanjani, the former Iranian president (1989-1997), who are more concerned about opening trade with the West - even if that means throwing Iran's entire nuclear program under the bus - and religious hardliners, who are more concerned about keeping hostilities between Iran and the West and supporting Iran's nuclear program at all cost. An Obama offer for more cooperation will likely result in a real competition for control over policy within the Iranian government, weakening the entire regime as a whole. The other effect of Obama's proposed policy is that it will significantly help America's image among Iranians and inspire them to continue their struggle for freedom and democracy. Under the current circumstances, Obama's policy is clearly and unequivocally the better option when it comes to dealing with Iran.
Republicans have been making the false argument that because McCain has crossed the isle and worked with Democrats more often than Obama has with Republicans, that makes McCain a better choice to fight for the best interest of this country. But this argument has at its heart the false premise that Republicans and Democrats are equally right on issues or that they are equally in touch with the needs of the American people. Never has this assumption been more false than on policy on Iran. The choices in this election on Iran are clear: if you want to continue to keep America addicted to oil and pay billions of dollars in taxes to fund hostile conflicts around the world with countries that do not pose any threat to the interests of the United States, then by all means vote for John McCain. But if you want a president whose words can never be twisted and turned against the United States by rogue figures like Ahmadinejad, and if you want someone who will significantly help to improve America's image abroad, then do not hesitate one moment to send Barack Obama and Joe Biden to the White House on November 4, 2008.