It seems that with every news cycle comes yet another attempt by the Bush administration to pave the way for a war with Iran. As if we weren't facing enough problems in Iraq, there seems to be a degree of laziness across the political spectrum when it comes to understanding Iran's political culture and finding ways to engage diplomatically without sacrificing our interests.
In my new book, Engaging Iran: The Rise of a Middle East Powerhouse and America's Strategic Choice, I shed light on how Iran is a much more complicated (and potentially friendly) country than our media would like to portray it. Here are just five reasons to engage Iran diplomatically sooner, rather than later:
One: Our Mutual Interests
Iran and the White House have two things in common: They both support Prime Minister Maliki's government in Iraq, and they both fear a bastion of al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists forming in Iraq. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," goes the old adage, but this administration seems to be missing an incredible opportunity. When America finally leaves Iraq, Iran will be the number one enemy of al-Qaeda in Iraq. We should be working together, not against each other, in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Two: Iran's Pro-Americanism
Having been to Iran, and having followed global opinion polls closely, I can say without reservation that Iran has one of the most U.S.-friendly populations in the world; certainly the most pro-American in the Muslim Middle East. Needless to say, this support is not unconditional. While Iranians still speak of the United States as a land of "freedom," American bombs dropping from the sky would change that overnight.
In Engaging Iran, I quote a young man in Iran who puts it simply: "I hate the (Iranian) regime and I love America. But if America attacks us, I will join the regime and fight America." The ruling clerics are banking on this sentiment to carry them through any air strike campaign.
Three: If We Don't Engage, We're Stuck in Iraq
Something that news analysts rarely mention is that no matter what the leading candidates promise the Democratic base today, no president, no matter how anti-war, will be in a position to leave a power vacuum in Iraq for a military adversary to fill. Staying in Iraq under those circumstances would no longer be a choice, but a necessity. This means that a war between Iran and America would result in the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq for years, if not decades, to come.
Four: Ahmadinejad's Diatribes Are Irrelevant
One of the most troubling tendencies among cable news commentators is their propensity to take the words of a weak Iranian president and inflate them to apocalyptic proportions. While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an anti-Semite who denies the Holocaust, and has openly hoped that God will one day erase Israel "from the pages of history" (mistranslations of this phrase are bountiful, including the typical "Ahmadinejad wants to wipe Israel off the map"), this should not be taken to literally mean he plans on having the capability or will to carry this out through a nuclear attack.
Not only does the Iranian president have no power over the country's military, but more importantly, Israel has a formidable nuclear deterrent that prevents the thought from even entering Iranian leaders' minds.
Even if we wanted to imagine rogue elements inside Iran that are so fanatical as to destroy their own 2,500-year-old country, they wouldn't do it by attacking Israel, since the Jewish state houses one of the most sacred sites in Islam: Jerusalem's Dome on the Rock (besides, the Palestinians would go with Israel).
Five: Because We Haven't Really Tried Yet
To make matters of diplomacy more difficult, there are op-eds and studies floating around claiming that the Iranian government has already rejected a "grand bargain," as put forth by the Bush administration. This has even been suggested by the liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress. The problem with this analysis should be obvious: One cannot expect a country to reach a diplomatic agreement during private discussions, when at the same time that country is being aggressively called out in public.
Iran has been repeatedly painted into a corner by the Bush administration, which has loudly claimed that under no circumstances can Iran "be allowed" to develop nuclear energy (later clarified to "weapons"), while it has been quick to rile about Iranian support for the same militias that support the U.S.-backed government in Iraq. Most recently, President Bush has spoken of a need to "confront Tehran's murderous activities." It doesn't take a career State Department official to realize such statements don't pave the way for effective diplomacy, especially when one's coercive military instruments are bogged down in Iraq.
In case there is any doubt, Iran has also made overtures to the United States. One such instance came in the form of a letter by former President Khatami to President Bush at the start of the Iraq War, which put on the table the end to all support for terrorist groups. Not only did the administration refuse to talk, but it "scolded" the Swiss ambassador for passing the message on (source: Christian Science Monitor, 12/15/06).
As we look to evade yet another protracted conflict in the Middle East, we have to do the groundwork to ensure all stones are left unturned for the American people, so the public is not fooled yet again into thinking war is the only option. It isn't enough to oppose war for the sake of it, but we must understand how it is in our best interest to engage diplomatically. If we don't, our presence in Iraq could very well outlive the architects of the current war.