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May 26, 2008

Iran Is No Threat, Unless Bush Makes It One


by Muhammad Sahimi

In one of the most embarrassingly absurd, historically baseless, and astonishingly one-sided speeches any U.S. president has ever given, President Bush compared Iran to Nazi Germany in his speech to Israel's Knesset. In doing so, the president repeated the same diatribes that Norman Podhoretz, the godfather of the neoconservatives, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Israel's Likud Party, have been making for quite some time.

Said Bush:

"Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them [that] they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator [William Borah of Idaho] declared, 'Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is – the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history."

Bush made his "argument" against "appeasement" only days after Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had called for a combination of incentives and pressure to engage Iran. So, as Sen. Barack Obama pointed out, even the president's own defense secretary is apparently an appeaser.

Comparing Iran with the 1939 Nazi Germany is ridiculous. Germany was a powerful, industrialized nation that had been defeated in World War I. It had grievances against the victors who had humiliated it. Germany's culture was such that many Germans blindly followed their charismatic leader, Adolf Hitler. Even the eminent physicist and Nobel Laureate Werner Heisenberg, though no Nazi, worked for the regime. Most importantly, the 1939 Wehrmacht was the most powerful military in the world, backed by Germany's advanced technology, industrial capacity, and a great corps of first-rate scientists. At the point in time Bush was referring to, Germany was invading Poland and had already annexed Austria and devoured Czechoslovakia.

Compare this with Iran, which has neither territorial claims against any nation nor has it attacked its neighbors for 1,000 years, but was the victim of an eight-year war with Iraq, which was encouraged and supported by the U.S. Persian culture is such that few Iranians blindly follow their leaders. In 1905 Iranians set up the first constitutional government in all of Asia and the Middle East. Despite its resources and potential, Iran is only a developing nation, not an advanced industrial power.

Iran's armed forces have been designed to defend the country, without any ability to project power outside the country's borders. The massive presence of U.S. and NATO forces around Iran limits Iran's reach, as do its terrible economy, restless population, and democracy movement. The U.S. and Israel constantly point to Iran's aid to Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah as evidence of its "evil intentions." But with relatively weak armed forces and constant threats from the U.S. and Israel, Iran needs strategic depth to protect its territorial integrity, hence its aid to both Hezbollah and Hamas.

Furthermore, Hamas won the democratic elections of 2006 and is far more popular than Fatah. As Sen. John McCain said then, "They are the government. … It's a new reality in the Middle East.'' And contrary to popular misconceptions, Hezbollah would be just as powerful without Iran's help, because it was formed as a reaction to the invasion of southern Lebanon by Israel in 1978 and 1982, which created hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite refugees and tens of thousands of Shi'ite dead and wounded, while the U.S. and the rest of the West stood by, doing nothing. Hezbollah and Hamas receive aid, not orders, from Iran.

The president brazenly lies when he blames Iran for all the problems that the U.S. and Israel face in the Middle East. Iran did not provoke the U.S. to attack Afghanistan and Iraq, nor did it force the U.S. to support Israeli aggression for decades. These are the main causes of anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world. Half of all the foreign fighters in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia, and the rest are from Egypt, Jordan, and other U.S.-supported sunni States, as were the 9/11 terrorists. Almost all the suicide bombers are Sunni, the majority of them Saudis. But instead of confronting Saudi Arabia, President Bush has agreed to supply billions of dollars in advanced weaponry, as well as nuclear technology, to that country.

Surely, Iran has considerable influence in Iraq. It has been supporting the Badr Army and the Mahdi Army of Shi'ite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr. These groups spent years in Iran when Saddam Hussein was in power. But Iran also supports the government of Nouri al-Maliki. There is a strong rationale behind this. Iran was invaded by Iraq in 1980, so in order to avoid another war with Iraq, Iran wishes to have influence there, regardless of who wins the internal struggle among the various factions. At the same time, though, Iran's influence has its limits because of the historical rivalry between Arabs and Persians.

Worst of all, military attacks on Iran will only consolidate the hardliners' grip on Iran, just when economic problems and political repression are shaking the foundations of their power. President Ahmadinejad is in deep trouble at home, even among his own base. The vast majority of Iran's urban population, and in particular its university students, despise him for his failed economic policies, political repression, and the danger that his hollow rhetoric has created for Iran's national security. In the March elections for the Iranian parliament, he was attacked fiercely not only by the reformists, but also by pragmatic conservatives and former allies. But as Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights advocate and the 2003 Nobel Peace Laureate, said recently in a speech at Barnard College,

"Foreign attacks and threats on the Iranian government will only harm human rights efforts, since the government would act under the guise of 'national security' to suppress those who are seeking more freedom in the country."

In April 2005, when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was still president, Iran made a comprehensive proposal to the U.S., offering to enter serious negotiations and putting all the important issues on the table. The offer was never taken seriously. What is not understood in the U.S. is that, given the deep unpopularity of the hardliners, the absence of an external threat to Iran's national security would make it much easier for democratic groups to push for reforms. Therefore, détente, not war, with the U.S. will make fundamental changes in Iran possible.

President Bush, however, is oblivious to such realities. In his parallel universe, which is completely disconnected from ours, rejecting negotiations with Iran in, of all the places, the Knesset is in America's national interest. In his fantasies, the invasion and destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, his unstinting support for Israel, and a possible war with Iran are all good for the cause of freedom and democracy in the Middle East.

How will Iranians react if their nation is attacked by the U.S. and/or Israel? Most Iranians despise the hardliners, but as Ebadi and the author stated in a joint op-ed published by the International Herald Tribune on Jan. 19, 2006,

"A military attack would only inflame nationalist sentiments. Iranians remember the U.S. help to Iraq during its war with Iran. They see the double standards when the United States offers security guarantees and aid to North Korea and advanced nuclear technology to India [and to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain], but nothing but sanctions and threats to Iran.

"Iran is not Iraq: Given the Iranians' fierce nationalism and the Shi'ites' long tradition of martyrdom, any military move on Iran would receive a response that would engulf the entire region in fire."

Thus, the president is playing with fire when he threatens Iran at Israel's behest. In response to a question about how Iran is a threat to the U.S., he once replied, "Its leader wants to destroy Israel." In other words, Bush is willing to order attacks on Iran because of Iran's nonexistent threat to Israel. Shi'ites across the Middle East will not respond kindly.

 

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Muhammad Sahimi, professor of chemical engineering and materials science and the NIOC professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Southern California, has published extensively on Iran's nuclear program and its political developments.

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