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Monday, January 16, 2012

"A Separation:" Iran and Us

-- By Tom Phillips

Even if it’s just Ron Paul, I’m glad there’s one presidential candidate who’s willing to defy conventional wisdom and political orthodoxy, and talk sense about Iran's nuclear program.

Why shouldn’t Iran develop nuclear weapons?   

Paul, in his disarmingly candid way, points out that nuclear weapons earn nations respect.   They also provide protection from enemies, and Iran has two nuclear-armed enemies, Israel and the United States.  Iranians, like Americans and Israelis, understand that nuclear weapons are the best protection available for a state that’s on another state’s hit list.  Nonetheless, the U.S. is currently drawing red lines and threatening war with Iran over the nuclear issue, a war that would be disastrous to U.S. national interests.   Having invaded both of Iran’s Islamic neighbors, and considering the results and the costs, would anyone in his right mind order a third, potentially even bigger war in the region?   Following is a short list of reasons to let Iran be, concluding with a film review, so arts fans please stay with me.  

1.  Iranian nuclear weapons are no threat to the United States.  If Iran were to build a small arsenal of bombs, it would still lack the capacity to deliver them to targets in America, and absolutely no reason ever to do so.  That would be suicide for Iran.

2.   Rather than inflaming regional conflicts, nuclear weapons tend to stabilize them.    For example, Pakistan joined India in the nuclear club in 1998; and the two rivals, who went to war repeatedly in the 20th century, have avoided major conflict in the 21st, even though they have made little progress on the issues that divide them.  It’s as true in the nuclear age as ever – a balance of power promotes peace.   The only time nuclear weapons were used in war was when just one country had them -- which is exactly the situation today in the middle east.

3.   If Israel didn’t want its neighbors to build nuclear weapons, it shouldn’t have built them itself.  It is unreasonable in the extreme for any state to claim a right to a nuclear monopoly, in effect a one-way death threat against its neighbors.  Could the United States have argued that the Soviet Union had no right to build a bomb after World War Two?  Can Israel really argue that it is more peaceful and better-intentioned than its neighbors?   

4.   A nuclear-armed Iran could be contained, just like every other nuclear power.  If we can deal with Pakistan and North Korea, we can certainly deal with Iran.  The U.S. would have to change its tactics from bullying and threats to more conventional diplomacy, but the two nations have many interests in common, e.g. assuring a reliable flow of oil, and countering the strategic dominance of Russia and/or China in Asia  

5.    U.S. policies of confrontation can only strengthen hard-liners and hotheads in Iran, a complex society with a complex government in which many points of view vie for influence. 

Like most Americans, I’ve never been to Iran and have met only a few Iranians over the years.  But recently, I peeked in a window on Iran today.   It’s the award-winning Iranian film“A Separation,” a realistic story without a happy ending.  This is the tangle of Iranian life at the domestic level, two families caught in a complex of deadly disputes, dragging issues of divorce, child care and eventually homicide into a disorderly but ultimately human system of justice.   One family – middle-class – is torn between a wife who wants to take the family abroad to educate their daughter, and a husband who feels bound to stay and take care of a senile, speechless father.   The other family – poor and desperate – is torn between a hot-headed, unemployed father looking for a payoff, and a devout Muslim mother who is afraid to lie for money because she’s afraid God will punish their daughter.  In this story, none of the characters is able to give in; every attempt at reconciliation is dashed.  I won’t give away the unhappy ending, but I will say it made me think of the current standoff between the U-S and Iran, and all the potential victims of mutual intransigence. 

Could it be that director Asghar Farhadi, working under the strict Iranian censorship that has cost other film-makers their careers, has smuggled out an allegory of the current struggles within Iran – hotheads and hard-liners, devout conservative loyalists, disaffected feminists, and a dying traditional society that no longer has a voice?  

Then there is the central character – the husband who refuses to emigrate, or divorce, or cop a plea.  He struck me as an emblem of the Iranian national character:  proud, principled, stubborn, willing to accept and inflict suffering rather than compromise when he feels he is in the right.   Might we have something in common with this fellow?  Gary Sick, an Iran scholar at Columbia University, suggests  we do.  He told The NewYork Times that the current campaign of sanctions, dirty tricks and assassinations is unlikely to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program.  It’s important to turn around and ask how the U.S. would feel if our revenue was being cut off, our scientists were being killed and we were under cyberattack,” Mr. Sick said. “Would we give in, or would we double down? I think we’d fight back, and Iran will, too.”

Unfortunately, while such points can be made freely among university scholars, state and defense department intellectuals, and foreign-policy think tanks, they have not become part of our public debate or the presidential campaign.  Ron Paul is roundly denounced by all rivals including President Obama, who ritually repeat the official line that Iranian nuclear weapons are “unacceptable” and subject to military response.

Why is it that oddball Ron Paul, who has no chance to be the next President, is the only one who dares question this dangerous policy?   The answer has to do with the distorting effect of lobbies on political discourse in the U.S.   There are certain issues which are off-limits in political campaigns, and a realistic discussion of the middle east is prime among them.  It’s also off-limits in much of mainstream journalism, where telling both sides of some stories can invite a storm of protest.    I learned about this in nearly fifty years as a journalist, and will write about it in an upcoming blogpost, hopefully before the next war breaks out.   

-- Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips