United States ought to swallow its pride and deal with Iran diplomatically

By Ryan McCarl

Americans and their representatives are right to be nervous about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the fanatical pronouncements of its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, the threat that Iran’s nuclear program poses to American security has been greatly overblown, and talk of war as a solution to the problem is unrealistic and ill-advised.

Every state makes mistakes in its international behavior, but no state—not even states led by apparent nutcases such as Iran’s Ahmadinejad or North Korea’s Kim Jong Il—sets out to commit suicide. Instead, these states are practicing brinksmanship because they believe it is the best way to ensure the survival of their own regimes. Rattling the saber rallies domestic elements behind a common cause, distracts the electorate from their economic hardship, and forces the international community to decide in favor of accommodation or war. When these states’ security needs are met, the crisis will defuse.

Iran wants nuclear weapons not because it seriously intends to “wipe Israel off the map”—any nuclear attack by Iran on any state would bring overwhelming retaliation and mean the complete destruction of their country—but because the United States, Iran’s most powerful enemy, occupies two countries (Iraq and Afghanistan) that border Iran. And because the Bush administration has characterized Iran as a threat and asserted its right to launch preventive wars to remove such threats. Iran is, after all, a part of the so-called “Axis of Evil,” and there is little reason to doubt that, had the Bush administration’s ill-advised adventure in Iraq been a success, Iran would have been the next stop on the line.

Iran seems to just want what every other threatened state wants: security. They want nuclear weapons because they know that such weapons would make any American attack practically impossible. They want nuclear weapons because they know that the U.S., for all its military power, behaves with much more prudence toward states that have the bomb. Nuclear weapons are essentially defensive. When two enemies have them, as demonstrated first in the Cold War and again in the India-Pakistan conflict, major war becomes an unacceptable option.

The solution to the Iranian problem is a diplomatic coup on the scale of Nixon’s 1972 visit to Communist China; like Nixon, Bush’s reputation as a hard-liner puts him in an ideal position to cooperate for peace. The U.S. should conclude a nonaggression pact with Iran and offer security assurances in exchange for Iran’s acknowledgment of Israel and active support for a fair peace in Israel, Palestine, and Iraq. Iran’s bankrolling of the Iraqi insurgency and the Palestinian resistance poses a far greater threat to American interests than the distant prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons, and a durable solution to the crisis in Israel, the key to longer-term peace and stability in the Middle East, is unthinkable without Iran’s support.

There is still much room for a peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear situation, but, as the continued strife in Israel and the chaos in Iraq show all too clearly, we cannot impose peace in the Middle East completely on our own terms. Swallowing our pride and cooperating with Iran would be a major diplomatic victory and a crucial boost for peace.