Monday, February 23, 2009

UnDemonizing Iran

Doug Saunders has an excellent op-ed piece in today's G&M detailing how Bush rejected a comprehensive peace offer from Iran, undermined a moderate leader and left the way open for a rabid radical, Ahmadinejad.

Saunders points out that the path to peace with Iran begins when we stop demonizing it:

The pro-American demonstrations, by all reports genuine (and unpunished), took place over several days in 2003. In that spring, Mr. Khatami sent a Swiss official to Washington to make the peace offer. In exchange for recognizing Israel, cutting off Hamas and proving it had abolished any nuclear-weapons plans, Iran wanted an end to sanctions, normal diplomatic relations with the U.S. and recognition of its role in the region.

So what happened? Well, nothing. George W. Bush was president, the Iraq war was just approaching the "mission accomplished" phase, and nobody in the White House thought it would look good to make peace with Iran, a country that only the year before had been made a rhetorical component in Mr. Bush's "axis of evil."

As one State Department official directly involved with the Iranian offer told me, "It was like we missed the biggest Middle East peace opportunity of the decade, just so we could keep saying 'axis of evil.' "

So the offer was stuck in a drawer. That diplomatic snub was one of several humiliations, diplomatic and economic, that led to the defeat of Mr. Khatami's reformists in subsequent elections and the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's neo-conservative zealots. Mission accomplished, indeed.

A friendly relationship with Iran would solve a number of problems: The Afghanistan war would be much, much easier; Iraq would be more manageable; and prospects for Middle East peace would be energized. As Ms. Albright said, there are useful alliances with far less democratic, far more Islamic countries that are far less capable of changing for the better - notably, Saudi Arabia.

Most of the objection to this scenario, of course, is based on our belief that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. But that, too, is almost ready to vanish into vapour. Our most authoritative source of information about Iran's nuclear program is the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, which stated categorically, based on voluminous sources, that Iran had abandoned its nuclear-weapons program in 2003. Intelligence officials acknowledge openly that the past two years have not added a single new piece of information to that assessment.

It was reported this week, based on a new IAEA report, that Iran has produced "enough low-enriched, reactor-grade uranium to make a bomb." This, as former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Cheryl Rofer has carefully documented, is scientific nonsense: Yes, that uranium contains enough U-235 to make a bomb. To get it out, you would need to kick all the inspectors out of the country, reconfigure thousands of closely watched centrifuges and engage in years of enrichment.

It was physicist Werner Heisenberg who found that the act of observing can affect the nature of the thing being observed. It is likely that simply by looking at Iran as a threat, we've made it one. Look again, and it might change.
There are still forces in the United States and especially Israel that would bomb Iran in a heartbeat. You can spot them when they distort Iran's actual weapon-making capacity, spinning half truths and infusing fear. Fortunately there seems to be a new American administration that sees Iran as a possible opportunity, not an inevitable adversary.

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