Obama and Iran

2009-03-25 00:00

You have to admire Barack Obama’s attempt to reopen the lines of communication with Iran — but you don’t have to admire it much. Iran’s real leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was certainly not impressed: “Our nation cannot be talked to like this. In the same congratulatory message they (the Obama administration) accuse the Iranian nation of supporting terrorism, pursuing nuclear arms, and such things. What has changed?”

Not much, it would seem. Amid all the soft soap about the wonders of Iranian culture that took up most of President Obama’s message to Iranians last week, what stood out was his remark that while Iran should take its “rightful place in the community of nations … that place cannot be reached through terror or arms.” The measure of Iran’s greatness, he added, is not “the capacity to destroy”.

This is a subtler restatement of the same accusations that the Bush administration has been making for years: that Iran supports terrorism by providing arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories, and that it is secretly working on nuclear weapons. To Iranian ears, he sounds like George W. Bush with better manners.

This is a pity, because he is more than that. He has dropped the Bush policy of threatening to attack Iran (“all options are on the table”), at least so long as his administration is committed to the current track of diplomacy. He has also effectively blocked an Israeli attack, since Israel would not do that without Washington’s permission. The world is already a safer place.

But most Iranians do not accept these accusations as legitimate, and they are sick of hearing them. So forget for a moment the almost universal assumption in the Western media that they are true, and consider the evidence.

Iran certainly does supply weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are defined by the U.S. State Department as “terrorist organisations.” But then the U.S. State Department also defined Nelson Mandela as a terrorist for his support of armed confrontation with apartheid — yet it mysteriously failed to call Ronald Reagan a terrorist when he armed the “contras” against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

In 2006 Hamas won the only really free and fair election ever held by the Palestinians, and today it governs a well-defined tract of territory, the Gaza Strip (albeit one under permanent siege by Israel). Hezbollah has seats in the Lebanese parliament, and is part of the country’s “National Unity” government. Supporting them puts Iran in direct opposition to current U.S. policy, but it does not make it a “terrorist” state.

As for the nuclear weapons allegations, who knows? Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran has signed, member states may develop the full nuclear fuel cycle. Indeed, they can even get help from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), so long as they accept close inspection to ensure that they do not enrich the nuclear fuel from 20% pure (good enough for reactors) to 90% pure (“weapons-grade”).

Iran has basically abided by those rules, but the major Western powers distrust its intentions. That’s why they moved the case from the IAEA to the United Nations Security Council, a political body where they can just declare Iran a threat to the peace and demand that it stop doing what the NPT says it is free to do, provided the safeguards are observed: enriching nuclear fuel.

Given all the excited talk, you’d think there must be some proof of Iran’s alleged plan to make nuclear weapons, but in fact there is none. Indeed, a National Intelligence Estimate issued in November 2007 by the sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies stated flatly that Iran was not currently pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

In a more recent assessment earlier this month Dennis Blair, U.S. Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: “Although we do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons, we assess Tehran, at a minimum, is keeping open the option to develop them.” That is a fair assessment of the reality — and it is perfectly legal for Iran to keep its options open in that way.

Iran is not a rogue state. It is an unusual country, partly democratic but ultimately under the rule of religious leaders whose world view is very different from that of most other people. But that does not mean that they are “mad mullahs”, or bent on national suicide via nuclear war. Barack Obama is right to try to restart a conversation that has been suspended for far too long, but he needs to back up and start again.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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