Iran: Lion in the Room

Persian Lion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

Persian Lion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

With the announcement of a new extension of nuclear talks with Iran over the weekend, as well as today’s announcement about Iran’s weapons-grade uranium–Iran has been much on my mind. This is the first in a series of posts about the U.S. relationship with Iran.

During one of my deployments in Afghanistan, I remember one of the many times I had tea with my Afghan army friends, and one of them offered me something exotic and wonderful: Iranian medjool dates that he’d got at the local bazaar. I was happy to try them, and I remember distinctly how sweet and fresh they tasted. I asked to see the package–and I read what little English was written on the yellow label affixed to the plastic wrapping: PRODUCT OF IRAN.

I smiled and talked with my Afghan colleague about how Iranian products are banned in the U.S., and what a wonderful novelty this was for me. I remembered his story about how during the Afghan civil war, he and his family took refuge in Iran. (An estimated three million Afghans were refugees in Iran during the 1990s, and more than a million Afghan refugees are currently in Iran.) He was a Farsi speaker, as many Afghans are, and he explained to me that Afghanistan and Iran shared a large swath of border (more than 500 miles) with Iran, and that Iran is a major trade partner with Afghanistan. I had to sit with that for a few minutes. For all of our talk about Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil” and legitimate concerns about Iran’s nuclear program–it had simply not dawned on me until that moment that Iran was this huge land mass situated right in between the two wars we’d been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan–and that most of us on the ground were more or less ignoring it like the proverbial elephant in the room. Or, more accurately–the lion in the room.

But that got me thinking: what have we been missing out on by keeping this kind of strategic balance? On one hand, there was the U.S. military positioning around Iran’s nuclear ambitions during those years. On the other hand–Iran took dual roles in promoting its interests in both Iraq and Afghanistan (stability and protection of Shias in both places, as well as the return of refugees–including tens of thousands of Iraqis who sought refuge in Iran during the U.S. invasion and occupation), while simultaneously counterbalancing U.S. military power by fueling attacks on U.S. troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve never been naturally inclined toward taking a softer line on Iran–I take IEDs and other attacks pretty personally. And I’m old enough to remember the crisis of U.S. hostages being held in Iran in 1979, as well as the catastrophic bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that Iran was behind. Plus there’s a catalog of other problems: Iranian support of Hezbollah and more recently for Assad’s atrocities in Syria; spoken threats against Israel; repression of dissidents and peaceful demonstrations; and so on. No, there should be no dealing with an enemy, I thought. For a long time.

But more recently I’ve dug a little deeper and learned how Iran supported the U.S. incursion into Afghanistan in 2001, and how it was Iranian support at the 2001 Bonn Conference of the U.S. working with the Northern Alliance that set us up for our initial success on the ground. And that Iran was cooperating quietly with the U.S. on containing Al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan in those early days. Iran made the additional offer to help with training the Afghan National Army; in fact, in 2001, Iran seemed positioned to cooperate with the U.S. on mutual interests in Afghanistan–and maybe even to take a softened approach to dialogue in general. But, as former diplomat Barnett Rubin has pointed out, the U.S. rejected Iran’s offer, instead favoring a closer alliance (in monetary and military support) with Pakistan and then-president Pervez Musharraf, and in January 2002, naming (in President Bush’s State of the Union Speech) that Iran was part of an “Axis of Evil” that included North Korea and Libya. (This announcement omitted, of course, that key nuclear weapons technology was provided to Libya, North Korea, and Iran by Pakistan.)

In short–it’s been a long and complicated relationship between the U.S. and Iran. Iranians still blame the U.S. for the CIA’s backing of a coup against a democratically-elected prime minister in 1953, which began the iron-fisted reign of Shah Reza Pahlavi–and his regime’s political and religious repression that led to the violent revolution of 1979. As anger toward the Shah and his primary backer, the U.S., boiled over, U.S. diplomats became pawns in what would become the defining event of modern U.S.-Iran relations: the hostage crisis that lasted a grueling 444 days, but fortunately resulted in no U.S. casualties. I’m no fan at all of the Ayatollahs (either Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the revolution and the country until 1989, or Ali Khameini, who succeeded him and remains Supreme Leader of Iran), and it’s impossible to judge fairly actions of the past. But still I wonder: was it a great idea for the U.S. to back Saddam Hussein in his war (and war crimes) against Iran in the 1980s? Or when the U.S. Navy inadvertently shot down an Iranian passenger jet in 1988, killing 290 men, women, and children, was it right for the U.S. never to issue a formal apology?

History doesn’t allow do-overs. But the U.S. can certainly make calculated and wise choices to move toward a better future. We’ve fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at the cost of 6,821 U.S. military members and more than a trillion dollars, and it appears that our inability to establish mutual goals with Iran as we pursued those wars cost us some of those lives. Again, no do-overs. But we still have mutual goals in Afghanistan that can be pursued to the benefit of Afghanistan’s people and the region. We have other mutual goals that can be brought to bear as we watch Iraq in the midst of collapse as extremist ISIS forces increasingly control Iraqi and Syrian territory. And Iran may very well hold the key to changing the situation in Syria, where the Assad regime, backed by Iran and Hezbollah fighters, continues to perpetrate atrocities against Syrian civilians while also fighting ISIS.

There is much for the U.S. to discuss with Iran, should we ever re-open the diplomatic dialogue that has been frozen since 1979. Today’s announcement that Iran has eliminated all of its weapons-grade uranium is proof positive that the lion in the room is ready to move forward. Are we?

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