PORTLAND—A nation's leaders choose peace, setting aside years of distrust. Forgiving decades of political subversion and economic sabotage, they send emissaries to request full diplomatic relations from their once and present nemesis. They persist, even though they're repeatedly rebuffed. When war breaks out, they offer military assistance—to their "enemy."
The nation is Iran. And the reaction is ridiculous.
"The Evil Has Landed," shrieked the headline of the New York Daily News on the occasion of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speeches at the United Nations and Columbia University. A "madman," Rupert Murdoch's New York Post spat, setting the tone for a week of Bizarro News. On 60 Minutes, the Iranian president said there was no reason his country and ours couldn't be friends—even the best of friends.
"La la la la—we can't hear you" was the response.
"Is it the goal of your government, the goal of this nation to build a nuclear weapon?" CBS News' Scott Pelley asked Ahmadinejad.
He replied: "You have to appreciate we don't need a nuclear bomb. We don't need that. What need do we have for a bomb?"
Pelley followed up: "May I take that as a 'no,' sir?"
Ahmadinejad: "It is a firm 'no.'"
Some Americans would pay good money to hear an answer as honest and straightforward as that from their leaders. Yet, minutes later, Pelley kept badgering: "When I ask you a question as direct as 'Will you pledge not to test a nuclear weapon?' you dance all around the question. You never say 'yes.' You never say 'no.'"
Weird. Is Pelley hard of hearing? But what I really can't figure out is how Iran qualifies as our—Very Big Word coming—"enemy." We're not at war with Iran. Neither are our allies. What gives?
Capitalizing on the reliable ignorance of the American public and the indolent gullibility of its journalists, the Bush administration regularly conflates its numerous targets of regime change, pretending they love each other to death and are united only in their desire to slaughter innocent American children. There are gaping chasms in this narrative, but they vanish into our national memory hole.
In 1998, three years before 9/11, while the United States was still sucking up to the Taliban, Iran nearly went to war against Afghanistan. Taliban guards burst into Iran's consulate at Mazar-e-Sharif and murdered eight diplomats and an Iranian journalist. Iran massed 35,000 troops on its eastern border with Afghanistan before the United Nations stepped in to mediate.
After the 9/11 attacks turned the United States against the Taliban, U.S. media outlets put footage of a handful of jeering Palestinians on heavy rotation. Meanwhile, "In Iran, vast crowds turned out on the streets and held candlelit vigils for the victims. Sixty-thousand spectators respected a minute's silence at Tehran's football stadium."
Wondering why you never heard that? The above quote comes from the BBC. Fox News didn't report. American news consumers didn't know, much less decide.
Finding an opportunity for rapprochement and a mutual foe in the Taliban, Iran became a silent American ally after 9/11. The Iranian military offered to conduct search and rescue operations for downed U.S. pilots during the fall 2001 war against the Taliban. It used its influence with the Afghanistan's Dari population to broker the loya jirga that installed Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan.
Everyone expected U.S.-Iranian relations to thaw. There was even talk about ending sanctions and exchanging ambassadors. A few weeks later, however, White House neocons had Iran named as a member of an "axis of evil" in Bush's 2002 State of the Union address. "We were all shocked by the fact that the United States had such a short memory and was so ungrateful about what had happened just a month ago," remembers Javad Zarif, now the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations.
Bush accused Shiite-majority Iran, a mortal enemy of Sunni-dominated al-Qaida, of offering sanctuary to al-Qaida fighters fleeing Afghanistan. "Iran must be a contributor in the war against terror," Bush railed. "Either you're with us or against us." The allegation was BS. No one—not the CIA, not one of our allies, no one—believed that Iran would harbor, or had harbored, members of al-Qaida. "I wasn't aware of any intelligence supporting that charge," says James Dobbins, Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan. But we never took it back.
In May 2003, Iran shook off its annoyance and again tried to make nice. The Iranian overture came in the form of a letter delivered to the State Department after the fall of Baghdad. "Iran appeared willing to put everything on the table—including being completely open about its nuclear program, helping to stabilize Iraq, ending its support for Palestinian militant groups and help in disarming Hezbollah," reported the BBC.
U.S. officials confirm this overture.
"That letter went to the Americans to say that we are ready to talk, we are ready to address our issues," says Seyed Adeli, an Iranian foreign minister at the time. Larry Wilkerson, chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, says the Bushies made a conscious decision to ignore it. "We don't speak to evil," he recalls that administration hardliners led by Donald Rumsfeld said.
In the minds of the hard right, the case for Iran's evilness rests on three issues: the 1979 hostage crisis, its opposition to Israel, and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Readers of Mark Bowden's Guests of the Ayatollah can't help but sympathize with the American embassy staffers who spent 444 days in captivity from late 1979 to early 1981. But the right-wingers' real beef over this episode concerns our wounded national pride.
What they fail to mention is that President Carter brought the mess upon himself, first by continuing to prop up the corrupt and brutal regime of Reza Shah Pahlavi long after it was obviously doomed, and then by admitting him to the United States for cancer treatment. Carter knew that his decision to coddle a toppled tyrant could stir up trouble.
"He went around the room," said then-Vice President Walter Mondale, "and most of us said, 'Let him [the Shah] in. And he said, 'And if [the Iranians] take our employees in our embassy hostage, then what would be your advice?' And the room just fell dead. No one had an answer to that. Turns out, we never did."
Iran finances and arms Hezbollah, the paramilitary group-cum-nascent state based in Lebanon that wages sporadic attacks against Israel. If proxy warfare and funding Islamist terror organizations that despise Israel were a consideration, however, the United States would cut off relations with and impose sanctions against Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. (Can we stop talking to ourselves? We supported the Afghan mujahedeen.) It is possible to maintain friendly relations with nations that hate one another, and we do.
There are two points missing from most discussions of Iran's nuclear energy program and whether it's a cover for a weapons program. First, Iran ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970. Leaders of the Islamic Republic inherited the NPT from the Shah. The revolutionaries voluntarily chose to honor the agreement after they threw him out.
Second, the United States practices a double standard by threatening war against Iran while ignoring Israel's refusal to obey a U.N. resolution calling for a nuclear-free Middle East passed in 1996. As of the late 1990s, U.S. intelligence agencies believed Israel to possess between 75 and 130 nukes. Iran has zero. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there's even less evidence against Iran than there was against Saddam's Iraq.
There are many legitimate reasons to criticize the government of Iran. They're just a regional rival in the Middle East—another frenemy.