Old Enemy, Still There

Patience with Iran may trump the shock and awe of Iraq

July 25, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Twenty-five years ago - when the face of evil in the Mideast was not that of Saddam Hussein, but of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - most would have figured Iran as the country targeted for an invasion by the United States, not Iraq.

It may still be a more plausible target.

Last week's commission report on the Sept. 11 attacks documents ties between Iran and al-Qaida and specifically with the Sept. 11 hijackers. On top of that, the country has a controversial and very real nuclear program - much better documented than Hussein's - that has drawn international condemnation.

This from a place that in 1979 - not long after the fundamentalist Khomeini came to power - invaded the U.S. Embassy and kept its employees hostage for 444 days. Iran zoomed to the top of the terrorist list with open support for Hezbollah's actions in Lebanon against Israeli and American troops. The group was behind the 1983 suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans. More recently, Hezbollah was implicated in the 1996 attack on a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia that killed 19.

So the neoconservatives who call for a forced regime changes might have a better case in Iran than they had in Iraq - the countries that, along with North Korea, make up President Bush's "axis of evil."

But a wide variety of [See Iran, 2c] [Iran, from Page 1c] experts counsel a different approach - not the brute force seen in Iraq but the kind of engagement seen in places such as China.

"If you take the so-called axis of evil, the fact is we have to be smart enough to deal with each of the elements of it in a way that is most likely to attain success," says Robert M. Gates, head of the CIA from 1991 to 1993.

"All three cases involve different approaches that derive from very different kinds of government and culture in the three countries," says Gates, president of Texas A&M University.

New study

Gates and Zbigniew K. Brzezinski, former President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, led a just released study by the Council on Foreign Relations that recommends an increased engagement with Iran instead of further attempts to alienate and isolate the country of 70 million.

"It is a way that is more likely to be productive," says Brzezinski, a White House official when the embassy hostages were held. "Simply standing pat as a political antagonist - not to mention the continuing blather about regime change - just reinforces the extremist element in Iran."

Gates and Brzezinski disagree about the war in Iraq - Gates saying military action was the only way to bring change in such a dictatorship; Brzezinski calling it an attack against the "weakest and least involved [in terrorism] of the axis of evil." But they agree that Iran should get different treatment.

"The Iranians have successfully isolated the United States," Gates says. "They have mended relations with the other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. They have reached out to China and Japan and India. They have pretty good relations with the European Union.

"The result is our unilateral sanctions are useless," he says. "Right now the United States is sitting on the sidelines as all these developments are going forward, and we are not influencing them."

One reason to rule out war with Iran is that it would be quite difficult to wage, in part because, as in North Korea, the nuclear facilities cannot be easily targeted.

"There are a half-dozen facilities, all of them located in or near cities," Gates says. "One one-time shot would almost certainly not work, and there would be enormous collateral damage."

Natalie Goldring, executive director of the Program on Global Security and Disarmament at the University of Maryland, says the U.S. military knows this.

"The kind of coordinated assault that was seen in Iraq would be difficult to replicate in Iran," she says. "The neocons can rattle their cages all they want to, but right now I don't think there is military support for a military option, which is one reason we are pursuing diplomatic approaches."

Mideast expert Louis J. Cantori says that is the right way to go. "Iran is probably a perfect case of a country that should be dealt with in a conventional fashion. The reason is that Iran is essentially a very pragmatic country. ...

"One has to listen carefully to what Iran's policy objectives are ... and examine the way in which Iran has attempted to achieve those objectives," says Cantori of the political science department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Nuclear rationale

The point of Cantori and others is that it makes no sense to treat Iran in the hands of a bunch of crazed terrorists because it is behaving in the rational way of any country seeking to advance its national interests.

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