Have you heard the news? Iran is not Iraq.
On the surface, the two neighboring countries seem similar enough. Iran and Iraq hold the world’s 2nd and 3rd largest oil reserves respectively, have Shi’ite majorities, share a long border, and fought a pointless, bloody eight-year war that cost over a million lives. Prior to the illegal invasion of Iraq, both countries were bitter enemies of the United States, which selected them for the elite "Axis of Evil" club in 2002. Everyone knew Iran was next.
In recent years, U.S. pronouncements against Iran have been uncannily similar to the Iraq war propaganda weapons of mass destruction, "grave threat to world peace," human rights violations, defying the "international community," etc. One of the latest arguments conjured up for continuing the war in Iraq is that retreating would "embolden" Iran; and with constant accusations that Iran is arming Shi’ite and Sunni militias that are killing Americans, the line between the Iraq war theater and a possible Iran theater becomes increasingly blurry. It all appears to be the makings of an unwelcome, big-budget, poorly scripted sequel to a movie that bombed to begin with.
There are distinctions, of course. Iraq is a mostly Arab country, and Iran has a largely Persian population. Geographically, Iran is about 3.75 times the size of Iraq with a more diverse, mountainous terrain, and Iran has nearly 2.5 times the population of Iraq. Tragically, Iraq is now a nation with a broken political and civil infrastructure, weakened by years of war, cruel sanctions, and rampant sectarian violence. Iran, while struggling with unemployment, fuel shortages, increasing international isolation, and other domestic problems, has a stable government, a formidable military, and a very strong influence in the region.
So why the confusion between Iran and Iraq? Much of it can simply be attributed to their nearly identical, frequently mispronounced names. And no one, from Joe Sixpack to the world’s biggest leaders, is immune from getting them mixed up.
While speaking at a Fredericksburg, Va., Holiday Inn on Dec. 17, 2007, a local man told President Bush he was "concerned about the nations like Iraq, who now have nuclear weapons." "Iran," Bush corrected. "Iran, and Iraq both," replied the questioner. "Not Iraq," reminded Bush, as the room erupted in laughter.
The question typifies the image many Americans have developed of the two nations. The names Iraq and Iran are spoken so frequently, so interchangeably, that a perception of parity becomes almost involuntary it’s as if they were twins. Misunderstanding is inevitable.
The mix-ups are not necessarily unintentional. Saddam’s one-time enabler and a chief architect of the Iraq war, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is reported to have written internal memos to his staff with directives such as "link Iraq to Iran."
During his first press conference of 2007, in February, President Bush got confused while discussing Iran with reporters:
"Now, let me step back on Iran, itself. We have a comprehensive strategy to deal with Iraq [sic]. There’s a variety of issues that we have with Iraq [sic]. One, of course, is influence inside of Iraq. Another is whether or not they end up with a nuclear weapon. And I believe an Iran with a nuclear weapon would be very dangerous for world peace ."
When talking about Iran at the 2007 Democratic debates, Joe Biden said, "If he [Bush] takes the country to war in Iraq [sic] without a vote of Congress then he should be impeached," and John Edwards proclaimed, "We need to make it absolutely clear that we have no intention of letting Bush, Cheney or this administration invade Iraq [sic] because they have been rattling the saber over and over and over."
Former White House Press Secretary Tony Snow earned a triple score during a June 2006 press briefing:
"[T]he position of this government is to look for a way for the Iraqis [sic] to suspend the nuclear activities and make it possible for the rest of the world to begin working on reintegrating Iraq [sic] into the international community and dealing with other issues, such as human rights and terrorism with that government of Iraq [sic]."
Though politicians, pundits, and the public hold converging concepts of Iraq and Iran, they constantly repeat the phrase "Iran is not Iraq." The fact that this phrase exists in the first place clearly shows that there is a widespread, preconceived notion of relative equivalence between the two. It points to a common perspective, particularly derivative of an antiquated colonial mindset, in which the outside world is viewed so broadly as to render similar cultures largely indistinguishable. While prejudice is a factor, the bigger culprit, however, may be ordinary indifference not only to the history and geography of other cultures, but to one’s own as well.
At the 2007 Miss Teen USA pageant, Miss Teen South Carolina, Lauren Caitlin Upton, was asked, "Recent polls have shown 1/5 of Americans can’t locate America on a world map. Why do you think this is?" Her awkward, rambling response, with its random mentions of South Africa and Iraq, became wildly popular in the media and Internet for its unintentional hilarity. But the ridicule directed at the teenager is unfair considering the astonishing gaps in knowledge exhibited by significant government officials, whose understanding of history and current events is critical to their decision-making, and consequently, to peace and stability in the world.
Recently, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino confessed to not knowing what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis (when the U.S. and USSR nearly waged nuclear war), saying, "It had to do with Cuba and missiles, I’m pretty sure."
President Bush, who is well known for his verbal gaffes, historical ignorance, and self-admitted tendency to "mangle the English language," has such moments on a regular basis. Bush has referred to the continent of Africa as a "nation," announced that "Mandela’s dead," asked the president of Brazil, "Do you have blacks, too?," and, while in Tokyo in 2002, proclaimed that America and Japan have been "great and enduring" allies for the past 150 years. During the 2000 election campaign, Bush was asked by a reporter to name the leaders of India, Pakistan, Chechnya, and Taiwan. He only managed to guess one, barely.
In his 2006 interview with the Congressional Quarterly, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) was unable to say if al-Qaeda America’s #1 enemy was Sunni or Shi’ite, and he also failed to describe Hezbollah.
When Bush’s gossipy, expletive-laden private conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair was picked up by an open mike at a G8 Summit luncheon in 2006, it was a raw glimpse into Bush’s primitive thinking process. "Russia’s a big country and you’re a big country," he observed, chomping on his food with his mouth open. "Russia’s big and so’s China." As they chatted, innocent people, including children and babies, were being killed in the war between Israel and Lebanon, a war they fully aided and endorsed in the foolish belief that it would permanently destroy Hezbollah.
As the allegations of Iraqi WMDs and Iran’s active pursuit of nuclear weapons (now contradicted by the new NIE report) have shown, reliable intelligence is hard to come by. And in the contentious, reality-bending world of politics, it’s often difficult to find common ground. It’s time for the U.S. and Iran to commence a comprehensive, rational dialogue without preconditions. The diplomatic process has to start somewhere, so why not begin with something that all parties can agree on: the inane, yet valid, assertion that "Iran is not Iraq."
"Q: You often say Iran is not Iraq.
"President Bush: Yes, I do say that."
– White House Rose Garden, April 28, 2006
"Iran is not Iraq. We have said that before."
– Press Secretary Scott McClellan, White House press briefing, April 4, 2006
"But we know that Iraq is not Iran is not Iraq. But this is a different set of circumstances in that this is a case that has a diplomatic course available."
– Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, interview with Chicago’s WGN TV, April 19, 2006
"To state the obvious, Mr. President, Iran is not Iraq. And the president has no authority to begin unilateral military operations against Iran. In this regard, I would strongly urge my colleagues to consider that the issue before us is not the politics of Iran, but the proper procedures with respect to how we, as a government, lead the United States."
– Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), U.S. Senate, April 25, 2007
"Iran is not Iraq, Iran is not Afghanistan. They still cannot leave [those two countries], it is impossible for them to invade Iran."
– Iranian Vice President Isfandiar Rahim Mashaee, Jakarta, Indonesia, Feb. 9, 2006
"’Iran is not Iraq,’ says Gary Sick, a specialist on Iran and director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. ‘It’s not North Korea, and it’s not even Syria.’"
– St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 11, 2003
"If we attack Iran, as I fear we are on a course to do, we will unleash a hell unlike anything this region has seen. Iran is not Iraq. It has not been under sanctions for 10 years. It has not been bombed flat by the Gulf War. It is a strong nation with weapons. We will make ourselves once again less safe if we attack them."
– Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA)- House of Representatives, April 25, 2006
"Iran is not Iraq, incidentally, it is a different situation
– British Prime Minister Tony Blair, press conference with the prime minister of Slovakia in Bratislava, March 9, 2006
"If they have a little bit of a brain, they would not commit such a mistake. Iran is not Iraq. Iraq was a weak country, it did not have a legitimate government. Iran is a powerful country."
– Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, May 8, 2006
"Secretary Rice: Let me be very clear and go to the bottom line. Iran is not Iraq. I know that’s what’s on people’s minds. Iran is not Iraq. The circumstances are different. We don’t have 12 years of Security Council resolutions, a case in which a state attacked its neighbor or tried to annex its neighbor, as it did with Kuwait, where we were still in a state of war after the armistice in 1991. I just want to be very clear: Iran is not Iraq.
"Foreign Secretary Straw: Well, people have listened to this interview. I’ve said what I’ve said and secondly the president of the United States saying he doesn’t take the option off the table. But in practice, you’ve just heard the secretary of state say very eloquently that Iran is not Iraq. Of course we understand. We both understand. The two governments understand why people are so worried about the prospect of military action against Iran being imminent. Because of what they thought happened in Iraq. But as the secretary said, there is a huge difference. I mean, 12 years of Security Council resolutions. Iraq invaded two of its neighbors
– Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, interview, Liverpool, England, April 1, 2006
"Iran is not Iraq. Iran is not a threat to the United States, and if anybody tells you that, they don’t know anything about the history of Iran. Nothing."
– 2008 presidential candidate and former Alaska senator Mike Gravel, University of Michigan, Oct. 26, 2007
"Iraq and Iran are not the same situations, and I think the president previously has talked about that. When he was in Europe he said Iran is not Iraq."
– Scott McClellan, White House press briefing, Jan. 13, 2006
"[L]et me say regardless of, of what had or hadn’t been found in Iraq I do not happen to think that military action in this situation would be appropriate. I mean, as President Bush’s spokesman has said, Iran is not Iraq
– British Prime Minister Tony Blair, interview with Channel 4 News, Jan.16, 2006
"Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s IAEA ambassador: Iran is looking for peaceful settlement. Iran is looking for cooperation with Europe and Russia and other countries. And we want peace in this region.
"Therefore, this is a matter of warning for making a historical mistake in the IAEA in Vienna, and this would be a new chapter which would be unfortunate decision. Therefore, this is a matter of, in fact, warning not to make a mistake and not to go towards confrontation.
"Becky Anderson, CNN international correspondent: Are you warning the West or are you warning the U.S. at this point?
"Soltanieh: Well, if we review what unilateral policy of U.S. has caused, the difficulties in the region, ignoring the international expectation with what happened in Iraq with the assumption, the wrong assumption on the WMDs or so, therefore, what we are worrying that the same mistake will be made, particularly the mistake is that Iran is not Iraq. They have to understand that."
– CNN interview transcript, Feb. 2, 2006
"Question: Is the U.S. taking military action off the table? Is the U.S. taking unilateral military action against
"Mr. McClellan: Well, I think the president has made it pretty clear, he said previously Iran is not Iraq. We are working with the international community to resolve this in a peaceful and diplomatic manner. That’s what we’ve been doing and that’s what we continue to do. In terms of options, you know the president has already addressed that. The president has made it clear we never take options off the table."
– Scott McClellan, White House press briefing, Jan. 10, 2006
"Again, I think we all and let me just go to the bottom line. Iran is not Iraq. This is a very different set of circumstances. We were in a state of hostilities with Iraq for 12 years after the end of the Gulf War. The Iraqis were practically every day shooting at American and British planes as they tried to patrol the no-fly zone. This was a different situation. But in Iraq, we did not over that 12 years maintain international unity. That’s what we have to strive to do in Iran."
– Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, roundtable with journalists, Athens, Greece, April 25, 2006
"Well I think the current circumstances it [attacking Iran] would not be conceivable. It would not be appropriate. And what’s more Jim, because I know that and I understand why, what you’re seeking to do is to suggest there is some kind of difference of opinion between the United Kingdom government and the United States. There isn’t. Allow me to quote this: Iran is not Iraq. We’re working with the international community to resolve this in a peaceful and diplomatic manner. That’s what we continue to do. That’s my opinion. It also happens to be the opinion of the White House. It is literally not on the agenda.
"This can, this can only be resolved by peaceful means. Let us be clear about that. No one is talking about invading Iran or taking military action against Iran. And again to quote the White House, Iran is not Iraq. And let me, let me say why. The point about Iraq was that it had invaded two of its neighbors. It had launched missiles against five of its neighbors. It incontrovertibly had had chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs. Now in the case of Iran, although we have a real problem with Iran, it has not invaded any of its neighbors. It did not launch missile attacks against any of its neighbors and nor so far as the nuclear weapon program is concerned do we have categorical evidence that it is developing a nuclear weapon and I’ve made "
– British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, BBC interview, Jan. 13, 2006
"First of all, let me go right to the crux of the question: The United States of America understands and believes that Iran is not Iraq. The Iraq circumstances had a special character going back for 12 years of suspended hostilities after a war of aggression which Saddam Hussein himself launched and in which those hostilities continued for that period of 12 years."
– Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Athens, Greece, April 25, 2006
"Now we are nudging up against a real tough problem because Iran is not Iraq and it’s not North Korea."
– U.S. Ambassador Norman Wulf, speaking at a nuclear nonproliferation panel in Santa Fe, N.M., Oct. 30, 2005
"We believe there are many differences between Iran and Iraq, or Afghanistan. In the political system of Iran, there are a lot of differences with the system that used to be in Iraq or Afghanistan. The situation of the people and how they look at our government in Iran is very different from the situation of the Iraqi people under Saddam’s regime. Iran’s geographical composition is very different to that of Iraq. I previously referred to the resolve of the Iranian people. In their beliefs, the Iraqi people are very similar to us, but there are some differences.
"These differences basically make Iran’s power very different from that of Iraq. The Americans know these differences well because they used to live in this country in the past. They are clearly aware of Iran’s geographical composition and the Iranian people’s capabilities. They know that Iran is not Iraq."
– Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, TV interview, Nov. 29, 2007
"No, there is just a very, very obvious thing, which is Iran is not Iraq. Nobody is talking about military invasion; people do, however, want to send a very strong signal to Iran because some of the comments made by the president of Iran are totally unjustifiable, Iran is supporting terrorism in the region to the detriment of democratic governments, it is in breach of its nuclear obligations and people want it to comply. And so the real issue for me in respect of Iran is well what are you going to do about it? And all I am saying, as I said at Prime Minister’s Questions last week, is that it is not very sensible at this moment in time to send a signal of weakness, we want to send a signal of strength. But I repeat, Iran is not Iraq, and people are very, very well aware of that here and over the water."
– British Prime Minister Tony Blair, monthly press conference, April 24, 2006
"I want to be very clear: the president of the United States doesn’t take any of his options off the table. But we understand that Iran is not Iraq. This is a very different situation, and we believe that the diplomatic course and the many, many tools that we have on the diplomatic side will ultimately succeed."
-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, interview with Michael Grypiotis, Greek State Broadcasting, Athens, Greece, April 25, 2006
"Iran is not Iraq, and its condition is not comparable to that of Iraq before the American invasion."
– Iraq’s IAEA Ambassador Tariq Aqrawi, interview with IRNA, November 2007
"Iran is not Iraq. There is no Saddam Hussein who determines everything."
– Gary Sick, former U.S. National Security Council official, Council on Foreign Relations interview, Sept. 26, 2007
"We are working with our European friends, we are working with Turkey; we want to work with Russia and China and develop a united front to demonstrate to Iran that it needs to forgo its nuclear weapons ambitions and work with the international community. So I want to make clear Iran is not Iraq and it is our hope that a diplomatic solution can be found and we welcome Turkey’s help in this regard."
– Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried, Washington, D.C. forum on U.S.-Turkey relations with Turkish diplomats, May 18, 2006
"When Mr. Bush became president, Mr. Fidel Castro was asked his opinion about Bush. Mr. Castro answered by saying, ‘I hope he’s not as stupid as he looks.’ Regarding whether Mr. Bush would do such a thing, I should say that the Americans cannot attack us, either in the form of surgical strikes
or by deploying their forces. Iraq is a clear and outstanding example. Iran is not Iraq; Americans know that Iran is not a place that would let them in. I’m not saying that we would not get hurt by such an attack, but at the same time, we would not let Americans escape unhurt
-Hossein Shariatmadari, editor in chief of Iranian state newspaper Kayhan, PBS Frontline interview, Aug. 1, 2007
"I was asked about it on the television last night and I said it was absurd to think that we are going to go invade Iran. Iran is not Iraq
– British Prime Minister Tony Blair, interview with Jon Snow, Channel 4 News, May 3, 2005
"Miles O’Brien: All that talk of military action and even a nuclear option may be nothing more than saber-rattling. The truth is, the administration does not have as many options in how to deal with Iran than it did with Iraq. [Begin videotape.]
"Condoleezza Rice: I just want to be very clear. Iran is not Iraq.
"Miles O’Brien (voice-over): They share a border and a dubious distinction. Both are charter members of the president’s axis of evil. But in countless ways, these two countries pose different dilemmas for the U.S. as it considers diplomatic and military options.
"Iran is twice as big as Iraq. Three times the population. Protected by mountains. No chance of an easy armored sprint across the desert here.
"Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings Institution: Iran is basically two to three times as tough of a military target as Iraq for an all out war.
"Miles O’Brien: Unlike Iraq, and in part because the U.S. is stretched thin there, a ground invasion of Iran is not a realistic option. But what about a bombing mission? Iranian centrifuges and a central port of its nuclear program are buried deep, perhaps out of harm’s way. And even if U.S. war planes did inflict damage, it could be a hollow victory with far reaching consequences.
"Gen. Anthony Zinni, (ret.), former Centcom commander: We should not fool ourselves to think it will just be a strike and then it would be over. The Iranians will retaliate and they have many possibilities in an area where there are many vulnerabilities from our troop positions, to the oil and gas in the region that can be interrupted, to attacks on Israel, to the conduct of terrorism."
– CNN broadcast transcript, April 11, 2006
"The Americans have for long maintained, demonstrated, and acted upon the conviction that assurances of non-diversion of the [International Atomic Energy] Agency are not credible. The same conviction lead that country to ignite a war in no less than two years ago. But is this déjà vu again? I am sorry, not this time Iran is not Iraq, and the United States is not that self-appointed policeman of the world anymore."
– Cyrus Nasseri, Iranian ambassador to the IAEA, Aug. 11, 2005
"[P]eople are worried that Iran is going to turn into another Iraq and that’s in people’s minds, so we might as well open up and discuss that. Although as Condoleezza Rice was saying last week and President Bush I’ve also heard him say, Iran is not Iraq."
– British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, BBC interview, April 9, 2006
"We do know that Europeans too are against Americans’ attempt to drag the region into another war. We hope that the U.S. President George W. Bush will learn from his mistakes in Iraq, because if we move into that direction and if any war breaks out, it will entail bitter consequences. Iran is not Iraq, and its conditions are fully different from hers. In case of any war, Bush should be held accountable."
– Iran’s ambassador to France Ali Ahani, Paris, quoted by IRNA, March 28, 2007
"But Iran is not Iraq, these are two very different circumstances and we believe that the remedies before us are quite robust."
– Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, April 19, 2006
"You know, yesterday I was asked about the U.S. position, and I said all options are on the table. That’s part of our position. But I also reminded people that diplomacy is just beginning. Iran is not Iraq."
– President George W. Bush in Mainz, Germany, with Chancellor Schröder, Feb. 23, 2005
"The U.S. officials should comprehend certain issues. Iran is not Iraq. The IAEA inspectors found no document proving Iran uses nuclear technology for military purposes."
– Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Berlin, quoted by IRIB, April 7,2006
"You can’t absolutely predict every set of circumstances that comes about, but sitting here now and talking to you I can tell you that Iran is not Iraq."
– British Prime Minister Tony Blair, BBC radio interview, Feb. 22, 2007
"The elimination of Saddam Hussein from Iraq was more than anything to Iran’s benefit. But even then we were of the belief that the solution is not a military occupation of Iraq. Even then my proposal was that the U.S. and the other permanent members of the Security Council meet with Iraq’s neighbors to come up with a solution for the country the same as with Afghanistan. But during that time America was arrogant and did not accept this proposal. Today the center of terrorism is located in Iraq and America is facing problems in Iraq.
"In this situation, because of the experience that the Americans have had with Iraq and because of American public opinion, I don’t believe that the Americans will make the big mistake of attacking Iran. Iran is not Iraq."
– Mohammad Khatami, former president of Iran, Washington Post interview, Sept. 5, 2006
"Tim Russert: And we’re back with the vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney. Let me show you what Mr. Khatami from Iran visiting the United States had to say and read it for you and our viewers: ‘Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami warned that the U.S. military action in the Middle East has backfired, producing greater terrorism, imperiling the future of Iraq, and damaging America’s long-term interest. But the danger of even great instability in the region will ultimately prevent the U.S. from launching military strikes against Iran over disputes about its nuclear intentions. He predicted: "America will not make the same mistake of attacking Iran; Iran is not Iraq."’
"Is he right?
"Cheney: Well, we certainly understand Iran is not Iraq."
– Dick Cheney, interviewed by Tim Russert on Meet the Press, Sept. 10, 2006