A Thoughtful Look at Iran

The neoconservative hawks in the Bush administration demand regime change in Iran. The nation’s supposed ties to Palestinian and Lebanese terrorist groups coupled with its attempts to build a nuclear weapon motivate such prescriptions. Of course, the (sometimes) unspoken reason has something to do with Iran’s threat to Israel. No matter the justifications, Roger Howard’s book Iran in Crisis? Nuclear Ambitions and the American Response should be required reading for anyone demanding immediate U.S. intervention in Iran.

Iran in Crisis? sets out to explain the historical context of American hostility toward Iran while outlining the potential social, cultural, and political crises that threaten to alter the ongoing debate. Detailing the nation’s political and cultural history, it presents a perspective required to evaluate both sides of the debate, in this case hardliners in Iran and the U.S. Howard makes it clear that one cannot easily judge what is the “right” U.S. policy vis-√†-vis Iran without understanding this historical context. Despite his more dovish position on how the world should approach Iran, Howard is far from uncritical. For instance, he writes,

“In light of events in recent years, it is clear that Washington has good reason to suspect a high degree of Iranian influence in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet there are some respects in which America’s own policies have arguably exacerbated the tension with Iran over this issue.”

This theme is repeated throughout the book. With it, Howard suggests that a more thoughtful – though stern – diplomatic approach toward Iran will be more productive. For example, aspects of U.S. policy openly support supposed Iranian rebel groups. It is thought that by verbally recognizing such groups, an independent revolution may occur, thus making U.S. intervention unnecessary. However, Howard points out that the groups the U.S. supports may not be the ones it would like to see in power after such a revolution, illustrating yet another case where historical ignorance and blind belligerence may lead to unintended consequences. Simply, Howard details a variety of “blowback” possibilities after U.S. intervention.

One of the most important sections of the text is Howard’s take on the role of neoconservatives in increasing American hostility toward Iran. Howard correctly makes the historical and contemporary connections among the Ledeens, Feiths, etc., and the Likud party of Israel. He further writes

“One such defining defining characteristic of neoconservatism … is a liberal idealism that argues that the ‘democratization’ of the outside world and the defense of human rights should play a prominent role in U.S. foreign policy at the expense of a more ‘realist’ emphasis upon the national interest.”

Once certain nations are “democratized,” others throughout the world will supposedly follow suit. Howard:

“[S]uch views have been regarded by their critics in the State Department and elsewhere as little more than a hubristic blueprint that ignored the much more commonsensical proposition that U.S. intervention would in fact be ‘much more likely to stir up a hornets’ nest.'”

Despite this analysis, Howard believes it is incorrect to characterize American hostility toward Iran as solely neoconservative. Rather, “something distinctive about the American mind lies at the heart of this issue.” He claims that American attitudes toward Iran stem from a “need for catharsis” after 9/11 and the much earlier Iran hostage crisis. Essentially, Howard argues that America is “seeking compensation” for its past losses. This view is echoed by the Iranian media. The author also argues that the hawkish U.S. attitudes are a manifestation of America’s tendency to use force before diplomacy.

With regards to “force first,” Howard may be on to something. However, he fails to make the distinction between (1) why the debate about the threat of Iran exists, and (2) the cultural factors that make it popular. I think that the former must proceed the latter. The war on Iraq is the perfect example. The American public was not calling for the overthrow of Saddam minutes after 9/11. Instead, it was the administration hawks who demanded action. And only after months of scare tactics involving WMD and a pliant media instilling fear in the public was the administration able to go to war.

But why do these neocons care so much about democracy abroad? They consider Iran a threat. There are three main threats that interventionists cite: Iran’s nuclear capability, its suppression of liberties, and its support of terrorist organizations.

Howard makes the case that Iran is likely seeking a nuclear weapons program. He details the history of this move and its origins in the more independent and aggressive parts of the Iranian government. An important question is thus raised: has U.S. policy increased the risk of the proliferation of nuclear weapons? On the one hand, Howard points out that many hawks unjustifiably speak of the existence of Iran’s nukes as a “certainty.” Similarly, many vocal critics of Iran speak in black and white terms, claiming that, “sources indicate a ready weapons program in a few months.” Such pronouncements should be taken with a grain a salt after the war on Iraq. As Howard trenchantly points out

“[S]uch heavy-handedness also plays into the hands of political hardliners inside Iran who argue that the insubstantial nature of Washington’s arguments reveals an ulterior motive against which all Iranians should guard themselves.”

America is also seen as touting a double standard.

“And throughout Iran, and in the wider Islamic world, many repeatedly ask why the same U.S. administrators that condemn Iran so vociferously are also so silent about Israel’s nuclear capabilities.”

Next, Howard profiles the state of freedom in Iran. The country’s constitution is a good representation of two important and contrasting aspects of Iranian political culture. First, the constitution “declares that ‘the affairs of the country must be administered on the basis of public opinion expressed by the means of elections,'” which has resulted in an elected president and legislature. However, the constitution also lays out “other sources of political power that do not have real popular mandate, foremost among them the Supreme Leader.” Knowledge of such things is crucial when making policy decisions. For to assume that Iran is purely a dictatorship is to ignore the possibility that freedom and democracy have independent roots without the need for U.S. intervention. Moreover, as Howard makes clear, American “support” for Iranian democracy may only give more power to the unaccountable members of government who can claim that foreign powers are “meddling” with Iranian independence. If the American critics of Iran consider such consequences, they may also consider a more diplomatic approach to any resolution of disputes.

The book is not without its weaknesses. First, I suggest skipping the wordy introduction which lends little to understanding what is to come. Next, just as Howard emphasizes the importance of separating political rhetoric and potential action, the same perspective should be taken with the American hawks who demand immediate overthrow of the regime. It is equally plausible that those laptop bombardiers are merely using harsh rhetoric to appeal to their own audiences, much as the religious leaders in Iran are saving face with tough anti-American rhetoric.

Nonetheless, Iran in Crisis? is a welcome book in a sea of punditry and historical naiveté.