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Iran, US mutual delusions pave a path to war

Iran, US mutual delusions pave a path to war

After the missile exchanges with Israel, Washington and Tehran need to talk

Analysis | Middle East

For the umpteenth time, the U.S. and Iran have come close to an open war neither side wants.

The Israelis strike a building within the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus, killing senior officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Iranians, with unintended irony, protest this violation of diplomatic premises, and almost start a war with Israel by launching hundreds of drones and missiles that the U.S., given ample warning, helps to inter­cept. The Israelis launch a counterstrike to demonstrate its ability to evade Iran’s defenses. That appears to end the exchange until the next round.

Sooner or later, if the U.S. and the Islamic Republic are going to avoid such a lose-lose conflict, the two sides will need to stop shouting and start talking. Forty-five years of exchanging empty slogans, accusa­tions, threats, and denunci­a­tions have accomplished little beyond furthering a few political careers and feed­ing a sense of self-righteousness. For suc­cessive U.S. adminis­trations, Iran remains a problem that will not go away.

To para­phrase Trotsky, “You may have no business with Iran; but Iran has business with you.” For Iran, the U.S. remains an obsession. The more Iran’s hated rulers denounce it, the more attractive it becomes — as both a role model and a destination — to a savvy popula­tion suffering from inflation, unemployment, and the stern, miso­gynistic dictates of an aging and ossified ruling elite.

The Islamic Republic, despite the wishes of many Iranians and their friends, is probably not going away soon. In the first months after the fall of the monarchy, the most-asked question in Tehran was, “When are THEY leaving?” (Inhaa key mirand?). Forty-five years later THEY are still in charge and show no signs of packing their bags.

Why should we talk to the Islamic Republic, when it has the appalling history that it does? Why should we talk when its overriding policy principle is, in the words of one Iranian official, “opposition to you”? We need to talk because talking (and listening) to an adversary means serving our national interests by communicating. Talking never means either approval of or affection for the Islamic Republic.

Talking to the Islamic Republic is not going to bring down that government, persuade the ruling clerics to step aside, or persuade them to stop repressing its women, musicians, journalists, lawyers, students and academics. Talking is not going to end the ruling clerics’ bizarre obsessions with con­trolling every trivial detail of Iranians’ private lives. What talking does is allow each side to present its point of view and to correct the dangerous “mythperceptions” that have prevented the U.S. and Iran from breaking out of a 45-year downward spiral of futility.

For what has happened when the two sides have not talked? What has happened, for example, when the Islamic Republic’s representatives at meetings refuse face-to-face meetings with their American counterparts? What has happened when one side ignores, or rejects outright, proposals from the other to meet in at setting of mutual respect?

Whenever two sides — neighbors, relatives, countries — for whatever reason, cannot talk, each side becomes, to the other, simul­taneously sub-human and super-human. “Superhuman” means the other is capable of anything. In this case, a superhuman Iran can build and deliver a nuclear weapon in weeks, manipulate proxies to do its will anywhere, and rebuild the mighty Persian Empires of Greek and Roman times. On the other side, a superhuman United States can guide events in Iran and subvert its young people through a powerful, hidden network of agents – journalists, intellectuals, writers, etc. – ready to obey instructions from Washington.

As for being “subhuman,” in this view neither side is constrained by any sense of morality or humanity. It will do (and since it is also super­human, can do) anything. In such a case, the superhuman we fear and the subhuman we despise. When such a powerful and evil adver­sary threatens us, we feel justified in taking any action against it, because that adver­sary will stop at nothing and has only one goal: to destroy us by any means possible.

At one level, leaders in both Tehran and Washington seek to avoid an Iran-U.S. war. Although Tehran’s ruling clerics care little for the lives of ordi­nary Iranians – who would be the victims of such a war – they do care about staying in power and continuing to enjoy their villas and foreign currency accounts. A war with the U.S. would threaten their good life. In Washington, both Democratic and Repub­lican presidents have known that “another stupid war” in the Middle East is a political loser. In 2016, Trump ran against such wars, and his message was powerful. Although he foolishly abandoned the Iran nuclear deal and made a bizarre threat to blow up “52 historical sites” in Iran, he clearly had no stomach for a war. He summarily fired his national security adviser, a paid shill for the cultists of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), when he pushed the president toward confrontation.

Does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu want to drag the U.S. into a war with Iran? To all appearances he does, not only to rid Israel of a declared enemy, but, more important, to keep himself in power. The Israeli premier has used Iran to mani­pulate the U.S. and even to intervene directly in American domestic politics. The more extreme the rhetoric and actions from Tehran, the better for Netanyahu. It is said he went into mourning when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — notorious for his curious anti-Israeli rhetoric — left office in 2013. But he can usually depend on the Islamic Republic to help him both by overplaying its weak hand and by raising the volume on its tired slogans.

Wars often begin with both sides saying they want peace. But miscalculations, underestimating or overestimating the other side, and third-party actions can push a country down a path it knows is self-destructive. Talking to the Islamic Republic will be hard, but it is worth doing if it can keep both sides off a road to disaster.

William Potter via shutterstock

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