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ForeignPolicy

Rep. McDermott: The Folly of Attacking Iran

It's time for real diplomacy.
These are remarks made as part of Just Foreign Policy's project, The Folly of Attacking Iran: Time for Real Diplomacy. They were given in Washington, DC March 6, 2008.

Good evening,

I've been looking forward to this evening and I am delighted to be here. The truth is, I brought my own copy of Stephen [Kinzer's] book, which I have read, and I believe it should be required reading by every Member of Congress.

I also brought with me a copy of Time Magazine. It is the January 7, 1952 issue. It was Time's Man of the Year issue and it is relevant to our discussion this evening. Time selected Mohammed Mossadegh; under his picture on the cover, Time added this subhead: "He oiled the wheels of chaos."

It was Mossadegh, of course, who coined the slogan Persia for the Persians and he incited a nationalistic fervor to take back Iran's oil industry from the British and kick out the west in the process, right down to the oil workers.

At the time, we liked to think that Mossadegh had cut off his nose to spite his face. The Iranian oil industry was in ruins, but instead of rioting against Mossadegh, the Iranian people embraced what they saw as their nation standing up to the West. Other nations in the Mideast, like Egypt, watched and then emulated Iran, because they saw the West, especially the U.S., as supporting colonialism by the British above all else.

In other words, Mossadegh and other leaders saw America as the architect of an international policy to treat the Mideast like it was the Midwest.

But Mossadegh saw things differently.

Backed by the popular support of the Iranian people, he proclaimed the end of colonialism and began to move Iran toward the beginnings of Democracy.

As we know from history, controlling the oil wealth of Iran mattered more to the West than anything else. Given the choice between watching Iran construct pillars of Democracy or finding a way for the West to construct - and control - oil drilling platforms, there was no hesitation.

In 1953, the United States and United Kingdom launched Operation Ajax. It was a covert CIA operation to destabilize and remove the democratically elected government of Iran, including Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh.

From provoking internal dissent to engineering an international financial crisis, the US and UK worked behind the scenes until they brought down the Iranian government and installed the Shah of Iran, who we propped up for decades.

It took 20 years, but the Shah of Iran fell and we all remember the painful images of blindfolded American diplomats held hostage by Iranian dissidents.

In my view, we have never recovered from that disturbing event. Let me be clear about this - I don't in any way diminish what happened to American diplomats. I condemn it. But, I also believe that we have to move beyond that terrible event and find a way to deal with Iran in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, it appears to me that our international policy toward Iran in 2008 looks a lot like our policy toward Iran in 1953.

Not long ago, ABC News reported that President Bush has authorized a new covert CIA plot to destabilize the current Iranian government. According to investigative reporter Brian Ross of ABC News: "The CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount a covert "black" operation to destabilize the Iranian government, current and former officials in the intelligence community."

That's just the latest troubling news item about the intentions of this Administration with respect to Iran.

For those who may not know, I strongly opposed going to war in Iraq; in 2002, I said this President would mislead us into war, which turned out to be true. Well, the only thing dumber than going to war in Iraq would be for this President to go to war in Iran - and I live in constant fear that he intends to do just that.

He wants to find a way to provoke a military confrontation, or gin up some data to frighten the American people into believing a preemptive strike is defensible.

You don't have to look very far to find credible evidence that the President wants his legacy to be another war and you don't have to listen very hard to hear drum beats of war coming from the White House.

Modeled after the hysteria they whipped up over non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Administration is doing the same thing over Iran's nuclear program.

It's the West pitted against the Mideast all over again, from UN sanctions to US rhetoric.

Meanwhile, oil is over $100 a barrel and Iran is amassing an ever increasing fortune on a monthly basis, much of it coming from us.

Some might say Iran has the West over a barrel, but I think we have done it to ourselves. And that represents both an opportunity and a challenge.

I believe we are trying to deal with Iran today in fundamentally the same way we did in 1953. It didn't work then and it is not working now.

Iran in 2008 is a proud nation with significant military assets and an ocean of cash at its disposal to support its defense and thwart any invasion. Beyond that, Iran is ascending in the region. Its sphere of influence is growing and that troubles nations and neighbors.

In 1955, George Orwell wrote this in a work entitled Essays in Criticism: "Things in the Far East seem very clear from a distance, but when you get close they are vague."

That assessment could have been written yesterday, that's how accurate I believe it is. And we should use it to leaven our thinking and international policy toward Iran.

We've seen Iran reach out to Iraq, even as US soldiers remain mired in a war, fighting and dying every day.

We've seen Iran convert billions into other currencies to insulate itself from the US dollar, UN sanctions and threats to seize its assets. We've seen Iran declare its independence from the West and use strident rhetoric as a political wedge to maintain the support of the Iranian people.

And at the rate this Administration is going, I would say we are playing right into the hands of Iranian leaders who have learned the lessons of history better than we have.

For the record, I am no particular fan of the current Iranian regime.

I worked for the State Department in Africa in the 1980s. So, the pictures of blindfolded American diplomats are seared into my memory as much as, and probably more than, most people, because I too was an American diplomat living and working in a troubled country. There is no question that Iran rubbed our nose in it, but it is time for us to look ahead and not back.

I'm a medical doctor and psychiatrist. I treated combat soldiers returning from Vietnam. I know how hard it is for someone to move past the trauma and rage of an event like the hostage crisis. But, quite frankly, that's what leaders are for and what America needs to do.

We don't have to diminish what happened in order to develop something new. But I believe we have to move past that one awful event.

We have to make peace with the past if we are to have any hope of making peace in the future.

American history is filled with instances of talking to people we don't like. And American history is filled with success stories as a result of doing just that.

Imagine what the world would look like today if we had done nothing more than try to isolate and perpetually threaten our enemies after World War II. Yet, that is our policy toward Iran today.

I am the co-chair of a legislative exchange program between the U.S. House of Representatives and the National Diet of Japan. Twice a year we host one another to build bridges of understanding. I've held similar forums with my counterparts in Germany.

That's a far cry from what we have done with respect to Iran. Instead of building bridges, this Administration is targeting bridges. As Gandhi said, an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.

We didn't shoot our way to peace in Iraq and we won't invade our way to control in Iran.

It's time for the most powerful nation on earth to recognize that holding a grudge against Iran, like the Hatfield's and McCoy's in a bad western movie, will not solve the problems of the world.

In fact, I submit it will only inflame tensions. And that is exactly what our policy is today.

I have no illusions. Trying to develop a new and rational Iranian policy will not be easy and will not happen overnight.

But, it will never happen as long as the West thirsts for Iranian oil and threatens Iranian sovereignty.

There are ways to chart a new course. For one, I would go to Iran as part of a Congressional Delegation if there would be meaningful interaction and freedom to meet the Iranian people.

Just as we do now with Japan, Germany, and other countries, I would also like to see a legislative exchange, to bring Iranian government leaders here as well.

It might not sound like much, until you consider what happened last week when the New York Philharmonic played a concert in North Korea. The people wept, with joy, and hope for the future.

Let me close with an assessment that I believe accurately describes where we are today and what should drive us to change.

I am quoting here: "The disturbing rise of fanaticism in the Near East in recent years is a reaction to the thoughtlessness and superficiality of the West…"

I believe there is truth in that statement.

And the truth is it was written in Foreign Affairs magazine in the winter of 1951.

If we refuse to learn the lessons of history, we are doomed to repeat them.

Thank you.
Jim McDermott represents Washington's 7th Congressional District.
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