Report From Iran: Should We Really Bomb These People?
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I'm in Shiraz, on the way to Esfahan.
It's good to get out of gray, smoggy Tehran, one of the least photogenic cities in the world, where black is the new black, from the hejabs on down.
One of the attractions of Shiraz is the tomb of Hafez, a Persian poet from the 14th century. It's thronged at night. Iranians bring flowers, then stand or kneel beside the sarcophagus and recite his poems. My personal reaction is, this is how writers should always be treated.
Iranians are among the most gracious and hospitable people I've ever met.
The question, of course, is whether we should bomb these people?
In America today, we tend to see things in Manichaean terms. That is, we divide things into absolute opposites, light and dark, good and evil, us and them.
We could, if we went back far enough, blame that on them. The word Manichaean refers to the Persian prophet Mani (from around 250 AD). The whole notion of good and evil, with man in the middle, having to make a choice, then rewarded and condemned in an afterlife, goes back to an even earlier Persian prophet, Zoroaster, from around 1,000 BC. Those ideas entered Judaism during the Babylonian exile and the liberation of the Jews by Cyrus the Great of Persia, and from there into Christianity.
There are still Zoroastrians and Jews in modern-day Persia, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
These are people with a rich and varied history. A very humanistic history.
The question is, why should we bomb these people?
The answer is that they are part of the Axis of Evil!
Iranians are somewhat confused by that designation.
The United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, by a ragged group of conspirators called Al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, headquartered in Afghanistan, where they were protected and nurtured by the Taliban. The Taliban were, and are, fanatical, fundamentalist Sunnis. They're the ones who put women in burkhas, those full-body coverings and veils; required men to be bearded; and banned all music, television, movies, photographs, statues, stuffed animals and dolls.
The Taliban came to power in 1996. They were supported by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
They were opposed by the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance was supported by Russia, India and, most of all, by Iran.
The United States was neutral from 1996 to 2001. After 9/11, we demanded that Afghanistan's Taliban government hand over Osama bin Laden. When it refused, we entered the war, primarily with air power, in support of the Northern Alliance. As Ray Takeyh wrote in Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic :
American links with the Northern Alliance were fragmentary ... Afghan opposition groups [were] suspicious of the United States. Tehran's mediation proved essential ... Iran also provided intelligence ... agreed to rescue American pilots ... allowed some 165,000 tons of U.S. food aid to traverse its territory ... [after the fighting] Iran was instrumental in crafting the interim Afghan government.
Iran's president Khatami said, "Afghanistan provides the two regimes [the United States and Iran] with a perfect opportunity to improve relations."
The Bush administration embraced the people who had given the Taliban and Al Qaeda safe haven (Pakistan) and money (Saudi Arabia and the Emirates) and declared Iran, who aided us in our war against the Taliban, as part of the Axis of Evil.
The question is, shouldn't we bomb them because, in addition to being one of the two remaining parts of the Axis of Evil, they are part of the Islamo-Fascist Alliance to rule the world?
We moved on from the pleasures of Shiraz, to Esfahan which is a treasure. A miracle.
In the 16th century, when Shah Abbas I made it the capital of the Safavid dynasty, it was probably the greatest city in the world. It has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, along with the Great Wall of China, the Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal, and the historic center of St. Petersburg.
There, we connected with a group of 20- and 30-something Iranians, all of whom spoke excellent English, and went out to dinner with them. They were students, medical professionals, and small-business people, four men and three women. Because we were in public, the women wore the required headscarves but managed to make them fashion accessories. They constantly adjusted them with graceful gestures that drew attention to their beauty and femininity. It is worth pointing out that while women in Iran are not as free as in America or Western Europe, they have more freedom and participate more fully in public life than in the rest of the Islamic World.
The conversation was lively and fluid and touched on politics, world affairs, the regime, America, religion and even disbelief.
In the first ten minutes of almost any conversation with an Iranian, he or she will point out that they are not Arabs, they're Persians. They may even say that they don't like Arabs, or, more emphatically, "I hate f**king Arabs."
They liked Americans. They didn't like the regime. They didn't think they could do anything about the current government.
The question is, shouldn't we bomb them to help good people like that? Won't bombing them make them blame their leaders for forcing us to attack them, so they will rise up and change the regime?
A lot of people dislike the regime. And with good cause.
At times it seemed that this was a country where everybody went to prison. Everyone who thought, wrote, had opinions, was political, who had property that could be taken -- save for fervent supporters of the regime -- had gone to prison. Or worse, been tortured and executed.
People who had lovers and who danced, possessed illegal music, stood up for academic freedom, and were members of minority religions or clergy who didn't support Khomenie's radical re-interpretation of Shia'a Islam, were arrested, harassed, beaten, and thrown out of windows, and lost their jobs and careers, and went to prison. The country also has inflation, unemployment, underemployment and low wages. Heroin addiction is widespread and growing. Opium use is routine, even, according to gossip on the street, in the highest levels of government. Corruption is rampant and everyone knows it.
However, even their opponents gave the regime credit for certain things. Making Iran self-sufficient. Keeping a country of Persians, Kurds, Turkomans, Azerbaijanis, Pashtuns and Arabs together in spite of the centripetal forces of ethnic and tribal loyalties. It's a safe place. There's very little street crime. There are no car bombings. No terrorist incidents. No kidnappings.
An underlying thread became clear through all these conversations. The number one hot-button political issue in Iran is standing up to foreign powers. Their history, since Alexander the Great invaded and burned Persepolis, is one of being invaded, threatened, exploited and subverted by outsiders. As for the 20th century, the British exploited their natural resources, then the United States overthrew their democracy and put a compliant king in charge, and as soon as he was deposed, they were invaded by Saddam Hussein. He received support from America and other Western nations. That war lasted eight years, and Iran had somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million casualties.
The notion that bombing Iran will make the people overthrow the Supreme Leader and the Council of Guardians makes as much sense as imagining that a new 9/11 will make the American people thank Al Qaeda for their inspiration, then rise up and overthrow our president and senate with a government more receptive to Islamic ways.
There is one real argument. It is that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, it will use them. Specifically on Israel.
Iran is, ultimately, ruled by the Supreme Leader. He is deemed to be infallible. In 2003 he issued a fatwa, a ruling of holy law, against the development and use of nuclear weapons. This is when, according to the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, Iran stopped such developments.
Iran claims it only wants nuclear energy. Countries that produce nuclear energy include Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, South Africa, Czech Republic, Mexico and Brazil. At least 56 countries have nuclear research reactors.
So the argument goes back to intentions. That Iran is more dangerous than Russia, more of an enemy than China, more unstable than Pakistan, more warlike than Israel, and more likely to have aggressive leaders who will launch a pre-emptive war than the United States.
If they had nuclear weapons and used them, especially if they used them aggressively, as a first strike, then Israel and the United States would retaliate with far more force and effectively destroy Iran. What we are likely to have in reality is the sort of mutual stand-off we had with the Soviet Union for 50 years.
In addition to Esfahan's astonishing beauty, its historical value, its vibrant culture, arts and crafts, it is home to a nuclear research reactor and it's where uranium is processed toward producing nuclear fuel.
If Iran is bombed, Esfahan will undoubtedly be a target. One of hundreds. Those lovely people that I had dinner with will likely die. If not them, their parents, children, brothers and sisters. The student of English who sat and talked to me about Hafez for two hours. The man who makes the hand-printed table clothes in the bazaar. The mason working on the reconstruction of the great mosque.
I like to think that America can somehow overcome what's happened these last seven years. The unprovoked invasion of another country, the embrace of torture, the assault on civil liberties, the looting of our own economy, the failure to rescue the people of New Orleans and to rebuild it. Somehow.
But bombing Iran because it postures and provokes on the world stage will be a disaster that we won't live down. We might try to say it's something that our leaders did, we had no part in it, we could not stop them. If that's true, and it may be true, that's sadder still.