10 April 2001

Make Peace with Iran?

There will be peace in the Middle East. The only question is how many people will be left there to enjoy it. In the current period of escalating violence, some 10 Palestinians are killed for every one Israeli. Given that there are approximately 2.9 million Palestinians and 5.8 million Israelis, one might expect that the Israelis would view the current situation as being more sustainable than would the Palestinians. But the Palestinians believe they are winning the propaganda war, despite the cruel logic of attrition. For their part, the Israelis worry that the Palestinians are right.

Americans cannot control Israeli or Palestinian foreign policy. But we can control our own, which may be the key to turning around not just the situation in the Middle East, but in the world at large. It is time for Americans to consider making overtures for a general lowering of tensions between Western Liberal Democracies and Islam. And I think the place to start is Iran.

In the late 1970's the late Ayatollah Khomeini led a revolution that overthrew the Iranian head of state, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. For the Shah had been a modernizer, and had sought to drag his monarchy into the 20th century by repressing all opposition. Both his modernity and his repression made him into an enemy of the majority of his people.

Eventually the Shah sought refuge in the United States, where he received unsuccessful treatment for cancer. The Shah had maintained friendly relations with the US, which with other Western nations had helped him come to power in his youth, and had helped maintain him as head of state even when the will of his people had begun to turn against him, because they saw him as an ally in an otherwise hostile region.

However, while the Shah was in the US, a group of students, with the support of, if not instigated by, the new Iranian government, stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took its employees hostage. They were held hostage for about two years, if memory serves me correctly, until US President Carter was succeeded by President Reagan.

Subsequent to that, Iran and Iraq went to war with each other. Iraq, being the smaller country and fearing defeat, began manufacturing chemical weapons and using them against the Iranians. The Iranians first declared chemical weapons to be "un-Islamic," and sought to shame the Iraqis into ceasing to use them. However, the Iraqis were and still are led by Saddam Hussein, a man incapable of experiencing shame, as far as anyone now living knows. Eventually Iran retaliated in kind, with chemical weapons of its own.

If the US, despite its enmity with Iran over the recent hostage taking, and Iran's enmity with the US over sheltering a despot, had done the Christian thing, and intervened to prevent even its enemy from being the target of chemical weapons, the world might now be a better place. The Persian Gulf war would not have happened, weapons of mass destruction would not be in the arsenals of several Islamic nations, and relations between the US and the Islamic world would not be so chilly. More to the point, Iranian propaganda could not have been so successful at painting the United States as "the Great Satan."
That is the opportunity we missed, and perhaps it is time for the US to apologize for it. We might also apologize for having helped to maintain the Shah in power far longer than his people wished. And we should formally recognize Iran as what it claims to be: an Islamic Republic.

What we stand to gain is improved relations with a country that is considered to be a supporter of terrorism and a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction. As part of improved relations, we can expect both activities to be curtailed. We can also expect that improved relations with Iran would undermine the position of Iraq in the Islamic world, because it would help the US defuse the prevalent Islamic propaganda that the US is a bully. Moreover, the improved relations would enable the US to actually become less of a bully, because an Iraq supported even less by its Islamic brethren is less of a threat if the US begins loosening economic restrictions that Saddam Hussein uses to harm Iraq's population.

Improved relations with Iran and other Islamic countries could even facilitate the Middle East peace process between the Palestinian Arabs and Israel. If Islamic hatred and distrust of the West could be ameliorated, then perhaps hatred of Israel as the West's toehold in the Middle East could be ameliorated as well. Perhaps as the mantle of legitimacy is extended to Iran's Islamic Republic, we can make the case for the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish Republic.

Now understand that while I oppose Fundamentalism, I favor majority rule. Thus, if the majority of the people in a country are Fundamentalist and want to operate their government as a republic with an establishment of their Fundamentalist religion, I consider it necessary to support their choice, even though I think it is wrong. And Fundamentalists in the United States can take no comfort from that, because to make a religion the "State Religion" here would require a Constitutional Amendment, which would require approval of two-thirds of Congress, and the legislatures of two-thirds of the States.

In any event, improved global relations with Islamic nations will be good for the balance of power the United States needs to maintain with some of the other Great Powers, most notably Russia and China. Perhaps I'm overly idealistic here, but what do we have to lose by giving it a try?