Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category

Originally published in Harvard’s Nieman Watchdog

By Haviland Smith

It’s difficult not to notice that there is a growing crescendo here at home which appears to be encouraging the United States to attack Iran.  Backers of this campaign, at least until recently, have been limited to the Neoconservatives who would like us to invade everywhere and who got us into the Iraq invasion, parts of the Israeli government, and those American supporters of Israel who never question anything the Israelis do.

However, to the amazement of many who do follow this kind of story, the game changed late last year with an article in “Foreign Affairs” which purported to explain “Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option”.  And this from one of the most venerated, serious, foreign policy publications in the world!

So, what’s wrong with this notion of attacking Iran?  Perhaps it’s best to look at it strictly in terms of American national interests, because that is what US foreign policy is supposed to reflect, particularly in matters of war.

Even if Iran is actually in the process of developing a nuclear weapon, which, incidentally, they and the International Atomic Energy Agency both say they are not, how does that represent an existential threat to the United States?  The Iranians do not have the required rocketry to deliver it here.  Even if they did, the decision to do so would involve Iranian acceptance of the fact that the inevitable retaliatory strike would destroy most of Iran.  If you are among that group of Americans who think of the Iranians as ignorant ragheads, think again.  These are educated, intelligent, sophisticated people.  They may be annoying, but they are anything but suicidal.

Furthermore, irrespective of the exhortations of the current Israeli Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, the same is true for Israel, since Israel’s nuclear arsenal and delivery systems leave little to be desired in terms of their effectiveness.  Retaliation, either from Israel or the US, for a strike on Israel would essentially eliminate Iran and the Iranians know it.  Nothing we have learned since the Cold War has invalidated George Kennan’s “containment policy”.

The value of nuclear weapons in foreign policy remains valid only as long as those weapons are not used.  Once used, once the damage is done, they are irrelevant.  No one can say precisely what is likely to happen if we or the Israelis are somehow stupid enough to try a preemptive attack on Iran, but it is worth looking at the possibilities.

Iran presides over the 34-mile-wide straights of Hormuz and probably can shut them down for long enough to create economic chaos in the rest of the world.  Where the Iranians are not stupid enough to initiate nuclear war, they most certainly would retaliate conventionally against an attack on their own country.  Such an attack, originating from the West or Israel probably represents the only thing that could unite the Iranian people behind the Ayatollahs.  Shipping through the Straights carries 20% of the world’s crude oil.  Its denial to worldwide markets, particularly in these times of economic stress, would be catastrophic. How does gasoline in the range of $15-20 a gallon appeal?

Iran is the 18th largest country in the world.  It has a population that exceeds 77 million, a standing army of over 500,000 backed by an active reserve of over 600,000.  The military is well-equipped and well-trained.

Iran has Shiite connections throughout the Middle East.  They constitute 36.3% of entire regional population and 38.6% of the regional Muslim population.  The Shiite majority countries are Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, homeport of the US Fifth Fleet.  Shiite Muslims constitute significant portions (20% or more) of the population in Lebanon, Yemen, Kuwait, Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Through these Shiites, Iran has the potential to cause all kinds of trouble for us and our interests in the Middle East, most emphatically including our naval assets and troops in the region.  Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Mahdi army in Iraq and the Shiite majority in Bahrain represent only a partial list of the troubles Iran can cause us through the Shiite populations of the region.

Unless the US has some unknown, magical weapon to deploy against Iran that will prevent Iranian retaliation after a raid on their nuclear sites, it would appear that we suffer from a real tactical disadvantage in the Middle East when it comes to planning an attack on Iran.  Unfortunately for us and the rest of the world, that tactical disadvantage has almost limitless potential to morph into a strategic, worldwide, economic disaster.

An attack on Iran is a really bad bet, whether initiated by us or by the Israelis.

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[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

The Soviet Union joined the “nuclear club” in 1949. From that point until the demise of the Soviet Union some 40 years later, America and the Soviets, at the height of their international rivalry, managed to avoid nuclear annihilation.

During the Cold War, the U.S. policy used to counter Soviet geographic expansionism was called containment. It was our policy to “contain” the Soviet Union within the boundaries of what later became the Warsaw Pact nations.

Part of that containment policy was called MAD. They had the bomb, we had the bomb. Each side knew that if it used its bomb, it would be annihilated in retribution — mutual assured destruction. As power-hungry, brutal and paranoid as the Soviet leadership was, they were not suicidal, and MAD probably saved the planet from nuclear devastation.

What, then, makes Iran such a different problem? We coped successfully with a far more dangerous situation with the Soviet Union for four decades. It really did have the military wherewithal to be an existential threat.

An effort has been made to portray Iran as an existential threat to the United States. How can that be when it has no bomb today and, even if it did, has no way to deliver it to the United States? One day we are told that Iran has given up its nuclear weapons development program. Then, days later, we are told that it is going full-tilt. What is the truth and why does it matter?

In the interest of a real examination of the subject, let’s stipulate that Iran is developing the bomb. In fact, in that dangerous part of the world, given the historical animosities between Iranians and Arabs and Shia and Sunnis, and under constant threat of military action from the United States and Israel, it is not hard to understand why the Iranians would want it. With the bomb already in the hands of neighbors Pakistan, India and China, they have even more motivation.

So, they are going ahead with the bomb. Why are they doing that? They are doing that because having a bomb is the ultimate lever of power, and staying in power is what today’s Iran is all about. Whether it is the ayatollahs, the Revolutionary Guard or the current political leadership, their obsessive aim is to maintain their grip on power. Given the hostile realities of their neighborhood, they correctly see the bomb as a critical component in that quest.

At 77 percent, Iranians are highly literate. They have a long and distinguished history. They know who they are, and they believe they should have more influence in their neighborhood than has been granted them since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979. But remember, they are not suicidal.

Iran was a player in the Cold War and understands how the West dealt with the Soviet threat. The Iranians understand MAD. They know that if they were to acquire the bomb, any use they might make of it — say, against Israel or some other American friend in the region — would result in the obliteration of their country.

In short, like all other members of the nuclear club, they know that the bomb is useful only as a threat. It is essentially useless as a weapon because its use leads inevitably to annihilation.

That is the knowledge that makes MAD feasible: Iran is a nation run by intelligent people who do not want to lose power, but who also do not want to be destroyed. Having the bomb is one thing, using it is another.

This is precisely the kind of situation that is made to order for a successful containment policy in which the salient feature is mutual assured destruction. The difference is that in the case of Iran, there is no “mutual.” We have all the hardware on our side and even if Iran chose to do so, which is highly unlikely, it would take it endless decades to get to the point where it could even effectively challenge, let alone destroy, us.

Finally, Iran knows full well that any unprovoked attack against Israel would amount to an attack against us, with all its horrendous consequences for Iran.

There simply is no reason for us to attack Iran and endless reasons, like our vulnerable presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, for us not to.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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Getting Iran to unite means U.S. standing up

[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

It appears that violence has reached a new high in the struggle between the Iranian people and their “Islamic Republic of Iran”. Just about any time an opportunity presents itself, anti-government forces take to the streets. Recently protestors have burned police cars, police stations and other government installations and, whenever they could, terrorized the police and militias.

The tough call here is whether or not these protests and demonstrations represent a viable threat to the Iranian government. Will there be a general uprising, and, if so, will it end with the successful overthrow of the government?

During the evolution of the Islamic Republic of Iran over the past 30 years one fact has become crystal clear: The primary purpose of that evolving system is to keep itself in power.

To that end it is estimated that Iran has over 800,000 personnel on active duty; 650,000 in the Army, 100,000 in the Air Force and 70,000 in the Navy. The Revolutionary Guards add an additional 100,000, including their own militia, the Basij. With reservists added in, it is conservatively estimated that Iran can field a military establishment of over one million people. US General John Abizaid called Iran the Middle East’s most powerful military establishment.

This military establishment, coupled with a police force of over 200,000, is perfectly capable of maintaining the current order in Iran, as long as its members do not break ranks and go over to the dissidents, which there is no present indication they would do.

In addition to all this military and police power, the Revolutionary Guards are heavily involved in the country’s economic life, controlling up to one third of the Iranian economy through businesses they own and thus increasing their power over the people.

There are two issues involved here: the ability of the regime to maintain its power and the ability of the military and paramilitary establishments to deal with external threats. They do not appear to be unable to cope with any such local or regional problems.

There is much discontent within Iran, but Iran has a government dedicated to maintaining itself in power, as well as the tools to do so. Iranians do not seek western style freedoms or freedom from their theocracy. They seek simply an improvement in their lives. Iran has a totally home-grown government which, however much disliked by large portions of the population, stems from a common religious commitment to the Shia branch of Islam.

Can external involvement change Iran? As much as the Iranian in the street may like individual Americans, hardly any of today’s residents think of the United States as anything but the enemy. We are, after all, the country that in 1952, took down the only representative government that was ever democratically elected in Iran, replaced it with a despotic Shah and kept him in power for 27 years. Most of the Iranians who liked us up until their 1979 Islamic revolution now live in the west, so there is precious little support for U.S. involvement in internal Iranian affairs. For us to do it and get caught, which we usually are, would be the final kiss of death for America in Iran.

Add to this the fact that the first Bush administration called for a revolt in Iraq after the First Gulf War in 1991 and then offered absolutely no assistance of any kind. When this ended in tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths, the U.S. government was pretty well written off in the region as offering anything positive under such circumstances. So, if there is to be any external support for today’s Iranian dissidents, it will have to come from somewhere other than the United States.

Finally, however much Iranians may like individual Americans, their view of American policy toward Iran and the greater Middle East is quite different. Where they don’t hate American or what it stands for, they absolutely do hate what America does. They hate our policies in Iran and the region.

In that context, any indication whatsoever that America is meddling in internal Iranian affairs or actually planning to attack Iran, whether over nuclear weapons or simply for another round of regime change, will overnight do away with this current discontent with its marches and anti-government slogans. Like it or not, American bellicosity is probably the only thing that is capable of uniting Iranians behind their present government.

Absent such American involvement, there is a high likelihood that the protests in Iran will continue. Where such continued protests are highly unlikely to unseat the present regime, they may result in positive changes in Iranian economic conditions, a fact that might well calm Iranian unrest.

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Why Iran wants the bomb

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

The United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. That simple act effectively ended the Second World War. It also set off a race for other countries to develop their own nuclear weapons.

France undertook its successful nuclear weapons program at the insistence of Charles de Gaulle who was preoccupied with France’s strategic independence. England, after an initial unilateral start, has largely developed its capability jointly with the U.S. The Soviet Union was the first country to develop a program (based on espionage) designed to establish a balance of power in the Cold War. China’s device was developed as a deterrent to both US and Soviet power.

Later members of the Nuclear Club began to show a change in the rationale for developing those weapons. India was interested in a deterrent, but also sought nuclear weapons to project power in their region. Pakistan’s motivation was more traditional – they needed a deterrent against their Indian enemy, but then later sold their technology to others.

North Korea’s motivation is really difficult to judge, but it is probably safe to say that is partly their perceived need for a deterrent against the US, possibly projection of power and possibly a commercial enterprise, as they are said to be helping with the development of a weapons program in Myanmar.

Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons program, given the realities of the region in which they live, is most likely designed to give them equivalent power against an array of populous, non-nuclear countries who, they believe, wish them ill. Syria, if it truly has a program, and any other Middle East state that might want such a program, is logically looking for a counterbalance to the Israeli arsenal.

The same may well be true of Iran, however, given what has happened in the region over the last 7-8 years, they are almost certainly interested in the nuclear capability in the context of their projection of regional power.

With its military activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has severely curtailed if not eliminated Iran’s two major competitors, Iraq and the Taliban, for regional influence and Gulf hegemony. A nuclear weapon is most logically a further attempt by Iran, a country acutely aware of its long and rich history, to reestablish preeminence in its region.

It seems that many countries want nuclear weapons. Does the possession of those weapons automatically enhance either the power or the security of anyone? Probably not.

Not one such weapon has been used in anger since we dropped our bombs on Japan in 1945. Yet, despite that fact, the bomb still seems to symbolize power.

In fact, the bomb is useful and powerful only as long as it is not used, and everyone on this planet knows it.

The Cold War nuclear powers already know that fact. Powers that have acquired it more recently are learning fast. They know that just about every country in the world that matters is implicitly under the nuclear protection of one of the current members of the Club. They know that if they were to drop one of their weapons on a friend of Russia, China or the US, they would seriously run the risk of being incinerated.

Even if Israel did not have nuclear weapons of its own, would Iran, above all a country of intelligent and rational people, despite what one might think of Ahmadinejad, use a nuclear weapon against Israel knowing that it would result in the virtual end of their own country either at Israel’s hand or ours? Not hardly!

No, the Iranians want the bomb simply because having it, as opposed to using it, is power incarnate. They almost certainly believe that the bomb will bring them the respect they feel is due them as a power in the region. In that context they have everything else they need to gain that respect and influence. There are 66 million of them. Iran is third in the world in proven oil reserves. Iranians are 77 percent literate. 73 percent of them are between the ages 15-65 and the median age is 27. They have thrived in an unfriendly environment for over 5,000 years. That’s a pretty good power base.

The only existential threat posed by nuclear weaponry in today’s world is the possibility of itc s falling into terrorist hands. Nevertheless, the difficulties of acquiring, handling, delivering and detonating such a weapon are overwhelming and probably well beyond the capabilities of today’s terrorist organizations.

That may well change in the future and could be complicated by major changes in Pakistan, but our defensive capabilities will grow commensurately with them. For now, however, there appears to be little objective reason for us to attack anyone simply because they have or are anticipated to have a nuclear weapon.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in the Valley News.]

More and more today the media are reporting on the likelihood of a U.S. attack on Iran. As impossibly foolhardy as such an attack might seem, the drums of war are increasingly heard.

During the 1930s, Winston Churchill was the only prominent politician in England who spoke out against German rearmament and Hitler’s increasing belligerence. A bust of Winston Churchill adorns the Oval Office. President Bush sees himself as modern-day Churchill, waging an unpopular war in Iraq for which he will be elevated to great heights by future historians. Like Churchill, he has to keep the fight going, because he knows he is right and time will prove it. He will be a hero to future generations.

Apparently the White House staff takes every opportunity to reinforce the Churchill analogy. Supportive White House visitors are encouraged to participate in this reinforcement.  They are supporting Bush’s basic position on Iraq: The United States must remain engaged in Iraq. Everything depends on it:  the success of the “war on terror,” the democratization of the Middle East, the safety of America from terrorism, even the peace and well being of the world.

This hoped-for Bush legacy of success in Iraq and the greater Middle East is gravely threatened by the likelihood of the election of a Democratic president in 2008, which would likely result in a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. How can the president keep the United States involved and his dreams alive? The president has to make sure that America can’t withdraw from Iraq.

Perhaps the only way to do that is to get the United States into a conflict with Iran. Support for such a war today lies primarily with Israel, with Israel’s more conservative American political and religious supporters and with the neo-cons.

There are some pretty good indications that a strike against Iran might be on Bush’s mind. First and foremost is the transfer of the “Churchill syndrome” to Iran. If he keeps Iran from going nuclear, he believes, he will be revered by future generations. Besides, he has promised he would do so.

The general military, economic and political consensus is that such an attack would be a disaster not only for Iran and the United States, but also for the world in general. Forget the misery Iran could cause US troops in Iraq and our Navy in the restricted confines of the Gulf. More significantly, a glance at any map will show that Iran can easily shut down all oil shipments through the Gulf—more than a fourth of world production. That would certainly bring worldwide economic chaos.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was not nominated for a second term. It was said he would be vulnerable to a hostile pack of Democratic senators in the confirmation hearings. Perhaps, but he is on the record as having said that the United States has zero intent to attack Iran and for being opposed to any such plan.

His chosen replacement is Admiral Mike Mullin, a choice that had to be approved, if not made, by the president. Admiral Mullin has said, “Do some work on where they are, who’s trying to get nukes, who’s trying to get chemical, biological weapons, and this, some of us may have put this in the too-hard category before. We can’t afford to do that now. We have got to address this.”

Although this falls far short of a declaration of war on Iran, it certainly heading in that direction.

The U.S. Navy brass thinks it has been shortchanged in the conduct of the Iraq war and desperately wants a chance to show its stuff. In addition, the Navy has a battle plan for a missile attack on Iran. When Admiral William J. Fallon was appointed last winter to lead United States Central Command in the Middle East, analysts noted that the choice of a Navy officer reflected “a greater emphasis on countering Iranian power—a mission that relies heavily on naval forces and combat airpower to project American influence in the Persian Gulf.” These appointments don’t happen by chance.

It seems inconceivable that even such a bellicose president as Bush—a lame duck president with miserable popularity ratings—might undertake an attack on Iran prior to the 2008 presidential election. To do so would certainly seal not only the fate of the Republican candidate, but would be equally likely to doom the Republican Party to political oblivion for some time to come.

It seems far more likely that if Iran is to be attacked, it will be between the November elections and the investiture of Bush’s successor. The president has direct command authority over the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a chain of command that would effectively circumvent a reluctant or obstructionist Secretary of Defense Gates.

Finally, the designation of the Iranian Quds force as a terrorist organization and recent incidents involving Iranians in Iraq could well be the beginning of provocations against Iran designed to create a climate more favorable for an attack.

The stars are aligning. Should the president decide to attack, there would seem to be no way to stop it.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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Iran is not the enemy

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald.]

In Mid-June, the BBC reported that 57 Iranian economists, including many university economics professors, had strongly criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his “unscientific” economic policies, which have negatively impacted Iran. Implicit in their denunciation is the premise that the allocation of resources (read oil) to the nuclear program is having a major negative effect on Iranians, particularly those “of modest means.”

Americans may be surprised. In what they view as a tightly controlled country like Iran, would anyone be sufficiently foolhardy to speak up in this manner? Won’t such outspokenness against the country’s president end in disaster for the protesters?
Iran is a country with more than its share of thoughtful, pragmatic, independent, educated people. There is a strong intelligentsia with educational and philosophical ties to the West. Iran is not a democracy in our sense of the word, but is it freer than many think.

Additionally, there is room in their system for constructive dissent. When that dissent focuses on the currently deplorable condition of the Iranian economy, including inflation and the rising prices of food and housing, it is not only acceptable, it is powerful. It is powerful because the ayatollahs understand and are a bit anxious about Iran’s tradition of secular government. Iran still holds relatively free elections, and life there is not the model of religious orthodoxy that the ayatollahs would clearly like to see. Sure, they are in power, but there are always those masses out there, and if they are not happy, their power is in danger.

What should be clear from the economists’ tirade is that Iran is not the terrible threat it is often alleged to be. Internal discontent over mismanagement of income from its oil industry, the country’s premier natural resource, brings dissent. Even at its present level, this discontent produces the kind of instability that has to worry the ayatollahs.

If Iran were properly exploiting its oil resources, as well as the income from that sector of the economy, the country would be in far better economic (and political) shape that it now finds itself. With the second-largest proven oil reserves in the world, there should be no problems. However, with only one refinery, Iran doesn’t even produce enough refined oil products for its own internal use. Those products are in short supply and far more expensive than they should be. Yet despite the oil income, there is no capital for a second refinery. Everyone in Iran knows this. These are not stupid people.

The current argument that Iran represents a threat to the United States does not appear to hold much water — probably not much more water than that Iran is an immediate threat to Israel. No, it would appear that, given the realities under which it is now functioning, Iran is vulnerable to just the kind of mischief of which President Bush so often fondly speaks. Our ability to manipulate world finances and deny capital input to Iran is pretty well established. In a world less full of American rhetoric, there should also be room for serious, highly effective sanctions from most of the rest of the world.

What America really should be doing is ratcheting down its hyperbole against Iran. President Bush’s proclivity to “confront the bad guys” does us only harm. His brand of puerile machismo is joyfully and thankfully replayed by the Ahmadinejad government to keep the faithful and not so faithful ginned up and in line. They need a common enemy. What would they do without Bush?

The one thing we don’t need to do is alienate regular Iranians. They are, after all, the ones who are our inadvertent allies in that their pressures on their own government will probably influence Iran to move in directions favorable to us. Anything we can do quietly and surreptitiously to exacerbate the tensions between regular Iranians and their government is in our favor. There is much potential there.

There is currently heavy pressure to take military action. It comes from Israel, some American conservatives, “Christian Zionists,” some neoconservatives (as if they haven’t already made enough of a contribution in getting us into Iraq), and even from Connecticut’s “independent Democratic” Sen. Lieberman (another Iraq hawk). On a more sinister note, al-Qaida through its Web sites and some Russians oligarchs through their Washington lobbyists are trying to influence us to bomb Iran. What we surely do not need is any kind of military action against Iran any time soon. If Iran had already tested an atomic weapon, it might be considered, but today it is absurd. The one immediate result of such action would be to unite regular Iranians (our inadvertent allies) against us, thus removing or at least mitigating whatever hope we might have for effective, internally instigated pressure for change in Iran.

We have time. We just need to use it wisely.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Beirut, Tehran, Berlin and Prague and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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Finding common ground with Iran is key

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald.]

Looking back on our experience with Iraq, it’s clear that the Bush administration decided that the Cold War policies of containment and alliances that kept the USSR and the USA from blowing each other to smithereens were no longer valid. Instead, they decided without public discussion that preemptive unilateralism would be the cornerstone of their foreign policy.

The combination of a Republican administration allied with a Republican-controlled House and Senate, with the pathetic, belly-up acquiescence of the Democrats, gave birth to preemptive unilateralism. Only 9/11 was needed to give us Iraq.

Right now, powerful forces — the neocons, some conservative Republicans and conservative Israelis and their supporters in America — are pushing hard for an attack on Iran in another show of preemptive unilateralism, the same policy that got us into the Iraq mess.

Iran, formerly Persia, has a glorious history going back more than 3,000 years. Iranians are proud of that history and see in it, along with their oil-based economic strength, their right to a far greater Iranian role in the Middle East. Despite the difficulties imposed by their theocratic Muslim mullahs, the Iranians are a proud people who will almost certainly rally behind whatever leaders they have, if attacked by an external enemy. On the other hand, the level of popular support for those mullahs and their policies is very low right now.

Iran is located in an extremely dangerous part of the world. It is surrounded by U.S. troops stationed abroad in the “war on terror.” There are nuclear weapons in Russia, Pakistan, India and Israel. Other than Israel and Turkey, it is the only non-Arab country in the Middle East. In addition, many in the far larger Sunni community revile Iran’s Shia form of Islam and are anxious about Iran’s push for hegemony in the Gulf. It is easy to understand why the Iranians would seek first class self-defense, and it is easy to understand why they are unlikely to attack anyone.

It is probably safe to say that another round of American preemptive unilateralism in Iran would be a replay of Iraq, compounded by a factor of “x.” Not only would the military aspects of an Iran attack be infinitely more difficult and expensive, the political ramifications would most certainly be counterproductive to our aims for that country. In the event of a foreign attack, we would certainly see those anti-theocratic Iranians who represent the best chance for political change in Iran, signing on with the mullahs. In short, an American attack would be likely to unify a currently discontented and politically fragmented country, making our task far more difficult.

The real issue here is whether or not containment and alliances could successfully help America avoid a much more difficult, complicated and bloody war in Iran. Our attitudes around the Iraq adventure have alienated many of our former allies, but we could do much to repair those relationships by eschewing preemptive unilateralism, making our former alliances strong and whole again, and sorting out how to contain a nuclear Iran. That is clearly the way the rest of the world wants to do it.

What do we have to fear from that approach? It worked for the 45 years of the Cold War. Quite apart from the absence of armed conflict, the moderating influences of our allies during the Cold War exerted a positive influence on U.S. policy, as the attitudes of Soviet allies moderated Soviet policies. We certainly could use some moderation in our foreign policy today.

The U.S. overthrow of the only legitimately elected government in Iran’s history, that of Mohammad Mossadeq came in 1954. The Iran hostage crisis of 1979 resulted directly from the events of 1954. What that means is that leadership on both sides is angry and intolerant — a poor basis for rational discourse.

But what most Americans don’t realize is that we have much in common. Neither America nor Iran wants to see Iraq turn into a regional conflict. Neither wants to see a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. Neither wants to see an Iraq dominated by Sunnis. Iran is seriously in need of capital investment, which is something we can provide. All of this could serve as a basis for discussions and for the betterment of the relationship, which might conceivably lead to a peaceful resolution of the problems between us.

For that to happen, both sides will have to identify and recognize their common interests, tone down their bellicose rhetoric and acknowledge the legitimate needs of one another.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe, Iran and Lebanon and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in The Herald of Randolph.]

Iranians know that around 550 BC, they ruled a great empire that ranged from the Central Mediterranean to the Indus River and that their civilization dates back to 4000 BC.  That history of power and preeminence is very much a part of who they are today.  They have a sense of their own history and place in the world.  With all their oil, they are not a ragtag country.

There has long existed a strong rivalry between Persians and Arabs with each seeking to be the preeminent power in the Persian/Arab Gulf. Iraq has brought those ancient rivalries more out in the open, with the Arabs generally supporting the Sunnis and the Persians supporting the Shia, and with both seeking dominance in the Gulf.

Western preoccupation with Iran’s atomic program has resulted so far only in the imposition of minimal sanctions on Iran, but the US-led push to impose further, more stringent sanctions has already resulted in a reaction inside the country.  Fearing such sanctions, Iranians have been buying up foodstuffs and other staples.  This has resulted in a sharp increase in prices which, in turn, has spread to other segments of the economy. Western reporters today describe widespread discontent among the general population.  This has been picked up by students who form today’s Iranian intelligentsia, and that has led to rumblings of discontent with President Ahmadinejad among Iranian lawmakers.

During the last election, Ahmadinejad promised to use oil revenues to end poverty and alleviate unemployment. Instead, Iran is suffering from unemployment and inflation, both estimated at between 10 and 30 percent.  This has brought him under criticism from all quarters.  Even conservative lawmakers are complaining that his nuclear policy and stridently anti-american foreign policy should be put aside in favor of fixing the economy.

At the same time, a bellicose US administration is beefing up US forces in Iraq, moving additional warships into the Gulf, quietly backing anti-Shiite groups in Lebanon, moving Patriot missiles to the region and trumpeting the capture of Iranian agents in the Kurdish area. This aggressiveness has prompted somber press speculation that the president is planning a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.   Many of our retired military officers and military pundits say that such an attack could not wipe out the Iranian nuclear facilities, and that it would only delay the production of a weapon by a few years.  Nevertheless, the Air Force apparently has a final plan for just such an attack.  Given this president’s demonstrated proclivity for secrecy and precipitous action, as well as his disinclination to accept expert opinion, it is difficult not to worry that there is some substance in all these concerns.

So, we have a perfect storm brewing.   Ahmadinejad and the Iranian conservatives needing an American attack to solidify their slipping control over their people and Bush and his aggressive conservatives looking for a fight, perhaps for more or less the same reasons.  An unprovoked Iranian attack on one of our ships in the Gulf could easily set it off.  That would only benefit Iran.

It is clear that if this president orders an attack on Iran for whatever reasons, there will be extremely serious consequences for us, for our former friends and for the few friends we have left in the world.  Remember, virtually every drop of oil coming out of the Gulf, or about 25% of daily world oil production, goes through the narrow, Iranian-controllable Straits of Hormuz.

It is equally clear that there is ferment in Iran and that it represents a real threat to the future of Ahmadinejad, his followers and the Revolutionary Guards that support him.  If we can simply let that discontent ferment and perhaps even exacerbate and accelerate it, concern about Iran’s nuclear weapon and its difficult government may diminish.  If they do not drop their nuclear plans, we are told that it will be another 5 years before they have a bomb.  We have enough time to try everything but the military option.  It is worth taking that chance.

If we attack Iran, it will put an end to the ferment in that country.  All Iranians will unite behind the government. America will lose whatever shred of credibility it may still have in the Middle East, as well as whatever minimal ability we might still have to influence events there in our favor.  If we attack while we are still in Iraq, there is no telling what will happen there.  In short, an American air strike against Iran will have unpredictable consequences and bankrupt us politically, not only in that neighborhood, but also just about everywhere in the world.  A hands-off policy may maintain the conditions needed to bring down the regime.  That should be a no-brainer.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served, inter alia, in Lebanon and Iran and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.  He lives in Williston.

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