Stephen Gottlieb: How To Think About Iran

Jul 2, 2019

People simplify countries into good and bad, leading us to bluster about military options, and overlook better ways to get things done.

It seems required that all discussions of Iran begin with statements about lack of trust and the badness of what they are doing. But goodness and badness aren’t genes baked into each country’s DNA. Despite American complaints about Iranian government, Iran waited a year after this country reneged on the multi-national nuclear agreement before acting in conflict with its no-longer application terms. They were not, in this case, untrustworthy.

Much of the Iranian population is very westernized. Despite some of the leadership’s language, Iran is not a country of America haters, or nearly as authoritarian as much of the Middle East. Iranians have been voting for decades except when our country dislodged their democratically selected leader and substituted the Shah. Iranians don’t have as much power as they want but they have a great deal more than most of the people of the region. Until the current occupant of the White House took over, they pushed their leadership in our direction.

We’d benefit from thinking about the Middle East and Iran differently. Iraq and Iran fought a war that cost at least half a million lives, with two or three times that many casualties. American defeat of Iraq removed any Iraqi threat to Iran and made Iran more powerful, which many here regret.

But also, Israel and Iran were cooperating before the U.S.-Iraq wars. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and Iraq was their common enemy. So after we defeated Iraq, Iran and Israel saw each other as the most dangerous countries in the region, leaving Iran facing Israel and Saudi Arabia in the new Middle East.

Saudis aren’t angels. They’re decades behind Iran in their treatment of women and have caused us much more trouble. Saudi support for militant Wahhabi Islam brought 9/11 about, produced Osama bin Ladan, al Qaeda and led to the war in Afghanistan, and Saudi Wahhabi schools are radicalizing the Islamic world. Our alliance with Saudi Arabia has been very costly.

So assuming we suffer the pain and cost of defeating Iran, which countries would drive the new Middle East: Israel, Saudi Arabia or Turkey? The longstanding working relationships between Iran and Turkey have helped stabilize both. Turkey is now playing East and West against each other. It seeks entry into the EU while becoming increasingly authoritarian. If Iran were defeated, would Turkey draw closer to the west, to Sunni Islamic countries or would Turkey be more vulnerable to the Russian bear? The answer isn’t obvious. A defeated Iran would be in chaos, and the risks that could pose to all countries in the area as well as ourselves could be very severe. In other words, war is not an independent decision without understanding or controlling the aftermath.

Defeating Iran may only solidify our reputation as the world’s most warlike country. Plus, demonizing Iran is diverting us from China’s threat to the security of other countries in the Far East. If those countries lose confidence in American support, the world balance of power could change in an instant. How to make America puny again.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

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