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Are Iran and the U.S. ready to bite the bullet?

Omid Memarian, San Francisco Chronicle

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Iranian leaders greatly welcomed the United States' National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program - a report that, contrary to previous Western reports, advises that Iran ended its nuclear weapon program in 2003. While Tehran's government has been portrayed as controlled by religious and ideological fundamentalists, it appears that they have, in fact, taken a very realistic approach. Ahmad Shirzad, former reformist member of the Iranian parliament and one of the critics of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear policy, told me in a phone conversation that Iranian leaders do not want the world to have a picture of them as dangerous. He said, "It also shows, despite the radicals' desire to leave the Non Proliferation Treaty and pursue the North Korean model, which is largely based on intimidation of the international community to achieve their objectives, Iranian leaders have chosen a more realistic and pragmatic path."

In 2005, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fatwa denouncing the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons, claiming that these actions are forbidden by Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire such weapons; hardly anyone in the West paid any attention to the message. He was not only warning the radical elements within the Islamic Republic, who do not hide their desire to have nuclear weapon capabilities, but also assuring the Western world that Iran is not pursuing the development of a nuclear bomb.

Shortly after the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 and captured Baghdad in less than a month, there were serious rumors among Iranians and officials that Iran was the next target. This coincides with the time that NIE claims Iran stopped its nuclear weapon program.

Consequently, Iran offered its "grand bargain" proposal to the United States via the Swiss Embassy in Tehran; topics discussed ranged from Iran's cooperation with Hamas and Hezbollah, to mutual security concerns, to Iran's nuclear program. Americans refused to respond to this unexpected gesture, and Iranians, disconcerted that their collaborative efforts with the United States in Afghanistan in 2001 resulted in, not cooperation as hoped but nomination to the "axis of evil" club in 2002 by President Bush, knew to avoid the one thing that would provoke Americans - a nuclear bomb.

Despite their official rhetoric, the Iranian regime is flexible and pragmatic; it purchased weapons from Tel Aviv and Washington during the war with Iraq in 1980-1998, helped release American hostages in Lebanon in the late 1980s, collaborated with U.S. commanders to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, and welcomed the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Iran's former vice president and ranking cleric under Muhammad Khatami, confirmed the regime's stand in a discussion with me last month during a visit to San Francisco. He explained that Iranian leaders fully understand that to attempt to obtain nuclear weapons, at least at this point in time, is suicide for the regime. Thus there is no desire for a nuclear weapons program that would have irreversible consequences - ending in a bloody war and destruction of the country.

Ironically, Iran has ultimately benefited from the U.S. attacks on the Taliban and Iraq because these efforts have weakened Iran's top two enemies; however, Iran has suffered from the animosity between it and the United States since the Islamic Revolution, which has resulted in the loss of economic development opportunities. As a result, Iran's Arab neighbors are enjoying rapid economic growth, while Iranian leaders are facing economic crises, including unemployment, inflation, lack of foreign investments, and are suffering the consequences of the U.N. sanctions, which are undermining Iran's economy.

The NIE has provided common ground for both sides to address their concerns, rather than serving as a vehicle for a regime-change policy from the United States or an opening for hostile, anti-West rhetoric from Iran. Despite mutual concerns to save face, the first step in effective diplomacy is direct talks toward amiable diplomacy. Iran and the United States have never needed each other as much as now.

In 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, accepted the United Nation's Cease-fire Resolution to stop war with Iraq, describing it as "drinking a chalice of poison," which translates as "biting the bullet," that is, making an extremely difficult decision for the benefit of the nations. Now, the question is: Are both Iran and the United States willing to bite the bullet, and enter negotiations? Why not, if this would lead to a more peaceful Middle East?

Omid Memarian is an Iranian journalist and the recipient of Human Rights Watch's Human Rights Defender award. He will be a Peace Fellow at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism in the fall. His blog can be found at http://omidmemarian.blogspot.com/

:: Article nr. 39735 sent on 02-jan-2008 04:12 ECT


Link: www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/01/01/EDO7U7K3O.DTL

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