Obama’s Iran overture

U.S. president’s message of peace needs work

You have to admire Barack Obama’s attempt to reopen the lines of communication with Iran — but you don’t have to admire it much. Iran’s real leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was certainly not impressed: “Our nation cannot be talked to like this. In the same congratulatory message they [the Obama administration] accuse the Iranian nation of supporting terrorism pursuing nuclear arms and such things. What has changed?”

Not much it would seem. Amidst all the soft soap about the wonders of Iranian culture that took up most of President Obama’s message to Iranians last week what stood out was his remark that while Iran should take its “rightful place in the community of nations… that place cannot be reached through terror or arms.” The measure of Iran’s greatness he added is not “the capacity to destroy.”

This is a subtler re-statement of the same accusations that the Bush administration has been making for years: that Iran supports terrorism by providing arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories and that it is secretly working on nuclear weapons. To Iranian ears he sounds like George W. Bush with better manners.

This is a pity because he is more than that. He has dropped the Bush policy of threatening to attack Iran (“all options are on the table”) at least so long as his administration is committed to the current track of diplomacy. He has also effectively blocked an Israeli attack since Israel would not do that without Washington’s permission. The world is already a safer place.

Most Iranians do not accept these accusations as legitimate however and they are sick of hearing them. So forget for a moment the almost universal assumption in the western media that they are true and consider the evidence.

Iran certainly does supply weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas both of which are defined by the U.S. State Department as “terrorist organizations.” But then the U.S. State Department also defined Nelson Mandela as a terrorist for his support of armed confrontation with apartheid — yet it mysteriously failed to call Ronald Reagan a terrorist when he armed the Contras against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

Hamas and Hezbollah are deeply unattractive organizations but then so are most other nationalist movements fighting foreign occupation. In the former British empire alone Irgun in Israel Mau Mau in Kenya EOKA in Cyprus and the IRA in Northern Ireland all employed brutal terrorism in their struggles — but their leaders all ended up having tea with the Queen. And Yasser Arafat of the PLO ended up on the White House lawn shaking hands with Yitzhak Rabin.

As the political leader of Hamas Khaled Meshaal said in response to Barack Obama’s speech official U.S. contact with his movement is only “a matter of time.” In fact the diplomatic feelers are already out although it will be some time before Washington admits it.

In 2006 Hamas won the only really free and fair election ever held by the Palestinians and today it governs a well-defined tract of territory (albeit one under permanent siege by Israel) — the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah has seats in the Lebanese parliament and is part of the country’s “National Unity” government. Supporting them puts Iran in direct opposition to current U.S. policy but it does not make it a “terrorist” state.

As for the nuclear weapons allegations who knows? Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which Iran has signed member states may develop the full nuclear fuel cycle. Indeed they can even get help from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) so long as they accept close inspection to ensure that they do not enrich the nuclear fuel from 20 per cent pure (good enough for reactors) to 90 per cent pure (“weapons-grade”).

Iran has basically abided by these rules but the major western powers distrust its intentions. That’s why they moved the case from the IAEA to the United Nations Security Council a political body that can just declare Iran a threat to the peace and demand that it stop doing what the NPT says it is free to do provided the safeguards are observed: enriching nuclear fuel.

Given all the excited talk you’d think there must be some proof of Iran’s alleged plan to make nuclear weapons but in fact there is none. Indeed a National Intelligence Estimate issued in November 2007 by the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies stated flatly that Iran was not currently pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

In a more recent assessment earlier this month Dennis Blair U.S. director of national intelligence told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: “Although we do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons we assess Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop them.” That is a fair assessment of the reality — and it is perfectly legal for Iran to keep its options open in that way.

Iran is not a rogue state. It is an unusual country partly democratic but ultimately under the rule of religious leaders whose world view is very different from that of most other people. This does not mean that they are “mad mullahs” or bent on national suicide via nuclear war. Obama is right to try to restart a conversation that has been suspended for far too long but he needs to back up and start again.

Gwynne Dyers new book Climate Wars was published recently in Canada by Random House. Dyer will present his free lecture Never Waste a Crisis: Can Obama Change the Game? at the Fine Arts & Multi Media Centre in the TransCananda Theatre Olds College at 3 p.m. on April 1. Visit www.oldscollege.ca or call 1-800-661-6537 for more information.