WASHINGTON — It’s a new year. Fears of domestic terrorism are everywhere, heightened by anxieties caused by a misfired December airline terrorist attack. The United States is mired in a war in Afghanistan. The Middle East peace process is moribund and hope there is diminishing.
Meanwhile, the White House is weighing how to deal with a recalcitrant Middle Eastern dictatorship that continually threatens the existence of the State of Israel and allegedly has a program to produce weapons of mass destruction.
Playing on these fears, neoconservatives advocate for regime change in that Middle Eastern country through military means, claiming that a “failure” there would create a crisis both for American credibility and security. Images evoking nuclear mushroom clouds are conjured up and repeated obsessively to nervous Americans.
But the year isn’t 2010. It’s 2002. And while that Middle Eastern country was Iraq, the new one is Iran. The arguments of that year laid the groundwork for a destructive American invasion in 2003, one that killed thousands, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, fomented anti-American radicalism, undermined America’s image abroad and ironically empowered Iran by deposing its Iraqi enemy.
So it goes without saying that we must learn the lessons of the past and not let 2010 become another 2002. Because if we do, and if we let the neoconservatives have their way, then 2011 will become a new version of our nightmarish 2003.
Yet there are some key differences between 2010 and 2002 that we should be grateful for. The main one is that we now have a president, who unlike his predecessor, instinctively asks questions first and shoots later.
Also different is the nature of the problem that we confront with Iran. It has been a longstanding supporter of international terrorism. It has also been misleading about its nuclear intentions, confusing the world in a manner similar to other countries like China, India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan when they sought the bomb.
So how should we deal with Iran?
One consistent American response has been to pursue sanctions and diplomatic isolation for the past 30 years. These efforts have harmed the Iranian economy and parts of its military apparatus.
However, these policies have failed to stop the regime’s negative behaviors largely because they have ignored internal Iranian dynamics.
Fortunately, the Obama administration has broken from these stagnant policies and engaged both the regime and the Iranian people. By trying something new, such as reaching out to Iranians during a March speech to commemorate the Iranian festival of Nowruz and by sending his diplomats to talk to the regime in October, President Obama broke failed taboos that had been held for too long.
Predictably, the neoconservative reaction against these moves has been ferocious. Without shame, these critics have given Obama less than one year to demonstrate progress while conveniently ignoring their 30 years of failure.
Tellingly, in their panicky reactions, neoconservatives are already starting to call for military action against Iran. Some, like Alan Kuperman, who called for American military air strikes against Iran in his Dec. 23 New York Times piece, portray this as an action without real consequence.
In fact, our military leaders, such as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, have repeatedly stated that the opposite is true. An attack would not only be counterproductive militarily, it would also give the regime exactly what it wants, helping to unite the Iranian people behind it and against an American aggressor while undermining international pressure against it.
Let’s not be fooled again by these neoconservatives. These are the same folks who in 2002 brought you fantasies of success in Iraq through military action. Yet they’re incredibly peddling the same dangerous potion in 2010 on Iran.
So what should we do about Iran?
Unlike how the neoconservatives would have you believe, there really is no magic bullet answer to this complicated question. What is clear is that we should explore all possible nonmilitary methods, such as increasing smart sanctions (not the broad ones that will hurt Iranian civilians), identifying subtle ways to support the anti-regime Iranian Green Movement, engaging in more sustained and vigorous diplomacy, and ratcheting up the political isolation and containment of the regime. We must also publicly shame the regime with talk about its failure to respect human rights in its country.
But we must be clearheaded in 2010 and not repeat the grave mistakes of 2002. We can’t sit idly by as the neoconservatives advocate for dangerous, simplistic approaches toward Iran. They argued that Iraq would be easy, and look where it got us.
Yet even though we have heard these tunes before, and despite their failed track record, the neoconservatives should not be underestimated. They are clearly expert at ginning up support for war.
Let’s not fall for this trickery again, so we don’t repeat 2003 in 2011.
(Joel Rubin, deputy director and chief operating officer of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at email@example.com. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the National Security Network.)