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At the risk of stating the obvious, there are eerie and multiplying parallels between the long lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war and what passes for debate on what to do about the Iranian nuclear research program.

Both target regimes have made unilateral moves that badly weakened their international credibility and rendered them difficult for outsiders to defend, at least without numerous caveats. Both are major human rights violators that are in the dock not for that reason but because of the purported threat they pose to international peace and security. Both countries have therefore been subject to sanctions whose barely hidden purpose is to topple the government. Both states have been suspected of seeking to acquire doomsday machines but, in both cases, no one outside their innermost corridors of power knew/knows what their capabilities actually were/are. The same great powers (not counting France) have been arrayed for and against the more aggressive course of action.

The Friedman unit has even made a return appearance, in the estimate one hawkish scholar uses for how long it would take Iran to build a bomb should it decide to do so.

But the most troubling axis of comparison is the distorted debate in the United States, where, in both cases, “preventive” military force has been regarded as the sine qua non, almost the default option, in that it structures the conversation.

Witness the current debate about Iran in the most prestigious journal of foreign policy opinion. In conventional terms, the deck is not all that stacked. The Foreign Affairs lineup checks all the boxes: realist (academe), realist (Washington), more hawkish realist, full-throated neo-conservative. Detente, containment, containment plus air strikes, regime change. Two on either side of the question before the house, with one of the “con” voices having served in Obama’s Pentagon.

But why is “to bomb or not to bomb” the question before the house?

And again, at the risk of stating the obvious, there is something rather important missing from this debate. Not a genuine American progressive view — everybody who is anybody knows that left-leaning sorts are not worth listening to. What is missing is what Iran is thinking amid this earnest back-and-forth about whether, and if so when, its territory should be attacked. And why, assuming that Western suspicions are indeed warranted, Iran would want the bomb.

Is it not relevant that the UN Security Council emitted scarcely a whimper when Iranian soldiers were swamped in mustard gas and other illegal toxins during Iran’s cataclysmic war with Iraq? That the world’s sole superpower “tilted” toward Iraq in that war? That demonization of the Islamic Republic has been a staple of American political discourse since 1979? That the last US administration tried mightily to deny Iran the right to a peaceful nuclear program guaranteed it under the very treaty that the West accuses Iran of breaching? That the current, allegedly more peace-loving administration uses the phrase “tightening the noose” when crowing about its successs in imposing tighter and tighter sanctions? And that, today, the supposed wise owls among American policy intellectuals state explicitly that military force should be “on the table”?

In the wake of the invasion of Iraq, the US eventually surmised that Saddam Hussein’s blood-curdling threats to burn others in “chemical fire” were bluster intended to deter external enemies (perhaps including Iran). His rhetoric was macabre, but his motives were, in the end, quite mundane.

Why is it so hard for the West to grasp that Iran’s leadership is similarly preoccupied with survival? And that this preoccupation, whatever the leadership’s other sins, is utterly rational?

At the risk of stating the obvious, if the West does not want Iran to build a bomb, why keep escalating the same policies that (if the West is right about Iran’s aim) have driven it to pursue one? Beltway types may judge this question childlike, for everybody who is anybody knows that Iran is not to be trusted and that US intentions are pure (or at least entirely justified in their occasional impurity). But the Iranian leadership does not agree, and that fact should be front and center in any responsible debate on Iran policy.

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "A Not So Distant Mirror," Middle East Report Online, January 19, 2012.
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