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Refreshing, rational U.S. views on Iran

Sometimes things happen so slowly that the casual observer misses them, and one such occurrence is the slow evolution in the United States’ position in its faceoff with Iran.

Two important things seem to have occurred since the spring: Washington seems to have taken control of the Iran situation from Israel’s hard-line prime minister who had been pushing the U.S. toward imminent war, and there seems to be more flexibility among top echelons of the American establishment on the realistic and achievable goal of any negotiations with Iran, which will require simultaneously addressing issues of concern to Iran beyond the nuclear file that has been the main preoccupation of the United States and Israel.

The loose and jingoistic talk about bombing Iran into submission that had prevailed in the United States and Israel in recent years has slowly been replaced recently by a much more hard-nosed realization of the actual costs and consequences of an attack. The evolving tone accepts that Iran is already enriching uranium and continues to develop a full nuclear fuel cycle capability, and has not been significantly deterred either by existing sanctions or the threat of being attacked. A military strike against Iran would set back the nuclear research program by a few years, but not end it, experts here seem to agree.

So an important sign of rational change in the U.S. is a more serious assessment of the pros and cons of attacking Iran – an exercise that was not carried out when the United States and Great Britain decided to attack Iraq in 2003.

The world is still paying for the disastrous consequences and many prices of that reckless venture – by the way, if you are unhappy with those Salafist militants streaming into Syria to fight the Assad regime, you should ask George W. Bush and Tony Blair why they created in Iraq the greatest magnet, training ground and export hub for Salafist militants and terrorists since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

A good example of this more rational public discussion is a paper that was recently published by a group of eminent American former officials and national security professionals entitled “Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran,” under the aegis of the independent Iran Project that was established in 2002 in New York to encourage more official contacts among Americans and Iranians.

The report’s respected authors – like Thomas Pickering, Paul Volcker, Ann-Marie Slaughter, Nicholas Burns, Zbigniew Brzenzski, Lee Hamilton, Gen. Anthony Zinni and others – do not offer policy recommendations, but simply lay out the expected costs, benefits and consequences of a military strike against Iran.

This report is important therefore for both the substantive issues it raises, but perhaps even more because of its insistence on promoting a serious national debate about considering the military option against Iran. I especially liked the quotation by Abraham Lincoln at the start of the report: “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” It suggests that perhaps the American people have not had all the facts on this matter presented to them.

Based on my discussions around the United States during the last month, I have a sense that a slow but important shift in American attitudes toward Iran continues to see diplomacy as being the best route to achieving the legitimate goal of preventing Iran from producing a nuclear weapon.

One of the best expressions of this view comes from former ambassador and senior State Department official Nicholas Burns, who worked on Iran policy under presidents Bush and Obama, and is now a professor at Harvard University. To his credit, he says the same things in his public pronouncements and private discussions, and makes several critical points that are worth pondering:

First, he says, the American president should “create a direct channel between Washington and Tehran and begin an extended one-on-one negotiation with all issues on the table. The United States should aim for the sustained and substantive talks it has not had in the three decades.”

Second, he urges the United States “for the first time” to put “far-reaching proposals” on the table if diplomacy and negotiations are to succeed.

Third, he feels the United States must take control of the Iran issue from Israel, both to give Washington more independence and to protect Israel’s core interests.

Like most other Americans who deal with this issue, he also says that military force should not be removed as an option if it is needed one day. Yet it is refreshing to hear solid establishment types like Burns stress the need for substantive and direct high-level negotiations on issues of concern to all sides, and that are not managed from afar by Israelis.

Most Americans oppose war with Iran, and perhaps the Obama administration and others in the policy establishment now feel that achieving legitimate foreign policy goals through diplomacy is preferable to waging war. What a refreshing change that would be.

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