Peter Galbraith, The Iranian Conundrum

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Be careful what you wish for — that might be the catch phrase for American relations with Iran since the CIA helped overthrow the elected government of that country in 1953 and installed the young Shah in power. Much of our present world — and many of our present problems in the Middle East and Central Asia — stem from that particular act of imperial hubris. The Shah’s Iran was then regarded by successive American administrations not just as a potential regional power, but as our regional bulwark, our imperial outpost. The U.S. helped bulk up the Shah’s military, as well as his fearsome secret police, and, under President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, actually started Iran down the nuclear road which today leaves some administration figures threatening bloody murder, even while former Centcom commander John Abizaid claims that an Iranian bomb would not be the end of the universe. (“There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran… Let’s face it, we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, we’ve lived with a nuclear China, and we’re living with [other] nuclear powers as well.”)

The White House has reportedly given secret approval for covert operations to “destabilize” Iran and, evidently, its backing to small-scale terror strikes inside that country, while Iranian influence inside Shiite Iraq remains (as it has long been) significant. Meanwhile, a war of words (and charges) only escalates. President Bush heightened the anti-Iranian rhetoric in his September 13th post-Petraeus-hearings address, while an escalating campaign of charges against the activities of Iran and its Revolutionary Guards in Iraq continues to intensify, just as reports are coming out that the Pentagon is building a new base in Iraq, right up against the Iranian border. The Iranian nuclear situation remains at a boil.

There are also regular, if shadowy, reports that Vice President Cheney’s office is pushing hard for a shock-and-awe air campaign against Iran. Recently (and not for the first time), the Iranians shot back: General Mohammed Hassan Koussechi, a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, threatened to respond to any American action in his country by firing off missiles with a range of at least 1,200 miles against American and Western targets across the Middle East including, presumably, the enormous military bases the Pentagon has scattered across Iraq. (“Today the Americans are around our country but this does not mean that they are encircling us. They are encircled themselves and are within our range.”)

While U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups slip in and out of the Persian Gulf, a murky Israeli air attack on a site in the Syrian desert, combined with a bizarre and unlikely nuclear tale involving the North Koreans, has added a further touch of paranoia to the situation. (According to the Israeli paper Haaretz, ex-United Nations Ambassador John Bolton has claimed that the Israeli bombing should be taken as “a clear message to Iran…. that its continued efforts to acquire nuclear weapons are not going to go unanswered.”)

The President has indicated, more than once, that he would not hand the Iranian nuclear situation over to his successor unresolved (unlike the war in Iraq). Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a man who knows well the dangers a U.S. attack on Iran poses, continues to claim that “all options are on the table” when it comes to the Iranians. So consider the Iranian-American relationship, splayed on the “table” of Iraq, to be the potential crucible of disaster for the planet between now and January 2009. Former ambassador Peter Galbraith, author of The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End, considers that essential relationship in the upcoming issue of the New York Review of Books in an essay that the magazine’s editors have been kind enough to let Tomdispatch post. Think of it as an action-packed, information-filled, essential primer for the months to come. Tom

The Victor?
By Peter Galbraith

[This essay appears in the October 11, 2007 issue of the New York Review of Books and is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.]


In his continuing effort to bolster support for the Iraq war, President Bush traveled to Reno, Nevada, on August 28 to speak to the annual convention of the American Legion. He emphatically warned of the Iranian threat should the United States withdraw from Iraq. Said the President, “For all those who ask whether the fight in Iraq is worth it, imagine an Iraq where militia groups backed by Iran control large parts of the country.”

On the same day, in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala, the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, battled government security forces around the shrine of Imam Hussein, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest places. A million pilgrims were in the city and fifty-one died.

The U.S. did not directly intervene, but American jets flew overhead in support of the government security forces. As elsewhere in the south, those Iraqi forces are dominated by the Badr Organization, a militia founded, trained, armed, and financed by Iran. When U.S. forces ousted Saddam’s regime from the south in early April 2003, the Badr Organization infiltrated from Iran to fill the void left by the Bush administration’s failure to plan for security and governance in post-invasion Iraq.

In the months that followed, the U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) appointed Badr Organization leaders to key positions in Iraq’s American-created army and police. At the same time, L. Paul Bremer’s CPA appointed party officials from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) to be governors and serve on governorate councils throughout southern Iraq. SCIRI, recently renamed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), was founded at the Ayatollah Khomeini’s direction in Tehran in 1982. The Badr Organization is the militia associated with SCIRI.

In the January 2005 elections, SCIRI became the most important component of Iraq’s ruling Shiite coalition. In exchange for not taking the prime minister’s slot, SCIRI won the right to name key ministers, including the minister of the interior. From that ministry, SCIRI placed Badr militiamen throughout Iraq’s national police.

In short, George W. Bush had from the first facilitated the very event he warned would be a disastrous consequence of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq: the takeover of a large part of the country by an Iranian-backed militia. And while the President contrasts the promise of democracy in Iraq with the tyranny in Iran, there is now substantially more personal freedom in Iran than in southern Iraq.

Iran’s role in Iraq is pervasive, but also subtle. When Iraq drafted its permanent constitution in 2005, the American ambassador energetically engaged in all parts of the process. But behind the scenes, the Iranian ambassador intervened to block provisions that Tehran did not like. As it happened, both the Americans and the Iranians wanted to strengthen Iraq’s central government. While the Bush administration clung to the mirage of a single Iraqi people, Tehran worked to give its proxies, the pro-Iranian Iraqis it supported — by then established as the government of Iraq — as much power as possible. (Thanks to Kurdish obstinacy, neither the U.S. nor Iran succeeded in its goal, but even now both the US and Iran want to see the central government strengthened.)

Since 2005, Iraq’s Shiite-led government has concluded numerous economic, political, and military agreements with Iran. The most important would link the two countries’ strategic oil reserves by building a pipeline from southern Iraq to Iran, while another commits Iran to providing extensive military assistance to the Iraqi government. According to a senior official in Iraq’s Oil Ministry, smugglers divert at least 150,000 barrels of Iraq’s daily oil exports through Iran, a figure that approaches 10 percent of Iraq’s production. Iran has yet to provide the military support it promised to the Iraqi army. With the U.S. supplying 160,000 troops and hundreds of billions of dollars to support a pro-Iranian Iraqi government, Iran has no reason to invest its own resources.

Of all the unintended consequences of the Iraq war, Iran’s strategic victory is the most far-reaching. In establishing the border between the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire in 1639, the Treaty of Qasr-i-Shirin demarcated the boundary between Sunni-ruled lands and Shiite-ruled lands. For eight years of brutal warfare in the 1980s, Iran tried to breach that line but could not. (At the time, the Reagan administration supported Saddam Hussein precisely because it feared the strategic consequences of an Iraq dominated by Iran’s allies.) The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq accomplished what Khomeini’s army could not. Today, the Shiite-controlled lands extend to the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Bahrain, a Persian Gulf kingdom with a Shiite majority and a Sunni monarch, is most affected by these developments; but so is Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which is home to most of the kingdom’s Shiites. (They may even be a majority in the province but this is unknown as Saudi Arabia has not dared to conduct a census.) The U.S. Navy has its most important Persian Gulf base in Bahrain while most of Saudi Arabia’s oil is under the Eastern Province.

America’s Iraq quagmire has given new life to Iran’s Syrian ally, Bashir Assad. In 2003, the Syrian Baathist regime seemed an anachronism unable to survive the region’s political and economic changes. Today, Assad appears firmly in control, having even recovered from the opprobrium of having his regime caught red-handed in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In Lebanon, Hezbollah enjoys greatly enhanced stature for having held off the Israelis in the 2006 war. As Hezbollah’s sponsor and source of arms, Iran now has an influence both in the Levant and in the Arab-Israeli conflict that it never before had.

The scale of the American miscalculation is striking. Before the Iraq war began, its neoconservative architects argued that conferring power on Iraq’s Shiites would serve to undermine Iran because Iraq’s Shiites, controlling the faith’s two holiest cities, would, in the words of then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, be “an independent source of authority for the Shia religion emerging in a country that is democratic and pro-Western.” Further, they argued, Iran could never dominate Iraq, because the Iraqi Shiites are Arabs and the Iranian Shiites Persian. It was a theory that, unfortunately, had no connection to reality.

Iran’s bond with the Iraqi Shiites goes far beyond the support Iran gave Shiite leaders in their struggle with Saddam Hussein. Decades of oppression have made their religious identity more important to Iraqi Shiites than their Arab ethnic identity. (Also, many Iraqi Shiites have Turcoman, Persian, or Kurdish ancestors.) While Sunnis identify with the Arab world, Iraqi Shiites identify with the Shiite world, and for many this means Iran.

There is also the legacy of February 15, 1991, when President George H.W. Bush called on the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam Hussein. Two weeks later, the Shiites in southern Iraq did just that. When Saddam’s Republican Guards moved south to crush the rebellion, President Bush went fishing and no help was given. Only Iran showed sympathy. Hundreds of thousands died and no Iraqi Shiite I know thinks this failure of US support was anything but intentional. In assessing the loyalty of the Iraqi Shiites before the war, the war’s architects often stressed how Iraqi Shiite conscripts fought loyally for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. They never mentioned the 1991 betrayal. This was understandable: at the end of the 1991 war, Wolfowitz was the number-three man at the Pentagon, Dick Cheney was the defense secretary, and, of course, Bush’s father was the president.

Iran and its Iraqi allies control, respectively, the Middle East’s third- and second-largest oil reserves. Iran’s influence now extends to the borders of the Saudi province that holds the world’s largest oil reserves. President Bush has responded to these strategic changes wrought by his own policies by strongly supporting a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad and by arming and training the most pro-Iranian elements in the Iraqi military and police.


Beginning with his 2002 State of the Union speech, President Bush has articulated two main U.S. goals for Iran: (1) the replacement of Iran’s theocratic regime with a liberal democracy, and (2) preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Since events in Iraq took a bad turn, he has added a third objective: gaining Iranian cooperation in Iraq.

The administration’s track record is not impressive. The prospects for liberal democracy in Iran took a severe blow when reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami was replaced by the hard-line — and somewhat erratic — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August 2005. (Khatami had won two landslide elections which were a vote to soften the ruling theocracy; he was then prevented by the conservative clerics from accomplishing much.) At the time President Bush first proclaimed his intention to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands, Iran had no means of making fissile material. Since then, however, Iran has defied the IAEA and the UN Security Council to assemble and use the centrifuges needed to enrich uranium. In Iraq, the administration accuses Iran of supplying particularly potent roadside bombs to Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents.

To coerce Iran into ceasing its uranium enrichment program, the Bush administration has relied on UN sanctions, the efforts of a European negotiating team, and stern presidential warnings. The mismanaged Iraq war has undercut all these efforts. After seeing the U.S. go to the United Nations with allegedly irrefutable evidence that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and had a covert nuclear program, foreign governments and publics are understandably skeptical about the veracity of Bush administration statements on Iran. The Iraq experience makes many countries reluctant to support meaningful sanctions not only because they doubt administration statements but because they are afraid President Bush will interpret any Security Council resolution condemning Iran as an authorization for war.

With so much of the U.S. military tied up in Iraq, the Iranians do not believe the U.S. has the resources to attack them and then deal with the consequences. They know that a U.S. attack on Iran would have little support in the U.S. — it is doubtful that Congress would authorize it — and none internationally. Not even the British would go along with a military strike on Iran. President Bush’s warnings count for little with Tehran because he now has a long record of tough language unmatched by action. As long as the Iranians believe the United States has no military option, they have limited incentives to reach an agreement, especially with the Europeans.

The administration’s efforts to change Iran’s regime have been feeble or feckless. President Bush’s freedom rhetoric is supported by Radio Farda, a U.S.-sponsored Persian language radio station, and a $75 million appropriation to finance Iranian opposition activities including satellite broadcasts by Los Angeles-based exiles. If only regime change was so easily accomplished!

The identity of Iranian recipients of U.S. funding is secret but the administration’s neoconservative allies have loudly promoted U.S. military and financial support for Iranian opposition groups as diverse as the son of the late Shah, Iranian Kurdish separatists, and the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), which is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. Some of the Los Angeles exiles now being funded are associated with the son of the Shah but it is unlikely that either the MEK or the Kurdish separatists would receive any of the $75 million. U.S. secrecy — and that the administration treats the MEK differently from other terrorist organizations — has roused Iranian suspicions that the U.S. is supporting these groups either through the democracy program or a separate covert action.

None of these groups is a plausible agent for regime change. The Shah’s son represents a discredited monarchy and corrupt family. Iranian Kurdistan is seething with discontent, and Iranian security forces have suppressed large anti-regime demonstrations there. Kurdish nationalism on the margins of Iran, however, does not weaken the Iranian regime at the center. (While the U.S. State Department has placed the PKK — a Kurdish rebel movement in Turkey — on its list of terrorist organizations, Pejak, the PKK’s Iranian branch, is not on the list and its leaders even visit the U.S.)

The Mujahideen-e-Khalq is one of the oldest — and nastiest — of the Iranian opposition groups. After originally supporting the Iranian revolution, the MEK broke with Khomeini and relocated to Iraq in the early stages of the Iran-Iraq War. It was so closely connected to Saddam that MEK fighters not only assisted the Iraqis in the Iran-Iraq War but also helped Saddam put down the 1991 Kurdish uprising. While claiming to be democratic and pro-Western, the MEK closely resembles a cult. In April 2003, when I visited Camp Ashraf, its main base northeast of Baghdad, I found robotlike hero worship of the MEK’s leaders, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi; the fighters I met parroted a revolutionary party line, and there were transparently crude efforts at propaganda. To emphasize its being a modern organization as distinct from the Tehran theocrats, the MEK appointed a woman as Camp Ashraf’s nominal commander and maintained a women’s tank battalion. The commander was clearly not in command and the women mechanics supposedly working on tank engines all had spotless uniforms.

Both the U.S. State Department and Iran view the MEK as a terrorist group. The U.S. government, however, does not always act as if the MEK were one. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military dropped a single bomb on Camp Ashraf. It struck the women’s barracks at a time of day when the soldiers were not there. When I visited two weeks later with an ABC camera crew, we filmed the MEK bringing a scavenged Iraqi tank into their base. U.S. forces drove in and out of Camp Ashraf, making no effort to detain the supposed terrorists or to stop them from collecting Iraqi heavy weapons. Since Iran had its agents in Iraq from the time Saddam fell (and may have been doing its own scavenging of weapons), one can presume that this behavior did not go unnoticed. Subsequently, the US military did disarm the MEK, but in spite of hostility from both the Shiites and Kurds who now jointly dominate Iraq’s government, its fighters are still at Camp Ashraf. Rightly or wrongly, many Iranians conclude from this that the U.S. is supporting a terrorist organization that is fomenting violence inside Iran.

In fact, halting Iran’s nuclear program and changing its regime are incompatible objectives. Iran is highly unlikely to agree to a negotiated solution with the U.S. (or the Europeans) while the U.S. is trying to overthrow its government. Air strikes may destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities but they will rally popular support for the regime and give it a further pretext to crack down on the opposition.

From the perspective of U.S. national security strategy, the choice should be easy. Iran’s most prominent democrats have stated publicly that they do not want US support. In a recent open letter to be sent to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji criticizes both the Iranian regime and U.S. hypocrisy. “Far from helping the development of democracy,” he writes, “U.S. policy over the past 50 years has consistently been to the detriment of the proponents of freedom and democracy in Iran…. The Bush Administration, for its part, by approving a fund for democracy assistance in Iran, which is in fact being largely spent on official institutions and media affiliated with the U.S. government, has made it easy for the Iranian regime to describe its opponents as mercenaries of the U.S. and to crush them with impunity.”

Even though they can’t accomplish it, the Bush administration leaders have been unwilling to abandon regime change as a goal. Its advocates compare their efforts to the support the U.S. gave democrats behind the Iron Curtain over many decades. But there is a crucial difference. The Soviet and East European dissidents wanted U.S. support, which was sometimes personally costly but politically welcome. But this is immaterial to administration ideologues. They are, to borrow Jeane Kirkpatrick’s phrase, deeply committed to policies that feel good rather than do good. If Congress wants to help the Iranian opposition, it should cut off funding for Iranian democracy programs.

Right now, the U.S. is in the worst possible position. It is identified with the most discredited part of the Iranian opposition and unwanted by the reformers who have the most appeal to Iranians. Many Iranians believe that the U.S. is fomenting violence inside their country, and this becomes a pretext for attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. And for its pains, the U.S. accomplishes nothing.


For eighteen years, Iran had a secret program aimed at acquiring the technology that could make nuclear weapons. A.Q. Khan, the supposedly rogue head of Pakistan’s nuclear program, provided centrifuges to enrich uranium and bomb designs. When the Khan network was exposed, Iran declared in October 2003 its enrichment program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), provided an accounting (perhaps not complete) of its nuclear activities, and agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment. Following the election of Ahmadinejad as president in 2005, Iran announced it would resume its uranium enrichment activities. During the last two years, it has assembled cascades of centrifuges and apparently enriched a small amount of uranium to the 5 percent level required for certain types of nuclear power reactors (weapons require 80 to 90 percent enrichment but this is not technically very difficult once the initial enrichment processes are mastered).

The United States has two options for dealing with Iran’s nuclear facilities: military strikes to destroy them or negotiations to neutralize them. The first is risky and the second may not produce results. So far, the Bush administration has not pursued either option, preferring UN sanctions (which, so far, have been more symbolic than punitive) and relying on Europeans to take the lead in negotiations. But neither sanctions nor the European initiative is likely to work. As long as Iran’s primary concern is the United States, it is unlikely to settle for a deal that involves only Europe.

Sustained air strikes probably could halt Iran’s nuclear program. While some Iranian facilities may be hidden and others protected deep underground, the locations of major facilities are known. Even if it is not possible to destroy all the facilities, Iran’s scientists, engineers, and construction crews are unlikely to show up for work at places that are subject to ongoing bombing.

But the risks from air strikes are great. Many of the potential targets are in populated places, endangering civilians both from errant bombs and the possible dispersal of radioactive material. The rest of the world would condemn the attacks and there would likely be a virulent anti-U.S. reaction in the Islamic world. In retaliation, Iran could wreak havoc on the world economy (and its own) by withholding oil from the global market and by military action to close the Persian Gulf shipping lanes.

The main risk to the U.S. comes in Iraq. Faced with choosing between the U.S. and Iran, Iraq’s government may not choose its liberator. And even if the Iraqi government did not openly cooperate with the Iranians, pro-Iranian elements in the U.S.-armed military and police almost certainly would facilitate attacks on U.S. troops by pro-Iranian Iraqi militia or by Iranian forces infiltrated across Iraq’s porous border. A few days after Bush’s August 28 speech, Iranian General Rahim Yahya Safavi underscored Iran’s ability to retaliate, saying of U.S. troops in the region: “We have accurately identified all their camps.” Unless he chooses to act with reckless disregard for the safety of U.S. troops in Iraq, President Bush has effectively denied himself a military option for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program.

A diplomatic solution to the crisis created by Iran’s nuclear program is clearly preferable, but not necessarily achievable. Broadly speaking, states want nuclear weapons for two reasons: security and prestige. Under the Shah, Iran had a nuclear program but Khomeini disbanded it after the revolution on the grounds that nuclear weapons were un-Islamic. When the program resumed covertly in the mid-1980s, Iran’s primary security concern was Iraq. At that time, Iraq had its own covert nuclear program; more immediately, it had threatened Iran with chemical weapons attacks on its cities. An Iranian nuclear weapon could serve as a deterrent to both Iraqi chemical and nuclear weapons.

With Iraq’s defeat in the first Gulf War, the Iraqi threat greatly diminished. And of course it vanished after Iran’s allies took power in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion. Today, Iran sees the United States as the main threat to its security. American military forces surround Iran — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Central Asia, and on the Persian Gulf. President Bush and his top aides repeatedly express solidarity with the Iranian people against their government while the U.S. finances programs aimed at the government’s ouster. The American and international press are full of speculation that Vice President Cheney wants Bush to attack Iran before his term ends. From an Iranian perspective, all this smoke could indicate a fire.

In 2003, as Trita Parsi’s Treacherous Alliance shows, there was enough common ground for a deal. In May 2003, the Iranian authorities sent a proposal through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, Tim Guldimann, for negotiations on a package deal in which Iran would freeze its nuclear program in exchange for an end to U.S. hostility. The Iranian paper offered “full transparency for security that there are no Iranian endeavors to develop or possess WMD [and] full cooperation with the IAEA based on Iranian adoption of all relevant instruments.” The Iranians also offered support for “the establishment of democratic institutions and a non-religious government” in Iraq; full cooperation against terrorists (including “above all, al-Qaeda”); and an end to material support to Palestinian groups like Hamas. In return, the Iranians asked that their country not be on the terrorism list or designated part of the “axis of evil”; that all sanctions end; that the US support Iran’s claims for reparations for the Iran-Iraq War as part of the overall settlement of the Iraqi debt; that they have access to peaceful nuclear technology; and that the US pursue anti-Iranian terrorists, including “above all” the MEK. MEK members should, the Iranians said, be repatriated to Iran.

Basking in the glory of “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, the Bush administration dismissed the Iranian offer and criticized Guldimann for even presenting it. Several years later, the Bush administration’s abrupt rejection of the Iranian offer began to look blatantly foolish and the administration moved to suppress the story. Flynt Leverett, who had handled Iran in 2003 for the National Security Council, tried to write about it in The New York Times and found his Op-Ed crudely censored by the NSC, which had to clear it. Guldimann, however, had given the Iranian paper to Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney, now remembered both for renaming House cafeteria food and for larceny. (As chairman of the House Administration Committee he renamed French fries “freedom fries” and is now in federal prison for bribery.) I was surprised to learn that Ney had a serious side. He had lived in Iran before the revolution, spoke Farsi, and wanted better relations between the two countries. Trita Parsi, Ney’s staffer in 2003, describes in detail the Iranian offer and the Bush administration’s high-handed rejection of it in his wonderfully informative account of the triangular relationship among the U.S., Iran, and Israel, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States.

Four years later, Iran holds a much stronger hand while the mismanagement of the Iraq occupation has made the U.S. position incomparably weaker. While the 2003 proposal could not have been presented without support from the clerics who really run Iran, Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made uranium enrichment the centerpiece of his administration and the embodiment of Iranian nationalism. Even though Ahmadinejad does not make decisions about Iran’s nuclear program (and his finger would never be on the button if Iran had a bomb), he has made it politically very difficult for the clerics to come back to the 2003 paper.

Nonetheless, the 2003 Iranian paper could provide a starting point for a U.S.-Iran deal. In recent years, various ideas have emerged that could accommodate both Iran’s insistence on its right to nuclear technology and the international community’s desire for iron-clad assurances that Iran will not divert the technology into weapons. These include a Russian proposal that Iran enrich uranium on Russian territory and also an idea floated by U.S. and Iranian experts to have a European consortium conduct the enrichment in Iran under international supervision. Iran rejected the Russian proposal, but if hostility between Iran and the U.S. were to be reduced, it might be revived. (The consortium idea has no official standing at this point.) While there are good reasons to doubt Iranian statements that its program is entirely peaceful, Iran remains a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its leaders, including Ahmadinejad, insist it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons. As long as this is the case, Iran could make a deal to limit its nuclear program without losing face.

From the inception of Iran’s nuclear program under the Shah, prestige and the desire for recognition have been motivating factors. Iranians want the world, and especially the U.S., to see Iran as they do themselves — as a populous, powerful, and responsible country that is heir to a great empire and home to a 2,500-year-old civilization. In Iranian eyes, the U.S. has behaved in a way that continually diminishes their country. Many Iranians still seethe over the U.S. involvement in the 1953 coup that overthrew the government of democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstated the Shah. Being designated a terrorist state and part of an “axis of evil” grates on the Iranians in the same way. In some ways, the 1979-1981 hostage crisis and Iran’s nuclear program were different strategies to compel U.S. respect for Iran. A diplomatic overture toward Iran might include ways to show respect for Iranian civilization (which is different from approval of its leaders) and could include an open apology for the U.S. role in the 1953 coup, which, as it turned out, was a horrible mistake for U.S. interests.

While President Bush insists that time is not on America’s side, the process of negotiation — and even an interim agreement — might provide time for more moderate Iranians to assert themselves. So far as Iran’s security is concerned, possession of nuclear weapons is more a liability than an asset. Iran’s size — and the certainty of strong resistance — is sufficient deterrent to any U.S. invasion, which, even at the height of the administration’s post-Saddam euphoria, was never seriously considered. Developing nuclear weapons would provide Iran with no additional deterrent to a U.S. invasion but could invite an attack.

Should al-Qaeda or another terrorist organization succeed in detonating a nuclear weapon in a U.S. city, any U.S. president will look to the country that supplied the weapon as a place to retaliate. If the origin of the bomb were unknown, a nuclear Iran — a designated state sponsor of terrorism — would find itself a likely target, even though it is extremely unlikely to supply such a weapon to al-Qaeda, a Sunni fundamentalist organization. With its allies now largely running the government in Baghdad, Iran does not need a nuclear weapon to deter a hostile Iraq. An Iranian bomb, however, likely would cause Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons, thus canceling Iran’s considerable manpower advantage over its Gulf rival. More pragmatic leaders, such as former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, may understand this. Rafsanjani, who lost the 2005 presidential elections to Ahmadinejad, is making a comeback, defeating a hard-liner to become chairman of Iran’s Assembly of Experts for the Leadership (Majles-e Khobrgran Rahbari), which appoints and can dismiss the Supreme Leader.

At this stage, neither the U.S. nor Iran seems willing to talk directly about bilateral issues apart from Iraq. Even if the two sides did talk, there is no guarantee that an agreement could be reached. And if an agreement were reached, it would certainly be short of what the US might want. But the test of a U.S.-Iran negotiation is not how it measures up against an ideal arrangement but how it measures up against the alternatives of bombing or doing nothing.


U.S. pre-war intelligence on Iraq was horrifically wrong on the key question of Iraq’s possession of WMDs, and President Bush ignored the intelligence to assert falsely a connection between Saddam Hussein and September 11. This alone is sufficient reason to be skeptical of the Bush administration’s statements on Iran.

Some of the administration’s charges against Iran defy common sense. In his Reno speech, President Bush accused Iran of arming the Taliban in Afghanistan while his administration has, at various times, accused Iran of giving weapons to both Sunni and Shiite insurgents in Iraq. The Taliban are Salafi jihadis, Sunni fundamentalists who consider Shiites apostates deserving of death. In power, the Taliban brutally repressed Afghanistan’s Shiites and nearly provoked a war with Iran when they murdered Iranian diplomats inside the Iranian consulate in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Iraq’s Sunni insurgents are either Salafi jihadis or Baathists, the political party that started the Iran-Iraq War.

The Iranian regime may believe it has a strategic interest in keeping U.S. forces tied down in the Iraqi quagmire since this, in the Iranian view, makes an attack on Iran unlikely. U.S. clashes with the Mahdi Army complicate the American military effort in Iraq and it is plausible that Iran might provide some weapons — including armor-penetrating IEDs — to the Mahdi Army and its splinter factions. Overall, however, Iran has no interest in the success of the Mahdi Army. Moqtada al-Sadr has made Iraqi nationalism his political platform. He has attacked the SIIC for its pro-Iranian leanings and challenged Iraq’s most important religious figure, Ayatollah Sistani, himself an Iranian citizen. Asked about charges that Iran was organizing Iraqi insurgents, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told the Financial Times on May 10, “The whole idea is unreasonable. Why should we do that? Why should we undermine a government in Iraq that we support more than anybody else?”

The United States cannot now undo President Bush’s strategic gift to Iran. But importantly, the most pro-Iranian Shiite political party is the one least hostile to the United States. In the battle now underway between the SIIC and Moqtada al-Sadr for control of southern Iraq and of the central government in Baghdad, the United States and Iran are on the same side. The U.S. has good reason to worry about Iran’s activities in Iraq. But contrary to the Bush administration’s allegations — supported by both General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in their recent congressional testimony — Iran does not oppose Iraq’s new political order. In fact, Iran is the major beneficiary of the American-induced changes in Iraq since 2003.

[Note: This essay reviews Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States by Trita Parsi (Yale University Press, 361 pp., $28.00)]

Peter W. Galbraith, a former US Ambassador to Croatia, is Senior Diplomatic Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and a principal at the Windham Resources Group, a firm that negotiates on behalf of its clients in post-conflict societies, including Iraq. His The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End is now out in paperback.

This article appears in the October 11, 2007 issue of the New York Review of Books.

Copyright 2007 Peter Galbraith