Lost in the Movies: Iran: The Next Iraq?

Iran: The Next Iraq?

Like "Inside North Korea," "Iran: The Next Iraq?" is a rather sensationalist TV program. It opens with a breathless analysis of Iran's nuclear capacity which bears a disquieting resemblance to the pre-Iraq buildup, and it closes with a look at different U.S. options including a pincer-like invasion from positions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which it acknowledges is unlikely. The bulk of the program details the history of Iran, which I would suspect comes from a previous program on Iran which ran on the History Channel. This is the most interesting and informative section, particularly when we come to the Iran-Iraq War of the 80s, in which the U.S. government supported Saddam Hussein as a proxy to keep Ayatollah Khomeini in check. We see boy soldiers (some as young as 13, though they look even younger) primed for war and a Tehran fountain commissioned with red-colored water - it's supposed to flow with the "blood of martyrs." All this is fascinating but tells us little about the complexities of the situation.

Reinforcing the notion that the program is not just sensationalist, but propagandistic, is its take on Iranian history. After detailing the conquests of the ancient Persian Cyrus, and Iran's subsequent decline, it introduces the Shah, whose father supported the Nazis, but who was himself an ally of the Allies in World War II. It's briefly mentioned that the CIA helped him squash a democratic resistance, but in fact the country was a democracy in the early 50s, and Brits and Americans helped overthrow the Iranian government and replace it with a beefed-up authoritarian Shah. Later, our alliance with Saddam is written off with warnings that Iran could have conquered the Middle East (an unlikely scenario, to say the least - especially since Saddam turned out to be the one with expansionist proclivities).

As for the nuclear program, a nuclear Iran, while undesirable, frightens me less than two already existing prospects: a nuclear North Korea and a nuclear, and unstable, Pakistan. This is not to say we shouldn't try to prevent Iran's nuclearization as well, but the program contributes to the idea that Iran is an irrational nation, a histrionic and impoverished dictatorship which hates the U.S. with a burning fury. This is certainly an exaggeration. First of all, Ahmadinejad, whom many take as the public face of Iran, does not hold final power in the country. The government, and the national security apparatus, lies in the hands of the theocrats and Ahmadinejad is more or less a figurehead in terms of having the final say on any security-related issues.

Furthermore, Iran had a more moderate president at the turn-of-the millennium and even its Islamic leaders were interested in taking a more cooperative approach with the U.S. following 9/11. The Bush administration spurned their overtures, including more involvement with the Afghanistan operation, and lumped them into the "Axis of Evil." Needless to say, Iran has felt less inclined to cooperate with the U.S. since but ironically, we've also emboldened them by taking out Saddam Hussein, their primary rival, giving rise to Iraq's Shiite (like Iran) majority, and turning world opinion against our policies, hence strengthening the hand of someone like Ahmadinejad, who can become a figurehead for anti-American forces (which is probably his most potent power - symbolic).

This is not to be naive and say we could have held hands with Iran over the past 8 years, become good buddies, and nothing could have gone wrong. But clearly things have not worked out in our advantage by giving Iran the cold shoulder and if we're really worried about their nuclear program (which reports have indicated is years away from creating nuclear weapons) a more nuanced, reciprocal approach is clearly required. Unfortunately, this program does not shed much light on our prospects in that regard (a few words are passed on "tough international diplomacy" near the end, after several minutes lavished on fanciful war plans which will never come to pass). One hopes the next president will take advantage of a break with the past (and possibly the defeat of Ahmadinejad in Iranian elections next year) to take a new approach. Because talking loudly and carrying a mini-stick (no one seriously thinks we're capable of taking on Iran right now) clearly isn't working.

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