Why Iran isn't as scary as you think it is

    We’ve all heard of Iran — that country somewhere near Iraq that has a crazy president and wants to blow us all to smithereens. Well, you’ve sort of heard of Iran. After sitting through a lecture on Iran — Roger Cohen’s “A Revolution in Crisis: Iran after June 12″ — I realized that most people are probably a little more scared than they should be about the entire issue. That’s not to say you shouldn’t care, but you definitely should not be losing sleep over it.

    A Question of Leadership

    President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad probably isn’t medically insane, but he definitely has a “colorful” view of the world. He was largely criticized by the Arab world — and Muslim scholars in particular — for claims that the hidden Mahdi of Shi’a Islam was controlling policy in Iran. Al-Arabiya quoted the president as saying, “The Imam Mahdi is in charge of the world and we see his hand directing all the affairs of the country.” More recently, he’s been accused of rigging the June 12 elections, for which there is no definitive proof. But it doesn’t really matter whether he’s crazy or not, or whether he rigged the election or not, because he’s not really in charge.

    Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is the man really running the show. While he supported Ahmadinejad’s bid for re-relection, many view the chief executive simply as a puppet for religious clerical politics in the country. The good news here is that Khamenei is much more moderate than his political counterpart. He has encouraged scientific discovery and has enumerated his intense belief on the values of human rights.

    The Ayatollah gained much of his power when he was elected President of Iran in 1981. He created systems for overseeing all aspects of government, and in this way became the most influential man in Iranian politics. After the September 11 attacks, he denounced all terrorist activities. He said to the BBC that “mass killings of human beings are catastrophic acts which are condemned wherever they may happen and whoever the perpetrators and the victims may be.” While he has publicly questioned the validity of the United States as a world leader righteous enough to have a strong hand in world affairs, the Ayatollah doesn’t pose a serious threat to the United States as his personal politics would make it appear. What is important to remember is that the Ayatollah’s willingness to attack the United States depends on us, not them.

    Nuclear power, not bombs

    The United States used to support the Iranian nuclear program, with the first reactor becoming active in 1967. Iran agreed to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which puts them under the jurisdiction of the IAEA — the International Atomic Energy Agency. You know them as those guys who have been talking about Iran and uranium all month.

    Uranium, the element most responsible for both civilian and military radioactivity, is the type of element that was found during the February IAEA inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities. “Low-enriched” uranium — up to 20% enrichment — is really only usable for civilian purposes, which is the type Iran claims to want. It stands to reason that the uranium could be enriched further, to the 85 percent enrichment necessary for weapons-grade uranium, but that seems pretty far off.

    To be fair, recently Iran has claimed to play by the rules. Their current operating stations at Bushehr and the newly-revealed site at Qom have seemingly been in compliance with the IAEA. Iran has, however, ignored five resolutions from the UN Security Council demanding the cessation of all sensitive nuclear activities. One of the problems with the entire issue is that the international community just can’t seem to agree on exactly when Iran re-started it’s nuclear program and just exactly how illegal it is.

    Basically, it’s the United Kingdom against the UN Chief Weapons Inspector and head of the IAEA. According to Britain, Iran started their program at least four years ago, but Mohamad ElBaradei (the outgoing Director of the IAEA) says that there is “no credible evidence” to support that claim. At this point, it’s just clear that Iran has nuclear reactors — the question is how honest they are in claiming that they want them solely for peaceful, power-generation purposes.

    Why the US matters more than Iran

    The question now is not why Iran wants nuclear weapons, but why they wouldn’t want nuclear weapons. The United States, Russia and Israel (shhhh) possess nuclear weapons. It’s the old Cold War “you point your weapons at me, so I’ll point my weapons at you” situation, except in this case we’re not sure that Iran has them, or has the capability to make them.

    That’s why it’s up to us. The United States and other leading nations must create concrete incentives for Iran to stay away from nuclear energy, and negative reinforcement probably isn’t the best response. Instead of looking at Iran as a bad kid who deserves a slap on the wrist or a time-out, we must begin to talk to Iran as an equal. By recognizing Iran as a country with legitimate points of view (even though these run extremely contrary to ours at times), we make it impossible for Americans to become the faceless “Other” that can be attacked at will. We take the political fuel from any anti-West activists, and create political pressure reciprocal respect.

    The second most important thing the US can do to ensure we’re not hit with a dirty bomb from Iran is to get rid of our own nuclear capabilities. President Barack Obama and President Dimitri Medvedev of Russia have agreed to cut their nuclear stockpiles by 33 percent, which is a step in the right direction, but not enough. Why would Iran not want nuclear weapons? Well, it wouldn’t want them if we didn’t have them. Think of them like your little brother–whatever you have, he wants. The steps recently taken to pacify Iran show improvement in this area, and leave a lot of room for comfort.


    Iran has already agreed to talk to the U.S., U.K. and France, which is a huge milestone in the entire issue. Previously, Iran refused to discuss nuclear matters in any bilateral discussions. It’s the first time in 30 years we’ve had actual discussions with Iran about any of these issues, so we’re making progress.

    Maybe, then we can begin to tone down the hysteria about Big Bad Iran. Iran’s just not as scary as we see them most of the time. Yes, they now have the ability to play with uranium, which isn’t the most comforting thought in the world, but it’s probably not as bad as Russia pointing hundreds of missiles at us during the Cold War. Now it’s time for us to step up and protect ourselves not through war, but through good diplomacy.


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