I was in Iran in 2009 when a family invited me into their home for dinner. Over kebabs and rice, I chatted about school and video games with their 6-year-old son. He and his mother sang us a song about flying like a balloon, and I struggled to keep up with his uncle’s many American movie references.
The family lives in Esfahan, a likely target of any Israeli or American military attack. Esfahan is home to part of Iran’s nuclear energy program and less than two hours from another potential target, the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. Whenever I hear talk of war with Iran, I think of these kind people.
On April 13, the United States and its allies will resume negotiations with Iran aimed at resolving the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. Congress should give diplomacy time to work, rather than pushing the United States closer to a military confrontation nobody wants.
Last month, American officials conducted a classified war simulation that showed that military strikes on Iran could spark a wider regional war and leave hundreds of Americans dead. American officials predict that Iran would retaliate with missile strikes on Israel and attacks on U.S. personnel overseas. As Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former commander of Central Command, said, “If you follow this all the way down, eventually I’m putting boots on the ground somewhere. And like I tell my friends, if you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you’ll love Iran.”
Politicians love to promote a fantasy of swooping in with fighter jets and rescuing helpless Iranians from a repressive regime, but democracy activists in Iran don’t see it that way. As renowned Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji explained, “Even speaking about the possibility of a military attack on Iran makes things extremely difficult for human rights and pro-democracy activists in Iran.”
Unpopular regimes like Iran’s relish the rally-around-the-flag effect created by a military confrontation, which allows them to marginalize dissidents. The threat of action is damaging enough. The reality would be devastating to all Iranians, especially for those who have been speaking out for justice and democracy.
Many in Congress are undermining prospects for a peaceful solution by pushing to lower the threshold for military action. A resolution sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.; and Robert Casey, D-Pa.; and Reps. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Howard Berman, D-Calif., would draw the “red line” for military action against Iran at a nuclear weapons capability, not an actual weapon. However, “nuclear weapons capable” is a dangerously vague term that could also apply to dozens of other countries that, like Iran, have nuclear energy programs. All 16 of America’s intelligence agencies have reported that there is no proof that Iran has decided to build a nuclear weapon.
This is more than congressional grandstanding. As the United States and its allies engage in delicate negotiations, lowering the threshold for war could rule out diplomatic alternatives and back the United States into a corner. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for SecretaryColin Powell, warned, “This resolution reads like the same sheet of music that got us into the Iraq war, and could be the precursor for a war with Iran. … It’s effectively a thinly disguised effort to bless war.”
Disrupting diplomatic efforts on the eve of talks is highly counterproductive, but that’s not stopping politicians on both sides of the aisle who seem ready and willing to ignore the advice of national security professionals like Gen. Zinni and Col. Wilkerson.
The Iranian mother who welcomed me into her home told me that she watches BBC Persian with her son and struggles to answer when he asks her to explain the violence on TV. We should think twice before rushing into another war and bringing that same horror to his doorstep. It’s time to commit to serious diplomacy with Iran, and Congress must give President Obama the space to conduct it.
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