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Iran and the Future

March 16, 2009


In an earlier post entitled Iran and the Bomb, I discussed opinions by New York Times‘ op-ed columnist and my colleague Tom Barnett about how to deal with Iran. Despite the current economic recession, which has grabbed most the media’s headlines, Iran still manages to get its share of press coverage. For example, Iran was a major topic during many of the discussions that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held during her trip to the Middle East. “There is a great deal of concern about Iran from this whole region,” she told reporters. “It is clear Iran intends to interfere with the internal affairs of all of these people and try to continue their efforts to fund terrorism, whether it is Hezbollah or Hamas or other proxies.” [“Iran Looms Over Clinton’s Mideast Trip,” by Mark Landler, New York Times, 4 March 2009].


Although Iran’s meddling in the business of other countries remains a concern, the biggest concern for most people is Iran’s desire to become a nuclear power. When Admiral Mike Mullen, USN, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked if Iran had enough enriched uranium to build a bomb, he answered, “We think they do, quite frankly.” He went on to add, “And Iran having a nuclear weapon, I’ve believed for a long time, is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world.” [“U.S. Says Iran Has Material for an Atomic Bomb,” by Thom Shanker, New York Times, 1 March 2009]. Stephen Rademaker, an assistant secretary of state responsible for arms control and nonproliferation during much of the Bush administration, wrote an op-ed hoping to keep the presidential debates about Iran alive [“Talk to Iran. Then What?,” New York Times, 1 February 2009]. Most of the piece is a justification for the positions the past administration took. Rademaker concludes, “The United States cannot be more eager than Tehran to reach a deal, and Mr. Obama must persuade Iran that he can afford to see negotiations fail. Of course, he will have to do so amid the high expectations that he has created by calling for direct, unconditional engagement with Tehran. This may turn out to be the new president’s greatest diplomatic challenge.” The point is that Iran is shaping up to be another partisan and divisive issue.


Perhaps the calmest voice in discussions about Iran is Roger Cohen’s. Being Jewish, his observations surprise some and, no doubt, disappoint and enrage others (read below). Some of Cohen’s observations were contained in the post mentioned above. He has also written several other recent op-ed pieces about Iran. Perhaps the most interesting of those columns was about the Jewish community still living in Iran. One of the reasons that Iran has become a pariah state is because of its persistent call for the eradication of the state of Israel. Its support of terrorist groups likes Hezbollah and Hamas is tied directly to this foreign policy objective. Cohen wondered what Jews living in Iran thought about this Iranian objective so he asked Soleiman Sedighpoor, an antiques dealer living in Esfahan, Iran. Of that experience, Cohen wrote:

“I inquired how he felt about the chants of ‘Death to Israel’ — ‘Marg bar Esraeel’ — that punctuate life in Iran. ‘Let them say “Death to Israel,”‘ he said. ‘I’ve been in this store 43 years and never had a problem. I’ve visited my relatives in Israel, but when I see something like the attack on Gaza, I demonstrate, too, as an Iranian.'”

Cohen reports that some 25,000 Jews still live in Iran. That’s down from the 100,000 that lived there before the 1979 revolution, but it remains the second largest population of Jews in the Muslim world next to Turkey. He continues:

“Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric. That may be because I’m a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran.”

Cohen is not blind to the religious intolerance that does exist in Iran. After all, the 75,000 Jews that left Iran following the revolution did so because they felt threatened. He notes that members of the Bahai faith have “suffered brutally harsh treatment.” Cohen held an even more interesting discussion with Morris Motamed, once the Jewish member of the Majlis (the Iranian Parliament). Cohen wanted to know “if he felt he was used, an Iranian quisling.”

“‘I don’t,’ he replied. ‘In fact I feel deep tolerance here toward Jews.’ He said ‘Death to Israel’ chants bother him, but went on to criticize the ‘double standards’ that allow Israel, Pakistan and India to have a nuclear bomb, but not Iran.”

Jews have lived in Iran for over 3000 years and take pride in that country’s gloried history as much as the Persians. Unlike Rademaker, Cohen believes that the Bush administration’s policy towards Iran — what he calls “Green Zoneism — the basing of Middle Eastern policy on the construction of imaginary worlds — has led nowhere.” Cohen believes that the time for double standards has disappeared. He believes the moment is right for engaging Iran because the world is worried about the bomb and Iran’s citizens are worried about where the revolution has left them. He writes about that disillusionment in another op-ed piece [“Iran’s Inner America,” New York Times, 1 February 2009].

“The revolution freed Iranians from the brutality of the shah’s secret police, Savak, and delivered a home-grown society modeled on the tenets of Islam in place of one pliant to America’s whim. But like all revolutions, it has also disappointed. Freedom has ebbed and flowed since 1979. Of late, it has ebbed. Beneath the hijab, that is to say beneath the surface of things, frustrations multiply. Women sometimes raise their hands to their necks to express a feeling of suffocation. Hard-pressed men, working 12-hour days to make enough to get by, are prone to hysterical laughter with its hint of desperation. … Iran is composed of two worlds: the surface and the subterranean. The former is placid; the latter is hungry for more of the freedom the revolution promised. This, too, speaks for an engagement that might over time end Iran’s bipolar state.”

Rademaker argues for a continued “carrot and stick” approach, but Cohen writes, “As Iranians often note, carrots and sticks are for donkeys.” Eventually, Cohen gets to the point that motivated me to write this post. The best way forward with Iran is through economic engagement. Cohen asserts, “Iranians are property-buying, car-mad, entrepreneurial consumers with a taste for the latest brands. Forget about nukes. Think Nikes.” I have spoken with Iranian businessmen who would love to get more connected with the global economy. In my discussions with them, America wasn’t the great Satan but a potential business partner. In still another op-ed piece on Iran [“Iran’s China Option,” New York Times, 8 February], Cohen wrote:

“Iran is rarely what it seems. It goes out of its way to mask its sophistication. Jahangir Amirhusseini, a veteran lawyer once imprisoned by the mullahs, told me, ‘To create trust, deception is necessary.’ He was serious. What he meant was politics is about artful gambits; the U.S. has favored the sledgehammer.”

In what appears to be the final column in his series [“Iran, Jews and Pragmatism,” New York Times, 15 March 2009], Cohen notes that his earlier column about Jews in Iran prompted fury from expatriates living in the Los Angeles area. He says he understands the anger prompted by the loss of country, home, and loved ones that occurred following the revolution. But he continues to insist that there is a better course to follow than one the U.S. has been pursuing. Cohen concludes:

“While Bernard Lewis, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, posits an epochal clash between ‘Islamic theocracy and liberal democracy’ whose outcome will be decisive, I don’t see any victor in this fight. Rather, a variety of compromises between the two forces will emerge, as in Iran. It is therefore in America’s strong interest to develop relations with the most dynamic society in the region. What autocrats from the Gulf to Cairo fear most is an Iranian-American breakthrough, precisely because it would shake up every cozy, static regional relationship, including Washington’s with Israel. … I think pragmatism lies at the core of the revolution’s survival. … What’s required is American pragmatism in return, one that convinces the mullahs that their survival is served by stopping short of a bomb.”

Cohen believes that most Iran’s posturing and programs are about national pride. Something Iranians have in large measure. He claims that “to open the system, without overthrowing it, which must be the U.S. aim, requires ingenious indulgence of that pride, not finger-wagging.” Everyone knows that prosperity in the Middle East requires a stable security situation. This means that the Israeli/Palestinian situation must be resolved. Syria must stay out of Lebanese politics. Middle Eastern governments must become more representative. Women must be treated with greater equality. And Iran needs to be welcomed back into the international community. More difficult, but just as essential, the security challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan must be resolved. None of these things are going to be easy, but I suspect that Cohen believes that getting Iran back into the international fold might be the easiest of these tasks.

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