The following comment was distributed electronically on February 5, 2002, by the Brown University News Service. The author teaches anthropology at Brown University and has the authored Language, Status and Power in Iran.Ed..
Iran's strategic location and economic importance make it both inevitable and imperative that the United States reestablish relations with the Iranians, rather than lobbing intemperate and ill-considered invective at them. It is a sad commentary on American political life that the State of the Union address should be used for cheap political shots
President Bush's targeting of Iran as part of an "axis of evil" during his State of the Union Address last week left world leaders and Middle East experts scratching their heads in wonder, since it made so little sense to them. It is now evident that this bit of rhetoric is the result of faulty intelligence and ill-considered judgment. In short, it is a misstep in American foreign policy that will set back the course of peace in the Middle East.
By all accounts, President Bush planned only to mention Iraq in earlier drafts of the address. He then added North Korea to broaden the scope of America's "war on terrorism." The last-minute addition of Iran in the "axis of evil" was the result of disinformation provided by Israeli intelligence sources, according to well-attested sources from the French Secret Services.
Israel has been alarmed in recent months at growing rapprochement between the United States and Tehran. They view the Iranian government as a long-term supporter of Hezbollah forces and potential launchers of missiles against Israel. Iran steadfastly denies these charges and indeed no hard evidence has ever been produced to substantiate the Israeli claims.
Therefore, the Israelis spread the incredible rumor that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar had escaped to Iran, and were being kept under Iranian government protection. This explains Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's claim, made the following Sunday as an explanation for Bush's attack on Iran, that Iran was allowing Al-Qaeda forces to cross the Iranian border.
President Bush called on the nations of the "axis of evil" to change their ways. For Iran, however, his very attack is going to make this more difficult. Bush's words have undercut Iran's reformers led by President Ali Khatami and given unwitting support to the hardliners. If Iran's attempts to move toward a more international standard in its behavior are going to be met with a slap in the face from Washington, why should Khatami and the reformers make the effort to confront the conservatives? Many reformers have faced persecution and arrest already in order to do this.
Ironically, if Israel fears Iran, it is worse off trying to estrange Tehran from Washington. Closer American ties to Iran will give the U.S. government greater influence over Iranian foreign policy -as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Japan currently have. Indeed, leaders in every one of these American ally nations have expressed dismay at Bush's volley. They realize that as long as American influence remains remote, extremist forces in Iran have greater latitude to further their policies.
Sadly, it looks as if President Bush is practicing the late Tip O'Neill's political principle: "All politics is local." American politicians have known for the last two decades that attacking Iran is always a safe political move with American voters. It is a sad commentary on American political life that the State of the Union address should be used for such cheap political shots.
It is time for the President to recant this foolish pronouncement, respond to more accurate, unbiased intelligence sources, and move toward the development of serious diplomatic relations with Tehran. Iran's strategic location and economic importance make it both inevitable and imperative that the United States reestablish relations with the Iranians, rather than lobbing intemperate and ill-considered invective at them.
©2002 by William O. Beeman. Republished by permission of the Brown University News Service.
February 15, 2002