- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Is Iran, one of George W. Bush’s charter members of the “axis of evil,” a clear and present danger or merely a tough dilemma? Does the Khomeinist rulership of energy-rich Iran constitute a terrorist state? Does its elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really believe in an apocalyptic future, including the destruction of Israel, and is he bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, threatening Iran’s neighbors while extending Iranian power and influence beyond the Persian Gulf? Finally, how should the United States and other interested states respond?

My own view is that since 1979, the fall of the shah and the subsequent seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, American policy has often exaggerated the threat posed by Iran and ignored or rejected the possibility of strategic engagement. The Bush administration has gone even further with its public embrace of pre-emption and regime change, manifested by the invasion of Iraq. The current deployment of two carrier strike groups and anti-ballistic missiles to the Gulf as well as the appointment of a naval aviator, Adm. Bill “Fox” Fallon, to head Central Command, has raised (or depending on one’s view confirmed) suspicions that the Bush administration is planning to attack Iran’s fledgling nuclear capacity, delaying Tehran from obtaining the bomb.

Given these uncertainties, it is time to rethink strategy toward Iran. Several insights are important. First, we should not forget that after September 11, Iran supported America’s invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban. Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage revealed that, for ideological reasons, the White House prevented serious cooperation with Iran thereby shutting off any prospect of strategic engagement possibly defusing major points of confrontation.

Second, Tehran’s perspective is invariably dismissed. Suppose, for example, that 15 years ago, America fought a 10-year war with Mexico or Canada to a stalemate in which millions of our citizens were killed, some by poison gas. Further, suppose that Mexico or Canada was currently in the throes of a civil war with hundreds of thousands of foreign troops, including Cubans, engaged and the United States had been warned to stay out of the conflict or risk regime change here if we interfered. This analogy is obviously imperfect. However, it suggests that Iran has legitimate interests in the region, especially with American forces fighting in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan.

Third, history often provides a useful context. Thirty-nine years ago, in 1968, the safety and security of the nation were perceived to be at as much risk as today. Americans were consumed with a war in a distant place. In January, the Tet Offensive shattered American support for the Vietnam War even though seven years would elapse before we finally quit.

That same January, North Korea highjacked an unarmed Navy electronics “spy” ship, the USS Pueblo, in international waters some 30 miles off the North Korean coast and imprisoned the crew for a year, provoking a crisis in the Pacific. The ongoing Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution had thrown Red China into chaos causing many observers to believe that its society had literally gone mad. And, in mid-year, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev ordered the Red Army into Eastern Europe to repress the outbreaks of freedom known as “the Prague Spring.”

As dire as today’s world may look to us, 1968 was little better. The Soviet Union and China were real threats, then mistakenly seen as allied in a real axis of evil, replete with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and ideological ambitions no less dangerous then those of al Qaeda and Salafist fellow travelers are today. So what happened? Richard Nixon ran for and won the 1968 election. His “secret” plan for ending Vietnam was so secret that it took until 1975 for America to withdraw. However, the genius was in the strategic engagement Mr. Nixon directed toward China and the Soviet Union.

“Triangular politics,” as it was called, turned the entirely hostile U.S.-Chinese relationship on its head. Thirty-five years later, while China is by no means an ally, no rational observer can claim that this engagement has not, so far, been for the better. Engagement with Moscow produced detente. Detente, despite its detractors then, along with a geriatric Soviet leadership, led to Mikhail Gorbachev and the ultimate demise of the USSR.

It is very unlikely that the Bush administration will change either its views or hostility toward the Iranian leadership. While Hezbollah was created in 1982 to oppose Israel’s invasion and nearly 20-year occupation of southern Lebanon, Iran’s continuing support will keep its status in Mr. Bush’s axis of evil intact.

Whether two years is too long to wait for a change, of course, is unanswerable now. However, in the current pantheon of declared presidential candidates, let us hope that Richard Nixon’s wisdom in embracing strategic engagement is neither forgotten nor dismissed.

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