The words of Iran’s new president were reassuring. “With our revolution, we are experiencing a new phase of reconstruction of civilization. We feel that what we seek is what the founders of the American civilization were also pursuing centuries ago. This is why we sense an intellectual affinity with the essence of the American civilization,” he announced on CNN.
Well now. That sounds like somebody we can do business with. Is this the start of a new era? Not quite.
That new Iranian president was Mohammad Khatami, speaking in January 1998. Despite winning two terms and serving eight years as president, Khatami never was able to achieve his stated objective of better relations between the United States and Iran.
This year’s new Iranian president is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In some ways, he too talks a good game. “Justice, peace and detente are important elements in our foreign policy. These are inseparable parts of our policy,” he told parliament after he was sworn in.
But it makes sense to take anything said by an Iranian president with a few pounds of salt. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the same man who thwarted Khatami, holds the real power in Iran.
The supreme leader recently laid out his country’s nuclear intentions. “We want to enrich our own uranium, excavated from our own mines, with equipment and technology that belongs to ourselves, developed by our young scientists, to produce fuel for our nuclear power plants,” he said. Iran’s actions back that up; although the government insists it wants to continue talks about the future of its nuclear program, Tehran restarted a uranium conversion plant on Aug. 8. And an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman says any talks should only be aimed at guaranteeing Iran's right to obtain “peaceful nuclear technology.”
In other words, no matter what the rest of the world does, Iran’s going to proceed with its nuclear program. In an odd way this explains why, even though it seems to have fallen out of public favor, the war in Iraq was necessary.
How’s that possible? The future of Iraq seems to look bleak. Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis can’t seem to agree on a constitution. Will Islamic Sharia be a “major” source of the country’s law, or “the major” source? A recent Gallup poll showed 54 percent of Americans now think the war in Iraq was a mistake. “I want [President Bush] to honor my son by bringing the troops home immediately,” protester Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, told reporters a few weeks ago.
Except, oddly, the war doesn’t look so bad to those closest to it. “Those of us who actually have a chance to go out and go on patrols and meet the Iraqi army and Iraqi police and go on patrols with them, we are very satisfied with the way things are going here,” Capt. Sherman Powell told the Today show recently. “We are confident that if we’re allowed to finish the job we started, we’ll be very proud of it, and our country will be proud of us for doing it.” Finishing the job is the key.
A popular bumper sticker claims, “War is not the Answer.” But that depends on the question. If the question is: “How can we eliminate Saddam Hussein, a man who killed 300,000 people, and replace him with a democratic government that we may be able to deal with?” then war was the only answer because, without the invasion, nothing would have changed in Iraq.
For years, we had tried to work through the United Nations Security Council. Saddam simply ignored 17 resolutions ordering him to prove he’d disarmed. He supported terrorists and he was a threat to the United States. Military action was the only reasonable response.
The better bumper sticker question would be: “Which country is likely to be better off in five years, Iran or Iraq?” Of course all that would never fit on a bumper sticker. But if it did the answer would be clear.
In spite of all the recent hemming and hawing over the proposed Iraqi constitution, Iraq is likely to be a constitutional democracy in 2008. Iran’s likely to be a virtual dictatorship, under the control of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or, if he dies, his religious successor.
Those who bet in 1997 that Iran would change under Khatami are probably broke now. And although Iraq is, in a way, broken, that break with Saddam and the past has opened a door to the future. In 2013, we may well be asking not, “Why did we invade Iraq?” but “Why didn’t we use our military to prevent Iran from going nuclear?”