In the Arena

The Truth About Iran

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Fareed Zakaria has an important column today in the Washington Post, an antidote to the dangerous silliness about Iran that is being peddled by the Republican presidential candidates. Iran is faltering, not gaining strength, Fareed writes. The sanctions regime that the Obama Administration patiently negotiated with Russia and China is having a major impact. Iran’s major ally in the region, Syria, is at the point of collapse. But the most important point Zakaria makes is about the difference between Iran’s militant rhetoric and military reality.

Various powerless Iranian figures have been threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, the vital maritime superhighway for oil exports. But that’s silly bluster, designed–the Iranians aren’t unsophisticated–to provoke American politicians (like Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney) into silly bluster of their own. As Zakaria points out, if Iran closed the Strait, it would also be closing off the path for its own oil to exported, thereby collapsing its economy.

Fareed is also skeptical about the danger of Iran’s nuclear program. I’ve written about this multiple times here: Iran will probably have the capability to build some sort of weapon soon, but it would only use such a weapon as a deterrent against Israel and Pakistan, which already have nuclear arsenals. And, as Zakaria points out, everyone in Iran, including the leaders of the Green Movement, wants to see the nuclear project move forward. (When I interviewed Mir Hussein Mousavi on the eve of the election in 2009–the last time he spoke with a western reporter–he held out the possibility of negotiating the nuclear issue with the west; none of the other “reform” leaders I spoke with agreed with him.)

We’re at a dangerous moment with Iran, but also at a promising one. There are signs that, given their economic problems, the Iranians may finally be willing to talk. This would be very hard politically for the Obama Administration right now–unless the Iranians make an upfront concession to start the talks. Unfortunately, the current regime is inept when it comes to haggling (Iranians have many charms, but they also have an exaggerated sense of their bazaari negotiating skills–just ask the Chinese, the Indians or any of Iran’s other trading partners).

Certainly, the reality in Iran has absolutely nothing to do with the way the issue is being discussed by the Republicans on the campaign trail. Iran is not the most dangerous foreign policy issue facing our country. Pakistan–with a nuclear arsenal and the very real possibility of an Islamist Army coup–is.