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How to Deal With Iran

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Posted on Sep 27, 2007

By Joe Conason

The loud, angry and sterile debate over the Iranian president’s visit to Columbia University raises a more serious problem that has long confounded American policymakers: How to cope with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s real masters, the corrupt regime of mullahs who determine both foreign and domestic policy in Iran. Their rule has meant awful suffering for the Iranian people, whose democratic aspirations remain frustrated, and instability for the Middle East and the world, as the leadership in Tehran constantly seeks provocations to distract from its own failures.

Now the same geopolitical geniuses who promoted the invasion of Iraq—and thereby endowed the mullahs with more influence than they ever enjoyed before—insist that the only solution is another war. They claim that we are already at war and should begin bombing Iranian nuclear and military sites as soon as possible.

What we should have learned after nearly 30 years is that neither blustering threats nor diplomatic isolation have advanced our interests, but have only bolstered the worst elements in the Iranian autocracy. And what we could begin to learn this week is that direct engagement, even to the point of entertaining a demagogue like Ahmadinejad in a prestigious educational forum, may eventually prove more useful.

Once merely a small-time populist politician in his hometown, Ahmadinejad has become a folk hero throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds, thanks to his provocations against America, Israel and the West. Sunni Muslims and secular-minded Arabs who might otherwise oppose Shiite authoritarianism applaud him because they perceive him as standing up for them against Western oppressors. Each expression of American outrage against the Iranian president from afar, every screaming tabloid headline and radio rant, only inflates the significance of this unimpressive and fundamentally unimportant man. And the constant threats of war from within the Bush White House and its neoconservative echo chamber intensify the effectiveness of his propaganda, both within his own country and across the Middle East.

The moment of dialogue at Columbia, by contrast, shrank Ahmadinejad back down to a more realistic size. Unlike Tehran, where his thugs can intimidate, imprison and even murder those who dare to question him, he had to stand and listen meekly as Columbia students and president Lee Bollinger demanded answers about his government’s repressive acts. Although Bollinger went over the top in parroting various White House themes in his brusque language, his commitment to free speech reflected well on the United States.


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The U.S. government should make sure that the Columbia videotape is broadcast everywhere, proving that we live up to our ideals and do not fear the likes of Ahmadinejad. Let the world watch him respond with pious banalities, feeble dodges and absurd falsehoods—“we have no homosexuals”—and then judge whether he is a hero or a fraud.

When the sideshow ends and the mullahs’ puppet returns to Tehran, we will still have to decide how to deal with the regime he represents. As Peter Galbraith explains in a penetrating essay in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, the Bush administration has vastly empowered the Iranian leaders by overthrowing their enemy Saddam Hussein and installing their Shiite allies as Baghdad’s new government.

With 160,000 American troops in Iraq, moreover, we are not exactly in the optimal strategic position to wage war against Iran, despite the bloody fantasies of Vice President Dick Cheney. Unlike Saddam in 2003, whose armed forces disintegrated within days, Tehran has a real army and air force, and sufficient naval power to block the Iraqi ports. Our forces would have to fight not only the 800,000-man Iranian army but also the Shiite militias, who could swiftly cut our resupply route.

It is an ugly prospect to contemplate, with potential losses that would dwarf our casualties in Iraq and an aftermath that would be still more chaotic, dangerous and ruinous to our reputation. Assuming we would eventually win, would that mean taking control of Iran—with the same kind of “success” we have enjoyed next door?

The alternative is what Iran’s courageous democratic dissidents have long implored us to do, and what the Iraq Study Group urged last year. Engage the regime, draw Iran into the world economic system and penetrate its closed borders peacefully to strengthen its civil society and weaken its overgrown theocratic state. Stop making heroes of the villainous mullahs and their puppets, and start dividing the pragmatists and reformers from the fanatics. And mute the threats that in Iranian eyes justify a nuclear weapons program.

That would be the beginning of wisdom.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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By dena@israel, September 2, 2010 at 12:01 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I doubt that usa will start war against iran. as for situation in israel -today i came out from the class and i have heard conversation of group of young people (17-19 yo). they discussed where they can get gas masks in oder to be protected from chemical attac.

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By bill payne, October 3, 2007 at 4:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Are matters going to get peacefully settled or not?

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By irma vega bijou, October 3, 2007 at 7:01 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

and truth is…
once more,Mr.Bollinger showed the world the real American arrogance and lack of manners,
as a University representative and a puppet of other interests.
so..where is democracy??
at least ,we may say, is not being showed at that particular university,
because you don’t invite a president of a country, to mistreat him that way, and show him like if a terrible thing to see,
actually, it was very disrespectful .
I guess diplomacy is evaporating so fast,,,is being forgottten.

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By SamSnedegar, September 28, 2007 at 2:56 pm Link to this comment


The “carrot and stick” idea is hopelessly corrupted by now, and no one will ever figure out that

(a) the donkey NEVER GETS A CARROT, and
(b) the stick is for holding the carrot with a string tied to it just beyond the donkey’s reach; the stick is NEVER used to beat the shit out of the donkey!

And by the way, the idea of using this technique is an insult to your neighbors because you accuse them of being stupid asses who would respond to a carrot they never can obtain.

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By Omid, September 28, 2007 at 4:02 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think the lecture of Columbia university chair was unmannerly and shamefully.
- he named Ahmadinejad as a dictator. my question is why the Iran old king (Shah) that fall with the Iranian will and have a lot of prisons in Iran was the friend of USA, but Dr. Ahmadinejad that selected in a democratic election and is very popular in Iran is a dictator?
- Some people that execution in Iran were some big smugglers and some that kidnap women and daughters and abuse them and people request the police execution them. The question is why in Afghanistan the plant of poppy increased 5 time more after the USA army occupation?
- USA Army occupied Iraq. question is why more than 500000 Iraqi people must be killed? How many racemose bombs and 2500 kilograms bombs fell over the Iraqi houses? Aren’t the Iraqi peoples angry from the USA? Why USA couldn’t present any degree and document from interference of Iran in Iraq? Do USA say reality?
1- Why did the US media put you under so much pressure to prevent Mr. Ahmadinejad from delivering his speech at Columbia University? And why have American TV networks been broadcasting hours of news reports insulting our president while refusing to allow him the opportunity to respond? Is this not against the principle of freedom of speech?

2- Why, in 1953, did the US administration overthrow the Iran’s national government under Dr Mohammad Mosaddegh and go on to support the Shah’s dictatorship?

3- Why did the US support the blood-thirsty dictator Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iraqi-imposed war on Iran, considering his reckless use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers defending their land and even against his own people?

4- Why is the US putting pressure on the government elected by the majority of Palestinians in Gaza instead of officially recognizing it? And why does it oppose Iran ‘s proposal to resolve the 60-year-old Palestinian issue through a general referendum?

5- Why has the US military failed to find Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden even with all its advanced equipment? How do you justify the old friendship between the Bush and Bin Laden families and their cooperation on oil deals? How can you justify the Bush administration’s efforts to disrupt investigations concerning the September 11 attacks?

6- Why does the US administration support the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) despite the fact that the group has officially and openly accepted the responsibility for numerous deadly bombings and massacres in Iran and Iraq? Why does the US refuse to allow Iran ‘s current government to act against the MKO’s main base in Iraq?

7- Was the US invasion of Iraq based on international consensus and did international institutions support it? What was the real purpose behind the invasion which has claimed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives? Where are the weapons of mass destruction that the US claimed were being stockpiled in Iraq?

8- Why do America’s closest allies in the Middle East come from extremely undemocratic governments with absolutist monarchical regimes?

9- Why did the US oppose the plan for a Middle East free of unconventional weapons in the recent session of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors despite the fact the move won the support of all members other than Israel?

10- Why is the US displeased with Iran’s agreement with the IAEA and why does it openly oppose any progress in talks between Iran and the agency to resolve the nuclear issue under international law?

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By SamSnedegar, September 27, 2007 at 7:20 pm Link to this comment

“...a more serious problem that has long confounded American policymakers: How to cope with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s real masters, the corrupt regime of mullahs who determine both foreign and domestic policy in Iran….”

pardon me while I rewrite this one snippet:

...a more serious problem that has long confounded Americans: how to cope with George Witless Bush’s real masters, the corrupt regime of thugs who determine both foreign and domestic policy in the USA…

We don’t know who they are, but we do know that the moron who lives in the white house is but a puppet, a fool who could never BE president of even a PTA chapter. So where are the investigative reporters who ought to be finding out who delivers the orders to Cheney in his secret location so that he can relay them to the ones who have to carry them out.

Unless and until we know the enemy, we have no chance of defeating him or them.

I’m glad that one of the posters here noted that one of the important items still should be confronted, i.e. the FIRST important fact of only two, which are:

1. it’s about oil.
2. Bush is a moron.

No one on this blog is going to mention oil; he might lose a publisher or a dollar, but surely someone is smart enough to see that there isn’t any possible way a congenital idiot like the brain dead dysfunctional monkey in the white house can even stop farting and laughing long enough to be president, particularly when there are important other things for him to do like pick his nose, fondle women, and fall off of sofas in a drunken or syphlitic trance.

What is our glorious leader’s best quality? He has no good ones, let alone comparative or superlative ones. The only things of quality which attach to him are the clothes someone picks out for him to wear. Of all the marvelous and tasty sandwiches that have been served over hundreds of years, HIS favorite is peanut butter and jelly, a child’s favorite, like his favorite book is about the little caterpillar.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to make our real leaders come forward and be questioned about their direction and their intent. All we have from the visible scum are lies, tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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By Stephen Cassidy, September 27, 2007 at 5:59 pm Link to this comment

Much of what Conason says (engage the regime, draw Iran into the world economic system, strengthen its civil society, stop making heroes of the mullahs, reach out to moderates and end the threats) are all elements of how the U.S. should approach Iran as set forth by Bill Richardson in a speech on June 27, 2007. 

Richardson observed: “First, let me say that I am under no illusions that achieving similar goals with Iran will be easy. But I am convinced that a concerted diplomatic effort, backed up by tough sanctions, undertaken with our international partners and grounded in bipartisan cooperation at home, stands an excellent chance of persuading Iran to forego nuclear weapons and to adopt more responsible policies.

I also believe that we must talk to the Iranians with no preconditions. For too long, the Bush administration lectured the Iranian leadership on what it had to do before we would talk directly with them. This policy was counterproductive, and I am pleased that Secretary Rice is now starting to break this ice. Refusing to engage Iran diplomatically prevented us from making headway on issues vital to our national security, including not only nuclear weapons, but also Iraq, energy security, and Middle East peace.

Let me be clear: talking without preconditions does not mean backing off one inch over fundamental objectives, such as insuring that Iran never acquires nuclear weapons.

But preventing Iran from going nuclear will require strong diplomacy backed up credible power and clarity of purpose. It also will take realism: we must remember that no nation has ever been forced to renounce nukes—but many have been persuaded to do so with a combination of carrots and sticks.

We need to approach Iran with both fierce determination and with open eyes. The key is to make them see that they will be better off and more secure without nukes than with them. If we unite the world behind the right carrots and sticks, and provide the Iranians with face-saving ways to step back from the nuclear brink, we will prevail.”

You can read the full speech at

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By thomas billis, September 27, 2007 at 5:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Joe I have tremendous respect for you as a journalist.But you and almost everyone else skips over the real place to start this discussion oil oil oil.We want to steal it for our domestic oil companies and the people in the region are against this.Joe there is an excellent book if you doubt this premise"American Theocracy” by Kevin Phillips.The problem is when you discuss a problem which I assume these wars are and you do not discuss the real motivating factor for them you are spinning your wheels.Do you really think anybody in this administration cares whether Ahmadinejab is against the holocaust or not.Of course there have been bonuses in this war for oil certain American corporations that are loyal to this administration have done extremely well.So from the administration perspective the war for oil has not been going well but the war for no bid contracts has been an overwhelming success.Joe maybe we can replace Ahmindinejab with the democraticaly elected goverment we overthrew in 50s and installed the Shah because they had the temerity to think in their own country they could nationalize the oil company.Maybe columnists like yourself could lead the fight to bring this discussion to where it belongs oil and energy policy maybe we could find some resolution.I suggest the title of a future column of yours should be"Profits For Oil Companies:Is Your Sons or Daughters Blood Worth It”

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By PatrickHenry, September 27, 2007 at 5:28 pm Link to this comment

What a pitiful debate last night with the democrats.

Hillary pandering to the Israeli lobbies.  Obama right there with her and Edwards too.  No one wants to commit to removing troops right away except Kucinich whom I admire but he just doesn’t have “it”.

We need Ron Paul more than ever and a vice president who shares his views.  With all the money involved in this transnational conspiracy against Iran you can bet there will be a Kennedy type action against Dr. Paul if he makes it to the ballot.

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By William Ries, September 27, 2007 at 4:40 pm Link to this comment

I seems as if we need not more global intervention by a return to isolationism.  No more “democracy” building.  Fight only when provoked.  The press jumps on the band wagon of intervention in Iran. Ridiculous.  One, we don’t have the military, and two, for what legitimate purpose would we invade?  Oil?  Prevention of nuclear proliferation? Sounds like Gulf War part three.  Bogus. The neo cons and nation builders attempt to ignore the real problems at home and enrich themselves, their pals, donors, and lobbyists, who stroke their huge inflated egos in a cycle of never ending greed.  Thanks.

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By WR Curley, September 27, 2007 at 3:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Talk, talk is always better than fight, fight.

That sorry bastard flapping atop the masthead at Columbia U broke one of the most ancient taboos in the long history of homo sapiens…you must never injure the guest of your house. You must welcome the supplicant always.

“Macbeth” has been scaring the bejeesus out of people for 400 years; most theatre people won’t mention his name in the playhouse, outside of the performance. Intelligent, brave people, frightened of a name. And this same was Bollinger’s transgression…that he invited the king into his house and then slew him. Stupid twit.

Still, Columbia has a disproportionately large Jewish contingent in its student body, and - more importantly - in its alumni, the source for endowments. The Columbia School of Journalism is the farm team for the Zionist media. The Jews see Iran as the prime threat to Israel, their little tin-pot toehold in the sump of the Mediterranean. So imagine you are this high-profile goy with a consumer base to service, whaddaya gonna do? You are going to invite Ahmendinejad to speak precisely so that you can insult him and hold him up to a raucous cascade of boorish student heckling in the hot limelight of the western media. And so we are that much closer to the rising whine of the nuke-tipped bunker-busters dopplering down on ancient Tehran.

You just know the pentagon is itching to try the damned things.

Talk, talk…always better.

WR Curley
Elizabeth, Colorado

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By TAO Walker, September 27, 2007 at 3:03 pm Link to this comment

Well, it’s working.  The never-ending media blitz intended to keep slaphappy americans convinced the real threats to their safety and well-being are “out there” somewhere gets another round from Joe Conason here.  It’s going to come soon as an awesome shock to most of ‘em when the internal rot that’s been festering here for four hundred years finally erupts fatally into their own backyards and living rooms.

The “blame Bush” syndrome so common among both columnists and commenters on this site is only the “localized” whipping-boy-du-jour expression of the constant allamerican hunt for anything and anyone except their own sorry selves to hold responsible for the dire straits they’re in today.  Congress and the Courts, too, are peopled entirely by 100% red-blooded americans….just ask ‘em, if you don’t wanna believe this old Heathen Savage.  Anyhow, in the good ol’ U.S.S.A. of all places “the gawd-damned gummint” IS “the People.”  It says so right in their Constitution.

So why is Conason wasting time and precious attention railing about “....the corrupt regime of mullahs… Iran”?  Apart from their location and “religious preference,” how are they essentially any different from the rotten rogue regime squatting on the Potomac?  The whole “global” She-bang, after all, runs on gangster rules.

The Iranian president may’ve insisted in his zeal that materialistic consumerism is primarily “sinful,” rather than terminally stupid….though he hinted at that, too.  Here in america, though, that toxic folly is the de facto national religion, unmentioned though it was in the U.S president’s insipid remarks to the U.N.  So if the americanpeople, as such, do indeed perish in this morass of designer-drugged confusion and self-glorifying imperial idiocy, they will have done so at nobody’s hands but their own….the siren song of the “greater israel”-ites notwithstanding.

When the likes of Joe Conason put THAT in plain words, maybe their “opinions” will be worth having.  Until then…..


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By WriterOnTheStorm, September 27, 2007 at 1:49 pm Link to this comment

“Engage the enemy? Treat them like human beings? Show respect? Yea right, like that’s going to stop them from selling oil to the competition. And if the enemy ever gets the bomb, then then how will the promised land ever get itself rid of those pesky natives?”

My apologies for resorting to cheap parody, but this article reads like a parody of diplomatic naivete. For all its best intentions, it is arguing in vacuum - one that obviates the deeply entrenched and vested interests that are calling the shots in that region.

Shall we call it ISRAOIL?

While we might agree that the suggested approach would, in the long term,  likely lead to an improved situation, to even dare imagine that it could happen requires a profound denial of the true (if unspoken) current circumstances.  And that makes it, at best, completely irrelevant.

To quote an old bhuddist: “to solve a problem, it is often better to know what the problem is”.

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By Jonas South, September 27, 2007 at 12:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Iran is full of nice people. I know because, until the current president was elected, they managed to repeatedly support a moderate, reasonable leader. Unfortunately, they were out flanked by a nutty, fundamentalist religious clique who pulled every trick in the book to frustrate democratic aspirations.

I cannot bring myself to hate Iranians, to the point of killing the innocent in an air campaign or worse, and not just because we in the U.S. share so much of their angst.

Can we console each other our misfortunes at the hands of radicals, while we work towards nuclear disarmament? The U.N. inspectors say that we have the time to do so. We can accomplish a lot in a dozen years, if we try.

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By rage, September 27, 2007 at 10:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If Dumya McFlightsuit does go into Iran, America will simply get her ass kicked mercilessly. Our military is stretched way way too thin as it is. Unlike Iraq, Iran is not on the verge of a civil breakdown along multiple sectarian lines. Iran is one nation whose sole focus will be driving America completely out of the region by any means necessary. Going into Iran only promises to be a needless painful hellish loss of droves of American troops, just so the corporate military industrial complex can reap untold gazillions. It damn sure won’t make America any safer, earning us the rage of many more enemies, suddenly strenghtened, emboldened, and that much determined to DESTROY THE GREAT SATAN!

Blackwater and Halliburton are more dangerous to America’s safety than Iran. These mercenary bigots are armed to the teeth and well compensated, with accountability to NO ONE! Furthermore, contractors have greater access to nuclear capabilities that the nations listed in the axis of evil will probably never be able to afford. Iran is nowhere close to acquiring nuclear technology to threaten anyone, unlike Hallibruton who is rumored to have already vended nuclear secrets to several American enemies in the Middle East.

The truth is that Iran represents nothing close to being a clear and present danger that could not be best addressed and resolved diplomatically with more economic growth opportunities. That Ahmadinejad is talking crazy makes him no more dangerous a threat than our own Dumya Shrub, whose speech to the UN had to spelled out phonetically in large font on a close positioned teleprompter, a linguistic convenience usually extended to non-English speakers. To date, the greatest danger America faces stems from this pinhead’s pompous refusal to admit to himself and the Nation he has criminally endangered with his insanity and greed that America is not kicking ass in Iraq. The chatter doesn’t get much more crazy than that.

Bottom line, we need to get out of Iraq and forget all about Iran. Making equitable peace with our enemies is what Jesus would do.

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By P. T., September 27, 2007 at 10:21 am Link to this comment

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger cracked under the pressure—hence the nature of his speech.

His ignorance was dismaying in likening Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a dictator.  One would have expected a university president to be better informed when giving a speech.

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By lilmamzer, September 27, 2007 at 10:04 am Link to this comment

This article is a classic example of the fatally-flewed “just engage them” self-defeating mentality.

There is no engaging with Islamism. There is only resistance or capitulation.

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By P. T., September 27, 2007 at 9:58 am Link to this comment

The contrived hysteria about allowing Iran’s president to speak at a university was a hypocritical farce.  Israeli war criminals speak at places all over the U.S.

Furthermore, gays are not the source of the dispute with Iran.  Iran’s opposition to U.S. imperialism and Zionist expansionism in a region with much oil is the problem.

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By ocjim, September 27, 2007 at 7:55 am Link to this comment

Good God, intelligent words:
The alternative is what Iran’s courageous democratic dissidents have long implored us to do, and what the Iraq Study Group urged last year. Engage the regime, draw Iran into the world economic system and penetrate its closed borders peacefully to strengthen its civil society and weaken its overgrown theocratic state. Stop making heroes of the villainous mullahs and their puppets, and start dividing the pragmatists and reformers from the fanatics. And mute the threats that in Iranian eyes justify a nuclear weapons program.

Conason provides words of intelligence that we will never hear from our so-called leaders. They are too busy intimidating anyone who would welcome the Iranian president to speak in our “free speech” country.

A deadly threat is creeping up on us. In secrecy Bush is planning to bomb Iran. It is still not too late to discuss the deadly consequences, something we didn’t do regarding the failed Iraqi mess. The consquences go like this: regional war, global economic upheaval, use of tactical nuclear weapons, global terrorist strikes by Iranian operatives. Let’s talk about it.

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