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Russ Wellen: Iran On The Brink

Iran On The Brink

What's it like waiting around to be bombed?
By Russ Wellen

A recent CBS News/New York Times poll showed that 65 percent of Americans endorsed diplomacy with Iran, while 10 percent favored military action. But when asked by an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll if the US should "destroy Iran's ability to construct nuclear weapons," the percentage that advocated an attack rose to 43 with 47 percent demurring.

The same poll also asked if we should attack Iran if it were found responsible for exporting roadside-bomb technology to Iraq. Those in favor were now in the majority -- 55 percent -- while 45 percent opposed.

The degree to which our opinions are manipulated by the introduction of mounting threats to the equation, as if from a dropper into an experiment, suggests we're unacquainted with the issue. But opinion polls are predicated on the assumption that the public is informed. However, as Christopher Shea once observed in a Salon article on the effects of voter ignorance: "Most people base their votes, and their answers to polls, on only the vaguest feelings about how the economy, or life, is treating them."

Ideally, the polls would have prefaced the above questions with another: "Are you aware that the US is considering a military strike on Iran?" To many respondents, it might have been news.

Unless you work in a foreign-policy think tank, the subject probably doesn't come up much, if at all. Meanwhile, those aware of it are likely to comfort themselves with the thought: "We'd never do that. We're already over-extended in Iraq." Americans have enough trouble dealing with –- or, as the case may be, screening out –- one war.

We push the mute button on the drumbeat of war at our own peril. But it's even more dangerous when those in harm's way are in denial. It turns out that much of the Iranian public is tuning out the threat of an attack, too.

In his Salon article "The view from Tehran," Hooman Majd writes that, "by and large [Iranian officials, as well as the public] do not believe that the United States will attack Iran, mostly because they cannot envision that the White House could be. . . so foolish as to attack a country where 10-year-olds have been willing to strap grenades to their waists and run under enemy tanks [as in the Iran-Iraq war]."

They believe American saber rattling and deployment of aircraft carrier groups to the Persian Gulf are a "psychological war to frighten Iran."

Recently on Foreign Policy in Focus, Farideh Farhi wrote a piece about Iran's political environment, in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ruling mullahs are often at odds. Its "highly contentious and fractured" nature is actually a "source of strength [emphasis added]," she reports, "rather than weakness, allowing for a wide range of input in the decision-making process."

In other words, Iran already has the democracy drawn up for them by the Neocons. Furthermore, writes Farhi, Ahmadinejad's opponents "have shown no hesitation at all in closing ranks behind the hard-line position if they perceive the Islamic Republic or its vital interests to be at stake."

Since Ms. Farhi's conversance with Iran is partly a result of living and working there for a time, we asked her if she thought Iranians were in denial. Bear in mind that, unlike the US, Iran (not to mention, much of the world) doesn't base all its decisions on polls and focus groups. Ms. Farhi writes:

"Given lack of polling on this issue, it is difficult to gauge exactly what the Iranian public thinks. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that after a short period of concern, which came about when there was almost daily talk of attack on Iran in the European and American press, the Iranian public doesn't think much about the issue.

"Iranian New Year [Nowrooz, March 21] is [upon them]. . . and basically thinking about what may be an impending war is not a nice way of living. So my bet is that most of the Iranian public is ignoring the issue not necessarily because there is denial but out of the necessities of everyday life.

"What is significant, however, is that Majd is correct and much of the political class, particularly those with a conservative bent, thinks that only extreme irrationality would make US attack Iran. Ahmadinejad has even said in an interview that the US would not be so stupid.

"The Iranian military brass and hard-line newspapers have also talked about the assessment that most of what is going on is psychological war. I am aware of only one official that has [publicly] entertained the possibility of attack. In a long interview with the Iranian television, Mohsen Rezaee, the secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, said that George Bush is a singularly determined man and if he decided to attack Iran, he will do it no matter what the obstacles are."

We also asked M.K. Bhadrakumar, the former Indian ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey who writes for Asia Times Online on Iran and other issues, to weigh in.

"I find myself in agreement with the assessment that the Iranian public doesn't take seriously an American military attack as a possibility. (No one with a logical fame of mind would, either.)"

After that zinger at the Bush administration's expense, Mr. Bhadrakumar describes what will happen in the event of an attack. "Indeed, if the Bush administration does finally decide to do something as unwise as to strike Iran militarily, Iranian nationalism will overflow." He explains that the "Iranian revolution's strong social base (the further one moves away from Tehran's middle class, the more palpable it appears to a traveler) hasn't withered away. . . . It can be invoked by the leadership at short notice with devastating effect."

In fact, he adds, the conceit that the regime has no public support is a "completely myopic idea." Consistent with Ms. Farhi's view that the combative nature of Tehran's internal politics is an asset, he believes that, "Iran's vibrant political life, and the garrulous nature of the Persians are not being taken into account by those outsiders making facile judgements such as that the regime is divided and is alienated from the public."

Finally, he cautions the administration that it's "dangerous to take one's own propaganda seriously."

As Mohsen Rezaee, the Iranian official Ms. Farhi quoted earlier, affirmed, the Iranian government "is prepared for the kind of attacks the US is entertaining." Still, it seems to us that a slumbering Iranian public, wakened with a start, might lend an American attack an element of surprise that by all rights it doesn't deserve since it's been "on the table" for years. Thus wounded, like the US after Pearl Harbor and 9/11, it might rally round the flag that much more quickly than if it had been living in dread for years.

In the meantime, it might help our perspective to imagine what aircraft carrier groups massed outside your country feels like. Since the executive branch and the ruling mullahs are married to uranium enrichment, it's too late for Iranians to call their majlis (parliament) representatives and ask them to vote against it. In the same situation, we too might yield to the temptation to shield our eyes from the winds of war whipping up around us.


Bio: Russ Wellen is a senior editor at and the nuclear deproliferation editor at

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