Iran, so far

Although long-time foe of the U.S., Iran could prove to be a key ally in Afghanistan.

Now, just to be sure: weâÄôve moved past all of that childish âÄúaxis of evilâÄù business, right? Good. Because itâÄôs about time to begin talking about (and to) Iran like adults instead of hyper-imaginative kids who have seen a few too many war movies. Belligerence hasnâÄôt gotten us very far with the Iranians; happily, it seems as though the Obama administration is willing to investigate alternatives. We have a pretty messy history with Iran, to put it mildly. For plenty of Americans, the hostage crisis in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran back in 1979 was probably the first time Iran popped up on the radar screen âÄî an auspicious beginning, to be sure. Up to that point, Iran was (from an American point of view) little more than an oil-producing country that had some foggy history with British and Russian imperialism. But then 1979 rolled around, the Islamic Revolution took control of the country, and Iran became tough to ignore. But it would be another 20 years or so until the true extent of the U.S./Iran relationship would become clear. In 1953, then-Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq fell to a coup; in place of the democratically elected leader, the Shah (or king) consolidated control over the country. We know now that the American CIA and the British SIS orchestrated the coup âÄî Mossadeq intended to nationalize IranâÄôs oil industry, a move unacceptable to the West. The Shah kept control of Iran for 25 years, until Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile on the heels of the RevolutionâÄôs success. It was obvious at the time that the United States backed the Shah âÄî the Carter administrationâÄôs decision to allow the Shah to enter the United States after the Revolution led, at least in part, to the hostage crisis âÄî but we didnâÄôt know the full extent of the CIAâÄôs involvement in the 1953 coup until 2000. And then thereâÄôs the whole Iran/Contra affair that further muddied the waters, but IâÄôm not even going to attempt to explain that boondoggle here. Today, U.S./Iran relations are as tense as theyâÄôve ever been. Iran wants nuclear weapons, the United States is involved in military conflicts in two of IranâÄôs neighboring countries, and the Israel/Palestine conflict continues to loom over all. But more engagement, not more confrontation, is the only way out âÄî for all sides âÄî and finding some common ground would be a welcome development. Afghanistan seems like the obvious diplomatic icebreaker. Iran has no interest in chaos on its eastern border. AfghanistanâÄôs narcotics trade has a pesky habit of spilling over the border into Iran, and a completely unstable Afghanistan would compound the problem. Eventual U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could be another bit of common interest âÄî Iran has been understandably skittish with U.S. troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan and would welcome the idea of decreased military pressure. But thereâÄôs still the issue of Iran and the bomb, where things get particularly slippery. Consider this: the more pressure the United States puts on Iran to end any nuclear operations, the more incentive Iran has to complete a nuclear weapon. If the Iranians manage a successful weapons test, their bargaining position would be immeasurably stronger. Carrying the biggest of sticks gets you a lot of clout on the world stage and makes it much more difficult for other countries to apply pressure âÄî just look at what itâÄôs done for, say, Pakistan. If we consider a nuclear Iran an unacceptable idea, simply talking tough and making threats isnâÄôt going to get us what we want. There are plenty agitating for the third option âÄî not diplomatic ties, not continued isolation and sanctions, but outright war. ItâÄôs tough to put into words exactly how bad of an idea that is âÄî think of just the practical concerns. If weâÄôve learned anything in the past decade, itâÄôs that the initial military victory might be easy enough: what comes after is the tough part. ThereâÄôs enough chaos in the region without throwing another country into disarray. And even that initial military triumph probably would be tough; the U.S. military is already stretched to the limit, and weâÄôre having enough trouble just getting our NATO allies to help out in Afghanistan. But practical issues aside, war is still flat-out a bad idea. WeâÄôd be inflaming further hatred in the region (overthrowing an Iranian government for the second time in a half-century), inevitably killing civilians (thereâÄôs no smart bomb smart enough to avoid that) and giving organizations like al-Qaida more fuel for their recruiting fire. If we donâÄôt take military action, though, thereâÄôs the chance Israel will. A nuclear Iran is an especially unpopular idea in Israel, a geographically tiny, population-dense state where a nuclear strike would be cataclysmic. And with hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu recently taking over as IsraelâÄôs prime minister, things arenâÄôt exactly looking up on the peace front. If we canâÄôt make quick progress diplomatically with Iran vis-à-vis their nuclear program, the Israelis may decide they cannot afford to wait. Such a strike would destabilize the entire mid-east and bring about significant casualties. Which brings us back to the original point: If we need to make rapid diplomatic headway, common interests are the best place to start. This means having serious conversations with the Iranians about Afghanistan and what we can do collaboratively there. Simple geography means it would be much easier and cheaper for Iran to participate in the process of stabilizing Afghanistan, and we could offer increased economic and diplomatic ties. If we can ease some of the pressure on Iran, theyâÄôll have less motivation to pursue the bomb. It might be a long shot, but itâÄôs the best chance we have. John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]