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U of M panel warns of drift to war with Iran

“You would have to be deaf not to hear the drumbeat for war with Iran,” Rep. Keith Ellison tells a university audience.

Rep. Keith Ellison

“You would have to be deaf not to hear the drumbeat for war with Iran,” U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison told a University of Minnesota audience Monday.

Ellison, seeking to be a voice against the drumbeat, said that the United States has “every interest in the world” to try to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but “that doesn’t mean a war tomorrow or the next day or the day after that.”

Listening to the public debate about the closing window of opportunity to stop Iran, you might lose sight of the fact that Iran has no nuclear weapon, no nuclear weapons program and has conducted no tests on any nuclear explosive device.

At the moment, the intelligence shows that Iran is enriching uranium at the low level consistent with a non-weapons grade peaceful nuclear energy program and not at the higher level necessary for weapons development. Trita Parsi of the National Iranian-American Council, one of the other panelists at yesterday’s event, noted that 19 countries in the world are enriching uranium to the same or a higher level than Iran.

Advocates diplomacy

Ellison advocates diplomacy and pressure on Iran to cooperate with the kind of inspections and verification regime that will reveal whether the nuclear research and development is moving toward weapons grade enrichment. He favors the use of economic sanctions to pressure Iran to cooperate along those lines, have supported some of the sanctions that have been imposed, but he voted against the most recent congressional sanctions proposal because he felt it limited the ability of the Obama administration to engage with Iran without prior approval. “We need to stay engaged,” he said, but noted that an elected official like himself can work for peace only with the support of his constituents. “As long as you want peace, I’ll be calling for it,” he said.

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The panel at the U was cosponsored by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the Departments of Anthropology and Political Science and was moderated by Dean Eric Schwartz of the Humphrey School, himself a former assistant secretary of state, with experience in Mideast issues. It was not a balanced cast, as all three panelists argued against the drift toward military actions against Iran. During the question and answer session, Jay Shahidi, a prominent Twin Cities Iranian-American émigré, said that when he tried to get some of his fellow émigrés to come to the event they denounced the panel as “three stooges” for the government of the Islamic Republic.

In fact, none of the panelists seemed interested yesterday in justifying the actions of Iran, although all seemed interested in keeping the crisis on a diplomatic track and off of a military track.

Parsi, whose family left Iran to escape political repression when he was four and has written two books on U.S.-Iran relations, said the trouble with Washington is a tendency “to see the word compromise as a sign of weakness.” He thinks a compromise, in which Iran agrees to heightened levels of inspections/verification/transparency, is the winning formula for avoiding a bigger crisis.

Mixed record

The third panelist, William Beeman, chair of the University’s Anthropology Department and a long-time scholar of Iran, said that Iran sees the United States as the heirs to France, England and Russia as outside powers that have tried to dominate Iran for their own purposes. The United States has a mixed record on this score, he said. America saved Iran from being invaded by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. On the other hand, the United States overthrew the democratically elected Iranian government in 1953.

Since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah (a U.S. ally) and the year-long captivity of  U.S. embassy personnel, both sides have nurtured and deepened their grudges to the point that what is needed is a “massive diplomatic undertaking,” something comparable to the epochal Nixon opening to China after decades of estrangement.

Beeman noted that top U.S. officials, including the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said that Iran is a “rational actor” and that Iran – even if it had a nuclear weapon — would have nothing to gain and much to lose if it initiated a nuclear attack on Israel. He quoted former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert as rejecting the idea that Iran represents a threat to Israel’s existence and Israel’s top military official as saying that he doesn’t believe Iran will develop a nuclear weapon.