If it’s true that Americans aren’t interested in foreign affairs, there clearly are pockets of stark exception in the Twin Cities.
Wednesday night, a particularly sweet spring evening, would have been a perfect time to stroll around lakes, sip drinks at outdoor cafes or just smell the lilacs.
Instead, a standing room only crowd accepted Rep. Keith Ellison’s invitation to a public forum on U.S. relations with Iran. More than 200 people stood or sat on folding chairs in the First Unitarian Society’s basement in south Minneapolis for two hours of speeches and Q and A. And get this: Ellison, D-Minn., had to finally shut off their questions so he could end the program.
It’s not that the panel of scholars delivered cheerful news.
Trita Parsi warned that Iran and the United States are at a particularly dangerous juncture. Parsi, president and founder of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, D.C., is the author of the book “Treacherous Alliances: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States.”
For 25 years the United States and Iran have managed to co-exist in a “state of no-war-no-peace,” Parsi said.
Spheres of influence
Don’t count on that uneasy coexistence to continue, though. Prospects for maintaining it are shrinking, he warned.
“The United States and Iran are deep inside of each other’s spheres of influence, mainly because of the invasion of Iraq,” Parsi said.
Instead of hurling rhetoric from opposite sides of the world as they did for years, they are operating close to one another. And the friction, Parsi said, creates a “very volatile and dangerous situation in which war is not necessarily something either side would choose but it is something that would choose them.”
A series of events in the 20th Century left the two countries at a standoff where neither side understands the other’s perspective and they are “ritually not talking to each other,” said Prof. William Beeman, who chairs the Anthropology Department at the University of Minnesota. His most recent book is “The ‘Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.”
Rather than communicating officially, the governments “talk to each other through the media … through slogans and press conferences,” Beeman said. For years, such “talk” had been chilly. During the Bush administration it has become openly hostile, with constant rumors of war.
One danger for the public is that the media often fails to critically examine the government’s statements about Iran, and thus helps build support for factions that are pushing for confrontation with Iran, Beeman said.
News this week about Iran’s suspected research into developing nuclear weapons was misleading, Beeman said. The New York Times said Tuesday that a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency called the research “a matter of serious concern” and said that Iran continued to owe the agency “substantial explanations.”
“The nine-page report accused the Iranians of a willful lack of cooperation, particularly in answering allegations that its nuclear program may be intended more for military use than for energy generation,” the article said.
In an interview after the forum, Beeman said the report – which is supposed to be restricted but has been widely circulated – never uses the words “willful lack of cooperation” or anything close to them. Further, he said the serious concerns raised in the report relate to allegations against Iran that could not be fully answered because IAEA inspectors were not allowed to show Iran the complete documentation.
Isolation and Iran
It is not surprising that a panel assembled by Ellison would reject war as an option.
“War will not destroy the government in Iran,” Parsi said. “It will destroy the country.”
It also is not surprising that they would call for some form of dialog with Iran. The current policy of isolation has backfired, Parsi said, because it enables certain Iranian leaders to build political currency by demonizing the United States.
“Isolation is the bloodlife of the hardest line elements inside Iran,” Parsi said.
If the crowd at the forum included defenders of the Bush administration’s policies toward Iran, they kept silent. Questions and comments from the audience were peppered with sharp criticism and suspicions of the true motives behind government claims. For example, one man asked whether the buildup in bluster toward Iran isn’t based in the administration’s fears that Iran will trade oil in currencies other than U.S. dollars, thereby undermining American oil interests.
Still, audience members tried to pin down Ellison on the limits to his oft-stated commitment to peace.
“What would it take, what would have to happen for you to vote for war?” a man asked.
“If a country, any country declared war on the United States and launched an assault on the United States, then the United States would have to defend itself,” Ellison answered.
But, in terms of threats from Iran, that scenario was extremely unlikely, he added. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made “reprehensible” statements about the United States, and nasty rhetoric deserves condemnation, he said.
“But when you send somebody’s child into a war, it had better be absolutely necessary for the defense of the nation,” Ellison said.