If you ask an American why he keeps a gun, he'll say it's a dangerous world out there. If you ask the average Iranian why his country should have a nuclear weapon, he'll tell you the same thing. The difference between your average American and your average Iranian is that the former, while hardly crazy, is overreacting a bit, while the average Iranian is, as the Brits might say, spot on. If ever a country could use a nuclear arsenal, it is Iran.
This is not an endorsement of Iran's reputed and deeply suspected effort to go nuclear. It is merely an attempt to show that the country President Bush once cited as a card-carrying member of the "axis of evil" is, while somewhat evil, actually being totally rational. For starters, it is surrounded by nations that have at one time or another been enemies -- some of which have nuclear weapons.
Take Russia. It is now on friendly terms with Iran and an important trading partner, but at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin had to be pressured into withdrawing from the northern part of the country. At the moment Russian designs on Iran seem both unlikely and preposterous, but what happened once could happen again -- or so an Iranian might argue.
To the east is Pakistan, a certified member of the nuclear club. Iranians may wonder why the Pakistanis can have a bomb and they cannot. It is a question without an answer. Farther afield is Israel, which no one in his right mind would consider a mortal threat to Iran. But Iran is an Islamic (Shiite) theocracy, and it is engaged in a struggle with Israel that makes as much sense from Iran's point of view as did, say, the American effort to rid the world of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. In its own way, every country is a bit nuts.
Then, to the west, is Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, it invaded Iran in 1980 and devastated its oil infrastructure. As we have now learned the hard way, Hussein did not have nuclear weapons, but he desperately wanted them -- as might some Iraqi leader of the future. The country is now in the hands of the United States, which has hardly been a mere observer in the region. In 1953 the CIA mounted a coup in which the prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, was ousted and the shah, who had prudently fled the country, was restored to his throne. Mossadeq was put under house arrest, but some of his aides, including the foreign minister, were executed. Years later, when the shah was toppled and hostages were taken at the U.S. Embassy, it was not entirely an episode without context.
From an Iranian point of view, then, the world is indeed a dangerous place. It must seem all the more dangerous since Bush made Iran one-third of his axis of evil, promulgated a virtual divine right to wage preemptive war -- and made good on both statements by taking out Saddam Hussein. From the Iranian point of view, the world must also seem an illogical place. Why is it okay for Israel to have the bomb or, for that matter, France? The answer is, that's the way it is, booby.
But if that's the way it's going to continue to be, then the United States had better change its approach. It ought, right off, to join with its European allies -- Britain, France and Germany -- in offering Iran a package of goodies to induce it to abandon its nuclear dreams. Instead, Washington has declared itself "agnostic" about these talks, which is hardly a rousing endorsement.
Maybe more important, the Bush administration had better wake up and smell the importance of international organizations and the rule of (international) law. If a country can't trust the law it will, like any American gun owner, hanker for a weapon of its own.
Repeatedly, Iran vows it has no nuclear intentions. "Trust, but verify," I say, echoing Ronald Reagan's echo of Mikhail Gorbachev. But if it turns out that Iran is lying (imagine!), unilateralism will not work. The United States is not about to go into another war, this time with a much larger country where anti-Western sentiment has been a factor since the 19th century -- and the Iranians have to know it.
History may well judge the war to topple Saddam Hussein "The War of the Wrong Consonant" because it was waged against Iraq, not Iran. It's often said that that war produced no winners. Not so.