Now that Iran has once again expressed interest in talks about its nuclear program, in response to a US-endorsed initiative from Russia, the issue of Iran will be introduced into the political discourse in the United States once again, this time at the start of the 2012 presidential campaign. 

I’m not sure, really, why people on both sides of the Iran divide see everything as black and white with so few shades of gray. From where I sit, it looks gray indeed.

Making facile comparisons between President Obama’s approach to Iran and President Bush’s Iraq policy seems especially noxious. Bush, by all accounts (including my own widely published reporting) desperately wanted to go to war against Iraq, and he eagerly grasped onto twisted and false intelligence to justify war. In contrast, Obama demonstrably does not want to go to war against Iran and, if anything, he’s seeking justifications to avoid war, not to make war. Although I believe that broad sanctions against Iran are a bad idea, it’s clear that Obama sees sanctions as a way of avoiding war, kicking the can down the road while placating hawks and AIPAC. But it should be clear to all but the most tendentious observers that Obama does not want war with Iran. Therefore, the Obama administration is not twisting intelligence to justify war but the opposite.

Related is the fact that in Iraq’s case, there was no nuclear program, no enriched uranium, no bomb designs, whereas in Iran’s case there is an advanced nuclear enrichment program, a stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a record (though disputed) of actual weapons research, a long-range missile program (Iraq had no long-range missiles), and so on. It’s fair to say, as I’ve written, that Iran possesses no weapons-grade HEU, no warheads capable of carrying a bomb, no over bomb designs (yet) and no obvious, declared intent to do any of that. Yet to dismiss concerns over an Iranian bomb as poppycock or warmongering by neocons seems extremely unfair and, yes, tendentious in the extreme. As academics, observers and journalists, we ought to be able to draw opposing conclusions about Iran’s nuclear program without attacking one another’s motivations and accusing one or another faction of being appeasers and Ian apologists on one hand or warmongering neocons agents of Netanyahu on the other. 

It’s possible to believe that Iran is plunging ahead on a nuclear weapons program and still be opposed to war. It’s possible to believe that Iran is not making a bomb and still support some sort of pre-emptive attack. And it’s possible to see shades of gray in all of this. My own view inclines toward the former, that is, that Ayatollah Khamenei wants to oversee a nuclear-capable Iranian military, but I still believe in negotiations and, if that fails, a containment policy that is able to deal realistically with an Iran that has a limited nuclear weapons capability.

From the left, and from the right, there’s been harsh criticism of the New York Times. Much of that, especially from the left, tries to draw comparisons to the Times’s faulty coverage of Iraq in the 2001–03 period, when the paper wrongly promoted the Bush administration’s concocted charges against Iraq. This time, however, it is clear that the Times is not intent on pushing for war with Iran. Quite the opposite. That isn’t meant as a blanket approval of all of the Times coverage of Iran. But let’s not mix up the Times’s reporting of what the IAEA says, for instance, with some inherent bias at the paper. It’s one thing to critique the politics in and around the IAEA on Iran, and quite another thing to lambast the Times for simply reporting it. The Times, like many of us, learned some lessons from Iraq, and they’re not likely to repeat those mistakes. Fact is, Iran does have an opaque nuclear program—and Iraq didn’t. The IAEA, to its credit, challenged the view that Iraq had a nuclear and WMD program. On Iran, the IAEA is dealing with a country that at the very least wants to use the appearance that it is seeking a weapon as a political tool in bolstering its national strategic capability. Saddam Hussein, too, reveled in making then world believe he had WMD, until it was too late. But again, the difference here is that Iran actually has an advanced program where Iraq had none (at least after the early 1990s).

Finally, while it’s easy to argue that harsh anti-Iran rhetoric that often prevails in American discourse is related to its nuclear program, its alleged support for militias in Iraq, and its supposed links to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, in fact the animus toward Iran predates all of that. It goes back to Iran’s gleefully expressed anti-Americanism, its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, its seizure of the “nest of spies” in 1979 and, of course, its odious theocracy. While there are nuanced (gray) areas in all of those pre-2001 issues, too, and while it’s fair to say that the United States is much to blame for its bungled Iran policy since the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty, Iran is not exactly an innocent victim of American imperialism. The conflict between the United States and Iran ought to be resolved on the basis of each country’s real national interests, but as far as I can see the likelihood that either side can move toward that goal is approaching the vanishing point, if not already there. It doesn’t help matters that Iran watchers in the United States see everything in black and white.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.