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Respect Beats Confrontation as an Iran Strategy

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In 1979, commentator Barry Rosen was among scores of Americans taken hostage in Tehran. He and 51 others remained in captivity for more than a year. Rosen was the last American to hold the office of U.S. Embassy Press Attaché in Iran.

This morning, in the second of two MORNING EDITION commentaries on the subject, he urges the administration not to resort to military measures now.

Mr. BARRY ROSEN (Director, Afghanistan Education Project, Columbia University Teacher's College; Former U.S. Embassy Official, Iran): My 444 days of captivity under the Islamic Republic taught me much about the terrorist ambitions of a theocracy flailing away at international law. Twenty-seven years later, let's stick with smart diplomacy, rather than threaten force as an option to deal with an obstreperous Iran.

This may sound strange from a former foreign service officer who suffered under Iran, but the Islamic Republic is only telling the world that it has the right to deterrence, like many of its neighbors. Iran went through a horrendous war with Iraq in the 1980s, and the United States backed Iraq, even though Iraq used rockets to bomb downtown Tehran.

After that, with U.S. troops nearby in Iraq, Afghanistan and central Asia, Iran would be stupid if it didn't want the nuclear card to hold the world-eating Americans at bay.

Iranians have long memories. They're still wounded by years of attempts by great powers to interfere with their political and economic progress. Iran sees itself as a major sovereign power in the region.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be an outrageous radical, but Iran is projecting its sovereign right to develop nuclear power, and even a bomb, by following the North Korean model: defying the International Atomic Energy Agency and calculatingly splitting members of the U.N. Security Council.

If we look at the nuclear crisis as an Iranian domestic issue, we see that President Ahmadinejad's nuclear sideshow is political theater, distracting the Iranian poor from their own serious needs. If there are no jobs, a nationalistic confrontation is a perfect distraction. Ahmadinejad's bluster and stage shows must be challenged, not by bunker-busting bombs that never really seem to be off the table, but by an unrelenting policy by the United States and its allies in support of the human rights movement in Iran, and by diplomacy that recognizes Iran's importance in the region.

Let's not be tempted to use the language of war in dealing with Iran. We know what war has done for us in Iraq: hell and death.

INSKEEP: Commentary from Barry Rosen. He's now Director of the Afghanistan Education Project at Columbia University's Teachers College. By the way, you can hear Mark Bowden's commentary on Iran, which we broadcast earlier this week, just by going to our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Barry Rosen