The following was written by Nobar Elmi Golhar. Nobar is a Product Director at Challenger, Inc and previously served as both Director of Community Outreach and Board Member for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).
Last month, our nation was brought to the brink of war when President Trump authorized the killing of the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. For now, Iran has responded with a limited strike on U.S. bases in Iraq that was tough enough to save face, but strategic enough to prevent retaliation. Sadly, in the process, Tehran also made the colossally catastrophic mistake of shooting down a civilian plane. So, now, the world is waiting on bated breath to see how it all unfolds. Will both sides continue the hateful rhetoric and sabre rattling? Will they try to call each other’s bluff? Or, will more calm and tempered minds prevail?
When it comes to U.S. and Iran, there’s roughly 70 years of history that one needs to know in order to understand the nuances of this complicated relationship. And, to adequately tell this story, I’d need a novel, not a blog. So, rather than focus on the past – on the “why” – I’d like to instead focus on the “what should we do” at this very important juncture. The question I’d like to pose is, “can diplomacy work?”
Not only can diplomacy work, it needs to work. For my left-brain thinkers, analysts and research enthusiasts, I offer the following:
- War with Iran would be very, very expensive: Since 2002, the U.S. has appropriated $1.9 trillion on military operations, largely related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Long-term forecasts that include veteran-related healthcare, disability and other benefits show a total financial cost of $4-6 trillion. Iran would be another multi-trillion war.
- Thousands of brave Americans would perish: Over 7,000 US military and Department of Defense civilians were killed in these wars over the past nineteen years. Iran would be more complex and would lead to thousands of American deaths.
- It distracts our attention: All this coming at a time where the U.S. needs to contend with a rising China and a resurgent Russia. From industrial policy planning to military expansionism to a massive infrastructure plan, Beijing aims to be the sole hegemonic power. One simple example of Beijing’s growth – China used more cement in three years – between 2011 and 2013 – than the U.S. used in 100 years, the entire 20th In other words, we need the capital, mental capacity and political space to focus on these two emerging challenges.
- There currently is no war strategy: As was so eloquently stated in a recent Atlantic piece: “Neither Iran nor the United States knows how to read the other’s intentions—each is prone to underestimation—leaving the two countries to lash out in the dark.” The last thing we need is a repeat of Iraq, Afghanistan, or anything resembling an Arab Spring situation where one government is toppled or removed only to leave everyone saying “ok, what’s next?” Even worse, we don’t want a situation that leads everyone saying “Oh no.” On this point, I also say it’s important to look at history. We should learn from our past to avoid repeating critical mistakes. “Tell me how this ends,” then-Army General David Petraeus said during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Likewise, the Iran hawks today, in and out of the Trump administration, have no idea how a war with that country would end. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell said about war, “you break it, you own it.”
Ok, so now that we’ve covered the business case for promoting diplomacy over war, I’d like to visit the human case. After all, behind every calculated decision is a face, a family, a story— and a place in our history books.
- Our troops: I will never forget the transatlantic flight I took years ago where I was seated directly next to an American soldier decked in his army garb. In one hand was a picture of his wife and two young children. In the other hand, a drink. (I certainly didn’t blame him for the latter.) At the risk of looking like a creeper, I tried not to show how closely I was following his gaze. I tried to ignore the fact that he was in such deep thought – probably wondering when or if he’d see and hold them again. Honestly, it was extremely difficult for me to hold back my tears back then, and even now as I write this. To be blunt, if we send our troops into harm’s way, there better be a damn good reason why. And, if my sole opinion doesn’t sway you, then I’d like to call out a recent poll that shows the majorities of U.S. veterans and broader U.S. public say the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were “not worth fighting.”
- The Iranian people: It’s been a good while since I was last in Iran visiting my grandparents, cousins and other family members. But, there are certain memories seared in my mind. I recall being asked about the Michaels – Jordan and Jackson, of course. I remember the excitement when I pulled out my Seventeen and Glamour magazine pile. I also recall being quizzed about Baywatch and other western shows that were being sold on the black market. So, what’s the point of these memories? The point is that we have an Iranian people who are, for the most part, very open to a relationship with the West, very young and very much in need of hope. They are yearning for better days, free of crippling sanctions and fear from an oppressive government. But, if the United States continues its bellicose campaign, the Iranian people, especially the youth, will have no choice but to rally around a government they were recently protesting.
- Respect for our fellow citizens: Given the heightened tensions between the US and Iran, there have been several disturbing reports of US citizens of Iranian descent being detained at borders and airports for lengthy periods, subjected to questioning and embarrassing scrutiny. Not only that, but there are also several reports of students, many of whom spent their life savings or took out loans to apply and come study in the United States, being turned away as soon as they land. It has become a sad reality for those of who are being treated as if we’re anything but American. This kind of blatant disregard for rights and the constitution isn’t who we are as a nation.
So, there we have it – both a rational and emotional case for not only why diplomacy can work, but why it needs to work. This is a time to make tough decisions and show our strength. I argue we do it by arming our diplomats, not dismissing them. We should seek solutions and communication, no matter how difficult or daunting. It certainly isn’t easy, but we didn’t elect our representatives on their ability to make easy decisions.