Imagine a debate has begun in the White House over finding a pretext to attack Iran. The country's vilification of Israel, its support for Hezbollah and terror, its designs for control of Syria and its jailing of Americans had all been fleshed out. Before any decisions are made, President Donald Trump will need a history lesson from his security advisers. Here's how the conversation could go:
"Bad," says POTUS. "Bad."
The national security adviser then begins to list a number of reasons why the leaders of Iran act the way they do: "We do need to understand Iranian perceptions a bit. There's the 1953 coup; it overthrew a democratically elected government in Iran. There's some difference of opinion whether the United States had as much to do with the overthrow as the British, but most Iranians blame the U.S."
"OK," says POTUS. "So we were bad."
"Then there's the Iran-Iraq war," says the national security adviser. "Iran, then ruled by the Ayatollah Khomeini (the kidnappers of Americans, you recall the hostage crisis) was attacked by Saddam Hussein in 1980. In an eight-year war —"
"Wait a minute," interrupts POTUS. "Saddam invaded Iran?"
"Yes, and Saddam's troops killed more than 250,000 Iranians," says the national security adviser. "Given Iran's population at the time, that would be equal to about 1.5 million Americans being killed today. A lot worse than 9/11."
"Gee," replies POTUS. "Bad, bad."
"And that's not all. The Reagan administration — you know Dick Cheney, et al — they supported Saddam, gave him a green light to attack, or at least a yellow, and shared lots of intelligence with Saddam's generals."
"Whoa," says POTUS. "I never knew that. Of course, I was busy building casinos in Atlantic City then. I had my own headaches with nasty immigrant workers; bad."
The national security adviser continues, ignoring the president's tangent: "Worse, Saddam used poison gas against Iranian soldiers. It was probably what led Khomeini to seek peace in 1988."
"That man would never seek peace!" declares POTUS.
"No, Khomeini was the first ayatollah, Mr. President. Today's leader is Ayatollah Khameini, pronounced hamm-men-eee, not ho-man-eee."
"Oh, still bad."
"And do you remember the Vincennes?"
"I sure do," replies POTUS. "Melania and I had a lovely, just lovely, walk through there when we were in Paris a few weeks ago. It's a beautiful park."
"No, Mr. President. I'm referring to the USS Vincennes, a U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser that shot down an Iranian civilian airliner in 1988; 290 Iranians, including children, died. Many of them were traveling to Mecca for the hajj; you know, the Muslim pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. They were shot out of the air by our ship in Iranian waters."
"Sad," says POTUS. "All those beautiful children — just like in Syria, huh?"
"Well, we did admit it, and we said we were sorry. The U.S. treasury paid $61.8 million to the families of those who died."
"That's a lot of dough," says POTUS. "But still, very, very sad."
"Mr. President, one more angle to think about. You were well received in Warsaw last month. Do you know what country's population likes America more than any other except Poland?"
"Israel?" guessed POTUS. "Russia?"
"No, Mr. President: Iran. Seventy per cent of the population of Iran is under the age of 30. All were born since the Shah was overthrown and the ayatollahs and the revolutionary guards came to power. And they love the United States — our culture, music, education, spirit. Were we to attack Iran, they would lose all respect for us and support the Revolutionary Guards, whom they now despise."
POTUS' face contorts, his lips twist sideways, his nose wrinkles. "So why are we talking about attacking Iran?"
"Back to square one, sir. We do need to examine this carefully. There are other options than war. There is coercive diplomacy. Their rulers are not nice guys, but there's a very complex power structure there. They are pursuing their national interests and are ready to exploit weaknesses in the region. After all, for so many years, they were surrounded by pretty bad people — the Taliban in Afghanistan, who killed their ambassadors: Saddam who waged war on them — before the situation changed."
"Well," says POTUS. "Who helped them out?"
"Mr. President, you know the answer. The United States did. We attacked the Taliban after 9/11, and defeated them until Messrs. Bush and Cheney decided to attack Iraq. And Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney deposed Saddam — something the Iranians applauded — though we didn't do a very good job of stabilizing the place, which led to ISIS, which led —"
"So, we were pretty nice to Iran then, huh?" interrupts POTUS. "Why don't they like us, again?"
Frederic B. Hill (email@example.com), a former foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, conducted wargames and conferences on Iran and national security issues for the Department of State. He is co-editor with Stephens Broening of "The Life of Kings; The Baltimore Sun and the Golden Age of the American Newspaper" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).