A TRIP to the Persian Gulf and East Africa last week provided me some perspective on what is happening there, particularly with regard to U.S.-Iranian relations.
Looking at U.S. media coverage of the events in Iran subsequent to its June 12 elections, compared to what I learned during my trip, convinced me that Americans are being bamboozled on the subject.
This is a predictable outcome of the fact that there are few representatives of the U.S. media in Iran, partly because of the hostility of the environment, partly because the government kicked out most foreign reporters, and partly because U.S. media are currently strapped for money to send correspondents to the sites of important events overseas.
Thus, Americans receive scanty or badly tilted information about Iranian developments.
The media's main source of information are Iranians, some of whom have a dog in the fight. At least three groups have a reason to try to influence U.S. policy.
They include Iranian exiles who live in the United States and who left Iran in 1979 when Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was overthrown. For some of them, the best outcome would be for the United States to intervene in Iran militarily and effect "regime change," reversing the outcome of the 1979 Islamist revolution and putting them back on top.
Their figurehead leader is the son of the late shah, Reza Pahlavi, who lives in Bethesda, Md.
All Iranians recall that in 1953 the United States and the United Kingdom intervened in Iran to overthrow the democratic government of Prime Minister Mohamed Mossadegh to put into power Mr. Pahlavi's father, the shah, who ruled Iran as a glittering kleptocrat for the next quarter of a century.
The second group motivated to influence the U.S. government and public is the Iranian government, which takes a rather doughty stance that what is happening there with respect to the elections and their aftermath is none of the United States' business. What is happening, it maintains, is consistent with democratic principles - or at least an Islamic version of them.
Some Iranian adherents of the current system of government would see political advantage in the United States taking a position on who should have won the elections.
There may no more solid gold position for an Iranian politician than to be able to argue that his rival is supported by America, a veritable kiss of death.
The third group with an axe to grind are the Israelis, some of whom, including probably Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would like to attack Iran. They want to set back Iran's nuclear program, which could develop into a threat to Israel, or at least remove Israel's advantage of being the only state in the Middle East with nuclear weapons.
The unfortunate fact is that a war with Iran, waged by Israel and supported by the United States, would put such a demand on the attention and resources of the Obama Administration that it would no longer be able to pressure Israel to reach a settlement of the 61-year-old central problem of achieving a state for the Palestinians.
In a war with Iran, Israel would be free to consolidate its occupation of the West Bank through settlements, checkpoints, and its wall, without Americans bothering it about achieving a sustainable Middle East peace through a two-state agreement.
With these three groups laboring to see that the American public does not have an objective picture of what is happening in Iran, it is no wonder the U.S. media are giving a murky picture. Absent an American embassy in Tehran for the past 30 years, the Obama Administration also does not have access to clear, unbiased information. Prior to 1979, there was an active embassy and trade office in Tehran and consulates or branch offices in three other Iranian cities: Isfahan, Shiraz, and Tabriz.
Now, what do I see going on in Iran?
What I find remarkable is the amount of political vigor that still exists there in spite of 30 years of Islamic rule, ramrodded by a range of intrusive security forces and led by a bewildering array of unrepresentative institutions, most of which are headed in part by undistinguished, older Islamic clergy.
That is the story, particularly in what it promises for the future.
Unless the current regime in Tehran finds some means of easing the rigidity of the formal political process to make room for more democratic, younger political figures and forces, the next round of elections will make these protests mild by comparison.
The ayatollahs are not going to let the results of the recent elections be reversed in the streets. They cannot do that and maintain their authority.
Put another way, the Iranians and the world are almost certainly stuck with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for another term.
But we all have to hope the clerics are not stupid and that they realize it will be the fire next time if they don't slowly but surely open up the system to change.
For the United States, what we need to do now is stop responding to the stimuli from the Iranian exiles, the Iranian government, and the Israelis trying to get our ear and, as soon as the dust has settled, establish frank, useful, and mutually informative dialogue with the Iranians.
It will be necessary to ignore the stupid argument that to talk with them is to validate them.
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