Iran experts: proven right but not consulted
With one partial exception, all Iran scholars with whom I have been in touch criticize any military action against Iran as ill-advised and counterproductive. Today, there is deep concern among these experts that America -- through threats , raids, bombs, and blockades -- may force Iran directly into the arms of the Soviet Union.
But who is listening? A survey taken this past week of a dozen of the nation's leading specialists on Iran reveals unanimous agreement that their counsel has been in no way seriously sought by the key foreign policy makers in Washington.
It is now clearly documented that the community of scholars on Iran saw the revolution coming long before it in fact occurred. Following the revolution, they stressed the necessity of understanding Shi'i Islam and the need to communicate with the religious leaders. The admission of the Shah into the United States on Oct. 22 was viewed with great alarm by the Iranologists, several of whom warned against it as inviting disastrous results for US-Iranian relations.
By ignoring its own specialists in the State Department and by refusing to call on knowledgeable Iran scholars from the outside, the administration has consistently converted rare opportunities into major defeats while sinking ever more deeply into the pools of its own frustration. It has at the same time managed to destroy morale among key groups at the Department of State.
Now, as the Carter administration stumbles through the Iranian crisis on its way to possible further military adventures, it is time to examine its failure to consult scholars and professionals who have spent their careers studying Iran. The critical decisions are being made by a small group of individuals clustered around the White House and backed by an embarrassing absence of Iran expertise at the National Security Council.
After this point was first made publicly in an April 11 newspaper column written by Prof. William Beeman of Brown University, there was a flurry of activity in which five scholars (including Beeman) suddenly found themselves invited to attend an April 23 session on Iran convened by the State Department. This decision to systematically consult some experts came when the hostages had already spent 167 days in captivity. On April 24 two members of the group met with then Secretary of State of Cyrus Vance and a number of his high-ranking colleagues.
It is now a sad fact of history that during these very consultations the ill-fated desert raid was in progress. The only one present who knew this was Vance himself, for whom the meeting must have been a long one.
The fact that the State Department and not the White House chose to seek independent external advice goes a long way to explaining why the United States has so badly misread and misinterpreted the Iranian situation. The place in Washington where the complexities of Iranian society are best understood is the Department of State, for it is here that one finds several experienced foreign service officers who are sensitive to Iranian affairs. The fact that even this in-house expertise has been ignored by the White House became quite evident with the resignation of Mr. Vance, who understood that basic problems of political communication are not solved by commando raids by way of salt deserts.
It is at the National Security Council and in the White House itself where ignorance of Iran reigns supreme and where scholarly expertise would have been of best use to America's national interest. In the absence of any sound knowledge of Iran, the administration is unable to fend off the barrage of twisted ideas thrown up by the media's instant Iran experts, such as the intelligent but uninformed columnists George Will and Joseph Kraft.
The need to understand Iran and to communicate with its leaders is essential. Without the former, it is impossible to do the latter. Arguments about multiple centers of power and irrational behavior may be partially accurate but, as long as they serve as substitutes for understanding, they destroy any chance to resolve the confrontation.
This understanding does not come easy. It come only from years of living with the Iranian people in their society and within at the White House or from weekend conferences at Camp David.
It is ironic in this context that several of America's allies -- the West Germans, Japanese, and Canadians, for example -- have sought the advice of US scholars on Iran. Why then has this advice not been seriously sought in Washington?
There are two major possibilities: Either this advice is not needed or it is not wanted. In the first case, the White House may feel that it is better informed that the experts. If this should be the perception, the record of consistent failure could be expected to gradually shake this attitude. It has apparently not yet done so.
In the second case, the President's advisers may not in fact want the analyses of Iranologists since the anticipated views may be considered irrelevant or contradictory to those already etched in the executive mind.
The White House strategists view Iran in terms of its threat to Saudi Arabia, its position vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, or its significance to the 1980 presidential election. No one there has yet sought to understand Iran in terms of Iran. When the decision is finally taken to do this, then perhaps special knowledge of things Iranian may be considered useful.
Meanwhile, the President's national security advisers continue to promote insecurity by driving Iran further and further away from its revolution and closer and closer in the direction of its centuries-long enemy to the north -- the Soviet Union.