An Offer Tehran Can’t Refuse By Ted Koppol
An Offer Tehran Can’t Refuse
By TED KOPPEL
A few days ago, I inadvertently violated United States economic sanctions against Iran. I was paying my hotel bill in Tehran, didn’t have enough cash and asked if I could use a credit card.
“I’ll need to keep your card for at least half an hour,” said the clerk. Since he’d also “needed to keep” my passport for the first couple of days I was in Iran, I thought nothing more of it. Half an hour later, I had my hotel bill and my credit card and left for the airport.
A couple of days later my assistant asked me if I had purchased any clothing in Dubai. “No,” I said. “Why?” Someone, it appeared, had used my corporate credit card to do just that. When I heard the amount involved — precisely the total of my hotel bill — I understood.
There had been no purchase of clothing in Dubai, of course; but some Dubai business debited my credit card there (where such a transaction is legal) for the amount of my hotel bill, simultaneously crediting the company that owns the hotel in Tehran with that sum for the purchase of goods or services in Dubai. Similar, much larger loopholes enable the European subsidiaries of American companies to sell sanction-banned American goods inside Iran in limited but still significant quantities.
Even as the United States withholds its goods and technological know-how from Iran, the Europeans, Russians, Japanese and especially the Chinese are offering theirs as quickly as the contracts can be drafted. The likelihood that more restrictive sanctions against Iran will either make it through the United Nations’ bureaucratic quagmire or dissuade Iran from darting down the path toward nuclear technology is about as dim as that of a popular uprising among the people under 30 who make up 70 percent of Iran’s population.
Many of Iran’s young adults — especially the well-educated, English-speaking ones who cross the path of a visiting American journalist — are frustrated by the puritanical nature of Islamic law. They dismiss their president and ours as deserving each other, denounce the corruption of the mullahs and speak with surprising openness about confiscated satellite dishes, blocked Internet sites, the closing of newspapers and the jailing and mistreatment of dissidents. But the young malcontents appear nowhere close to staging a revolution.
On the highway from Tehran to the Mehrabad airport, I witnessed a mind-bending object lesson in the limits of youthful rebellion: two young women on in-line skates, clutching the door handles of a car being driven by a young man at speeds approaching 60 miles an hour. Both women brazenly violated every traffic law known to man, but with their head scarves in place, the loose ends firmly clenched between their teeth. There are certain lines you don’t cross.
Trivial acts of rebellion, irrelevant to the Islamic revolution, are tolerated. Anything perceived as a significant challenge is not. One of the men who planned and executed the taking of the American Embassy in 1979, for example, spent nine months in solitary confinement for collaborating on a public opinion poll whose findings were deemed unacceptable.
Iran suffers from chronic underemployment and its social safety nets are flimsy at best. The Revolutionary Guards now resemble Mafia families more than ideological shock troops. They still wield enormous influence, but their clout has corrupted them. In Tehran, I’m told, the Revolutionary Guard dominates the construction industry and its leading members have become exceedingly wealthy as a consequence. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains popular among the peasants and the poor, who note that he has failed to deliver on most of his campaign promises but are willing to grant him more time. As long as the price of oil remains above $50 a barrel, Iran can buy what it needs.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s tweaking of the West and his refusal to bow to pressure on the nuclear issue are widely popular in Iran. There was a time, not long ago, when many Iranians genuinely believed that there was a danger of an American military attack, even an invasion. Hardly anyone seems to believe in that possibility any more.
What, then, can the United States do to prevent Iran from developing nuclear technology? Little or nothing. Washington should instead bow to the inevitable.
“You insist on having nuclear weapons,” we should say. “Go ahead. It’s a terrible idea, but we can’t stop you. We would, however, like your leaders to view the enclosed DVD of ‘The Godfather.’ Please pay particular attention to the scene in which Don Corleone makes grudging peace with a man — the head of a rival crime family — who ordered the killing of his oldest son.”
In that scene, Don Corleone says, “I forgo my vengeance for my dead son, for the common good. But I have selfish reasons.” The welfare of his youngest son, Michael, is on his mind.
“I am a superstitious man,” he continues. “And so if some unlucky accident should befall my youngest son, if some police officer should accidentally shoot him, or if he should hang himself in his cell, or if my son is struck by a bolt of lightening, then I will blame some of the people here. That I could never forgive.”
If Iran is bound and determined to have nuclear weapons, let it. The elimination of American opposition on this issue would open the way to genuine normalization between our two nations. It might even convince the Iranians that their country can flourish without nuclear weapons.
But this should also be made clear to Tehran: If a dirty bomb explodes in Milwaukee, or some other nuclear device detonates in Baltimore or Wichita, if Israel or Egypt or Saudi Arabia should fall victim to a nuclear “accident,” Iran should understand that the United States government will not search around for the perpetrator. The return address will be predetermined, and it will be somewhere in Iran.
Maybe we could induce Richard Armitage out of retirement to play the Don Corleone part. Apparently he knows the role, having already played it in Pakistan.
Ted Koppel is a contributing columnist for The Times and the managing editor of the Discovery Channel.
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