Do We Really Want a Mini Cold War?

The issue of Iran's nuclear threat escalates every day, but it is already wearisome -- one more threat to add to a pile that's too high already. Several weeks ago Iran launched a solid fuel missile capable of striking Israel. Reading the news, I felt Cold War déjà vu. Anyone who grew up in the Fifties, even in India, had no choice but to feel like the arms race was a matter of life and death for the whole planet.

Now we have a choice. Either history will repeat itself or we will learn from it. That is, either Iran will be treated like a mini-Soviet Union, a nation of bogeymen with deeply evil intentions, or we will find another way.

It's always easy to repeat the past without learning its lessons. So far, a lot of that has been going on. Iran postures as if it is a major world power, and the militarists on both sides are happy to treat the posturing as reality. What about the facts? Iran is a small country with no viable modern army or defense structure, no delivery system for warheads, not the slightest capability of harming the U.S., and total vulnerability to Israel's overwhelming military superiority. Certainly Iran isn't toothless. It can foment terrorism, but so can any country that wants to. It promotes hatred for Israel, but that's a common threat throughout the Arab world. It can build a nuclear bomb if it wants to, and there's little to be done to stop it.

There's the rub. The specter of the "Islamic bomb" is anxiety-producing enough in the case of Pakistan, which deliberately sold atomic secrets for ideological and religious reasons. Iran sounds crazier than Pakistan, because its avowed policies are anti-American and so virulently anti-Israel that one wonders if the whole nation would risk its survival to drop the A-bomb on Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. But this fearful possibility goes beyond reason. It was exactly the same twisted logic that fueled "mutually assured destruction" in the Cold War, the notion that two countries could keep loaded pistols at each other's heads and still remain sane.

We need to back down from this mini Cold War the same way that we backed down from the bigger Cold War, in the following ways:

1. Accept that a society isn't going to commit mass suicide.
2. Assume that the Iranians know that their posturing is just that, not realistic policy.
3. Move toward global disarmament. There is no other way to stop small countries one by one from building atomic bombs.
4. Bring Iran back into the community of nations.
5. Trust that the ordinary Iranian citizen, particularly the younger generation, wants peace.
6. Offer incentives for peace, the main one being a willingness to negotiate on the basis of respect.
7. Ignore the demagogues, pay attention to the statesmen.

Fortunately, the current administration seems to understand all these points. In his campaign, Obama tested the issue and found that the American public accepted his notion about sitting down with Iran in face to face negotiations without preconditions. This was a complete turnaround from the previous policy, which was a childish one: "If you hate us, we hate you back." All that policy accomplished was letting the Iranian demagogues define the issue. Now Obama has made overtures, and it's up to Iran to respond. So far, they seem rattled. As with Castro in Cuba, a constant stream of anti-American rhetoric is the only politics they know, and a good screen for hiding severe domestic problems.

Be that as it may. The important thing is to avoid the next Cold War, even a mini one. The memory of living with mutually assured fear should remind us of how poisonous such an atmosphere really is.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle

Deepak Chopra on Intent.com