06/23/2008 04:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's Isolation Stupid! Why Pre-Election Plans to Attack Iran Will Only Backfire

This week, Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard insinuated that President Bush might launch an attack against Iran should Barack Obama be poised to win the presidency. Said Kristol: "I mean, what is, what signal goes to Ahmadinejad if Obama wins on a platform of unconditional negotiations and with an obvious reluctance to even talk about using military force?"

What neoconservatives fail to understand is this: The problem with the Islamic Republic of Iran is not its nuclear potential; or its already vast missile arsenal, or its support for anti-Israeli terrorist groups. Those are all symptoms of a greater ill. The real problem with the Islamic Republic is its isolation. And that is something that we, as Americans, have the power to change virtually overnight.

Sure, Iran's current isolation is of its own making. With the Iranian Revolution that ended in 1979, Iran declared itself to be "neither East nor West," a testament to the non-aligned status the people of Iran had fought for during popular movements a century and a half in the making. The Iranian Revolution was a disappointment to most, with its non-democratic outcome, the suppression of women's and minority rights, and the rampant mismanagement of the economy and the country's defenses. But one thing came from the Iranian Revolution that mattered a lot to a 2,500-year-old country: its complete and unconditional political independence.

Iran, a country that hasn't answered to a super power since 1979, achieved the kind of non-alignment that most citizens of the Middle East can only dream about. When there were sanctions, Iran found a way around them; or better still, it pushed the envelope of its domestic industrial base when no alternative was available. When visiting Iran, a man surprised me by saying, "Thank you for the sanctions." He meant it. Iran's independence was often its biggest strength.

But non-alignment came at a price. When Saddam Hussein invaded his neighbor to the East in 1980, most Arab countries joined forces with the United States and the Soviet Union to support Iraq. Casualty counts for the eight-year Iran-Iraq War vary, but some estimates put fatalities at one million on both sides.

Whenever neoconservatives talk of bombing Iran, they are not only legitimizing the idea of Iranian weapons proliferation as a defensive measure, but they are making it virtually impossible for the non-aligned Iran to sit down with America to begin with. Conditions that Iran cease its uranium enrichment, as well as America's overt talk of bombing, only paint the Islamic Republic into a corner from which it can hardly get out, given its political structure. Iran may not be a democracy, but it is no dictatorship either. No political faction has a mandate to sell out the country's independence by overtly bowing to U.S. military and economic pressures. Iranian political leaders can afford to negotiate, but they cannot afford to appease.

Just as importantly, Iran knows that in the event of war, America cannot invade; it can only bomb. This means the regime's consolidation of power as the country rallies around the flag. Worse still, Iran would have the capability of obliterating the Green Zone and several American bases, should it choose to do so, all while making life hell for our troops throughout Iraq and Afghanistan --- two countries where Iran owns much of the ground and the governments. To make matters worse, Iran knows it has profound economic leverage with its oil reserves (arguably the second largest in the world), something that drilling in pristine American areas will never be able to offset.

The real problem with Iran is not that it doesn't share any U.S. interests. It does. The problem is that Iran has created an image of itself as an anti-American, "anti-imperialist" actor that is non-aligned. Iran has isolated itself through its badly managed foreign policy, and its accelerated nuclear program is only the latest proof of the insecurity that can set in when isolation backfires.

But that was also the story of the People's Republic of China during the l960s and early 1970s. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson wisely chose not to attack China's nascent nuclear program, and this paved the way for President Nixon, who, despite neoconservative attacks, chose to engage the "communist" country in diplomacy. Our cooperation with China helped America win the Cold War by encircling the Soviet Union more effectively. Today, we can engage "Islamist" Iran as well, and expect even better results if we are willing to hold wide-ranging, non-conditional talks before Iran even has the capacity to build a bomb.

The first step toward stable relations will be to stop the counterproductive threats, and work toward an agreement in which Iran is not isolated and not armed with a nuclear weapon; but instead can use its leverage to further common U.S.-Iranian aims like the stability of mutually friendly governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the fight against anti-Shia Al-Qaeda. In return, Iran will know that a U.S. or Israeli attack is not around the corner, and that it can boost its trade and expect a level of respect and agency afforded to independent nations. But that day will come only if the neoconservatives' October Surprise is blunted, and the real symptoms of a largely constructed U.S.-Iranian rivalry are addressed: Iran's self-imposed isolation, and neoconservatives' insistence on worsening it.

Nathan Gonzalez is author of "Engaging Iran: The Rise of a Middle East Powerhouse and America's Strategic Choice" (Praeger, 2007), and the upcoming "The Sunni-Shia Conflict and the Iraq War: Understanding Sectarian Violence in the Middle East" (Potomac, 2009)