1. What are the consequences for America if Iran successfully develops nuclear weapons? How close are the Iranians to doing so?
We really don’t know just how close Iran is to acquiring the capability to produce a nuclear weapon, and that is part of the alarm. They are certainly a lot closer than most people believed even five years ago. However, the latest information from the UN watchdog agency indicates that it is not an imminent development—at least three years and probably more like 5-10 seems to be the consensus estimate of most experts.
2. Our intelligence about the internal situation in Iraq was so deeply flawed. How can we be sure of anything we’re told about the internal situation in Iran?
Iran is a much more open society than Iraq was under Saddam Husayn. Saddam’s Iraq was a totalitarian police state where all information was controlled and most people feared for their lives for saying anything other than what they believed Saddam wanted to hear. Iran is very different. Iranians do live under some onerous restrictions and do have to be somewhat concerned that what they say doesn’t cross the authorities, but these concerns are rather mild—at least by the standards of many other authoritarian regimes. As a result, Iran’s press is more open, Iranians are more willing and able to criticize their government, and Westerners have much greater access to Iranian society and what Iranians are thinking. On the other hand, we do have to be careful: the regime tries to prevent public opinion polling by outsiders, and the Iranian government itself is extremely secretive. In addition, Iranian politics are maddeningly complex, which makes Tehran’s behavior very hard to predict—even by Iranian officials themselves. So we can have greater confidence that we know more about what the Iranian people are thinking than was true for Iraq, but we should not assume that we have perfect knowledge about them. And when it comes to understanding the Iranian regime, we are all reading tea leaves.
3. President Bush has said repeatedly that our argument is not with the people of Iran—it is with the government of Iran. How did relations between our government and theirs become so strained?
This is a long and sordid story. Most Iranians date their estrangement from the U.S. back to 1953, when the CIA and British intelligence overthrew Iran’s wildly popular prime minister, Muhammad Mossadeq in a covert operation. As part of that, the U.S. re-installed the Shah to his throne and then became a primary backer of his regime. The Shah mismanaged Iranian affairs badly, creating a police state of his own, overheating the economy, destroying the livelihoods of many lower and middle class Iranians through bad policies badly implemented, and allowing a high degree of corruption in his regime. All of this alienated and then enraged his people, and because the United States grew ever closer to the Shah during this time, Iranians generally held the United States responsible for the Shah’s many failings. When this widespread disaffection turned into a revolution against the Shah in 1978, many Iranians saw it as a revolt against both the Shah and the United States. The Ayatollah Khomeini, who eventually came to lead the Iranian revolution, was also part of this disaffection. He saw the world in clear divisions of good and evil, and believed that the United States was the champion of evil in the world (that is where the term “the Great Satan” comes from) who Iran—the champion of good in the world—was destined to fight for the fate of mankind. Khomeini’s hatred of America, general Iranian anger at America, and a fear that the United States would try to repeat its 1953 coup again to turn back the Iranian revolution, led a group of zealous Iranian students to seize the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and take 52 American diplomats and Marine guards hostage in November 1979. This shocked the American people, who saw it as an unprovoked act of terrorism (if not war). The 444-day hostage crisis that followed embittered Americans against Iran just as badly as the 1953 CIA coup against Mossadeq had turned Iranians against America. That’s nothing more than a thumbnail sketch, and those wanting more might take a look at my book The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America (Random House, 2004) for a fuller account.