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“Hugs from Iran”

June 17, 2012

Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, is a journalist-activist.  He roams the world looking for ways to make it better.  He makes the world better, first, by writing about the world’s problems, and second, by proposing and sometimes even instigating solutions.

My personal favorite was Kristof’s crusade on behalf of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who was sentenced by a traditional council to be gang raped, as her family’s punishment for a rape committed by her brother.  Tradition called for Ms. Mai to commit suicide after she was raped, but she refused.  Instead, she “propounded the shocking idea that the shame lies in raping, rather than in being raped.”  She testified against her rapists, and won an award of $8,300 – which she spent to build a girls’ school.

In support of her efforts, Kristof took up a collection among his readers, 1,300 of whom contributed $133,000, which he gave to Ms. Mai, and which she used to expand and institutionalize her efforts to provide education to rural Pakistani women.  In 2005 Ms. Mai was named Glamour magazine’s woman of the year.  She was flown to the United States, where she met with political leaders and celebrities.  Nick Kristof called her the 21st century’s Rosa Parks.

Today Kristof is traveling across Iran and writing a series of columns about the trip.  The first one, last week, was headlined “Hugs From Iran.”  Kristof observed with some surprise that many Iranians regard the United States quite favorably, despite the fact that American-led sanctions are doing some serious economic damage.  Kristof quotes Iranians who blame their own government for the situation; one says that the 1979 revolution “was a mistake.”

Today’s column continues the theme.  Kristof wrote that “most blame for economic distress is directed at Iran’s own leaders, and discontent appears to be growing with the entire political system.”  Sanctions are working so well, Kristof concluded, that the survival of the Iranian regime is up for grabs.

The point of the sanctions, of course, was to pressure the Iranian government to ratchet down its nuclear program.  Some of our more aggressive and less responsible leaders want to achieve that goal by military force.  I’ve criticized those who have advocated military force while simultaneously complaining about high gas prices.  Kristof shows that attacking Iran would be bad strategy for a whole new reason:  it would rally Iranians to their government just as sanctions are turning Iranians against their government.

Economic sanctions are not a quick fix; sanctions are a long-term project.  The current sanctions against Iran date from the December 2006 adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1737.  Three later resolutions expanded United Nations sanctions.  In the face of Russian opposition to further UN action, the US and Europe have continued to impose sanctions, including an effort to embargo Iranian oil.  A number of countries have joined the embargo, and the plan is to complete implementation of the embargo next month.

Americans are not known for their patience.  The United Nations imposed sanctions against Iraq in August 1990, within days of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.  We were told to expect that sanctions would take two years or so to work.  But we couldn’t wait two years; the air war against Iraq began in January 1991.

For a whole variety of reasons, a comparable invasion of Iran isn’t on the table.  One of the reasons is that we do not have, and will never get, a Security Council resolution authorizing an invasion.  Another one is that we have no logistically convenient place to mass the army, navy and air forces for an invasion – in 1990, we had the whole northern Saudi desert at our disposal.  Nick Kristof points out a third reason – a military attack would end Iranian popular dissatisfaction with its government.  It would revive the Iranian regime just when the regime is nearing ruin.

It takes no great wisdom to counsel patience when patience is our only option.

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