Cole in Harper’s On the Muslim World

Scott Horton at Harper’s Magazine asked me six questions about my new book, Engaging the Muslim World, which will be in bookstores March 17 (or in some cases earlier), and which is intended as advice for the Obama administration and the general public.

Here is an excerpt from one of the exchanges:

‘ [Q] 6. Neoconservatives don’t seem to have lost their voice or their preoccupation with Iran and the Iranian nuclear program—as shown by John Bolton’s joking reference to Iran making a nuclear wasteland out of Chicago at the recent CPAC meetings. But you argue that there may be a way to engage Iran with less violence and bellicose rhetoric and more support for America’s natural allies in the Iranian population. What’s your policy prescription for President Obama, and what are the odds that Dennis Ross will accept it?

[A.] Never have so few been initially so powerful, in the event so wrong, and ultimately so discredited as the Neoconservatives. Why anyone would ever again pay the slightest attention to anything they say mystifies me. And I think the real onus is on Dennis Ross to demonstrate that he can be an honest broker.

The U.S. relationship with Iran is the most perilous area of U.S. foreign policy going forward. But there are actually only two bilateral issues between Washington and Tehran that put that relationship on the front burner. They comprise, first, Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program, which the U.S. fears could veer toward dual use and result in a nuclear weapon. Second, Iran’s rejectionist stance toward U.S. ally Israel, and its support for the Lebanese Hezbollah and, allegedly, for Hamas in Gaza, are highly objectionable to the United States. I really don’t think there is any other really burning issue. Iran’s human rights policies are abominable, but not obviously worse than those of Vietnam, with which the U.S. has established good relations, or than those of Saudi Arabia, with which Washington is actively allied.

The nightmare is that relations deteriorate to the point where there is a war. Iran is over three times the size of France. It is three times more populous than Iraq. Conquering and occupying it would break America. A war with Iran could also cause dwindling U.S. troop contingents in Iraq to be cut off by Shiite militants and besieged. The entire NATO force in Afghanistan risks being trapped in that country if Iran mobilizes regional forces to isolate them in that craggy, landlocked country.

So since, to my mind at least, a war on Iran is unthinkable, the alternative is negotiations.’

Engaging the Muslim World is also available via

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