Iran Tensions Loom Large for Next President

For nearly 30 years, relations between the United States and Iran have been chilly. And with Iran's growing nuclear ambitions, the tension has only gotten worse. NPR's Liane Hansen speaks with Stephen Kinzer, author of Overthrow and All the Shah's Men about what lies ahead for these two countries.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The next president of the United States will face several major foreign policy challenges. Among them, the current situation with Iran. For three decades relations between the United States and Iran have been strained at best. Iran's nuclear ambitions have only exacerbated that tension.

Steven Kinzer is the author of several books, including "Overthrow" and "All the Shah's Men." He's in the studios of NPR West. Welcome.

Mr. STEVEN KINZER (Author): Great to be with you.

HANSEN: Let's start with Iran's nuclear program. The Iranian government claims that it's enriching uranium for energy, not for military use. But won't this program still give Iran the capacity to become a nuclear weapons state?

Mr. KINZER: Yes. I think the nuclear program in Iran is disturbing. It poses a potentially destabilizing factor in a part of the world that's already very unstable. The debate is what do you do to prevent that, and I think that's the issue we got to focus on.

HANSEN: So what can, or should, the United States do about this?

Mr. KINZER: I think there are two very important points. The first is what we should not do. And the second is what we should do. There still seems to be a sense that an attack on Iran during the next 11 months is still a real possibility, and I believe that's true. Iran is the only country in the Muslim Middle East where there's a large reservoir of pro-American feeling. That pro-American sentiment is a huge strategic asset for the United States.

The one way to destroy it overnight is to bomb that country. That does not mean, however, that the United States should simply turn its back on what I see as a growing challenge and a very disturbing threat emanating from Iran. We need to do something positive, not just avoid doing something negative. And that positive thing, I think, will be to offer direct bilateral unconditional negotiations with Iran.

HANSEN: There's another issue - Iran's record on human rights, and particularly women's rights, because that record is pretty poor. One of Iran's most prominent women's magazines was just shut down by the government. And in 1995 on this show we actually had a story about feminism in Iran, and I want to play a piece of the interview. It's from the editor of that magazine, a woman named Shallah Shaircat(ph).

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Ms. SHALLAH SHAIRCAT (Magazine Editor): (Through translator) What we want to do at Zanaan(ph) magazine is to get rid of our society's old cumbersome customs that aren't rooted in God or religion but have simply been passed on culturally through generations. We feel the loss concerning women's rights and family can be reformed and should be made more progressive.

HANSEN: Now, many Iranians actually want to see their country transition away from this old Iran, that hard line Islamic rule to a state that encourages a civil society. Is there a way that the United States can try to help the Iranian people bring that about?

Mr. KINZER: I'm very proud to have just signed a letter which is being addressed to Iranian authorities protesting the closure of that magazine. There is no doubt that the Iranian government's human rights record is appalling. Everybody in Iran, from student groups and labor unions and feminist organizations, that are leading the fight for a freer society is eager for engagement with the United States. If we really want to support democratic change in Iran, it is a policy of engagement and diplomatic contact that's going to do that, not one of continued hostility.

HANSEN: Steven Kinzer is the author of "Overthrow" and "All the Shah's Men." He joined us from NPR West. Thank you, Steven.

Mr. KINZER: Great to be with you.

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