The US can never forge a 'friendship' with Iran the way it did with Vietnam

The US can never forge a 'friendship' with Iran the way it did with Vietnam
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A recent commentary by the Hudson Institute’s Tod Lindberg offers an interesting analogy about the relationships Vietnam and Iran now have with the U.S. — a nation with which both experienced historical grievances. Lindberg notes that while Vietnam has been able to bury the hatchet by allowing friendship to replace animosity, Iran has not. 

Similarities do exist between Iran and Vietnam today. Both have authoritarian governments; Iran embraces Islamism and Vietnam embraces communism. Both commit egregious human rights violations; Iran silences its critics by executing them, even children, and Vietnam silences vocal opposition primarily by incarceration. Neither will tolerate government criticism and both appear to care little about international fallout. 

Of course, in Vietnam’s case, U.S. coexistence has been driven by two factors: first, its fear of Chinese expansionism and, second, its embrace of capitalism as an “IV” to fuel its national economy. In 2018, this IV generated more than $62.6 billion of annual trade and services with the U.S., adding $38 billion to Hanoi’s coffers. And visits by U.S. ships to Vietnam’s ports of call serve as a warning to China of an improving U.S.-Vietnam friendship.

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Lindberg’s point is that Iran’s mullahs should consider letting go of their past grievances, looking instead to a future of coexistence with the U.S. to benefit as Vietnam has done. Unfortunately, however, that view looks at the Vietnam/Iran analogy through the rose-colored lens of an idealist. Replacing the lens with that of a realist provides a much different picture — one that recognizes the likelihood of Tehran following Hanoi’s example is totally beyond the realm of possibility.  

While Vietnam and Iran share an authoritarian form of government, that is where the similarity ends. We fought a hot war against Vietnam and are now fighting a semi-hot one against Iran. And, while we could afford to lose the war we fought with the former, we simply cannot afford to lose the war with the latter because of Tehran’s ideological driving force of Islamic extremism. 

What drives Iran’s leadership is a mindset totally contrary to our own — and for that matter, even Vietnam’s. It is so contrary that while a U.S.-Vietnam friendship was always a possibility, a U.S.-Iran friendship is an absolute impossibility, absent one major modification: regime change. 

During the Vietnam War, Hanoi’s sole objective was to generate a U.S. withdrawal from their country. Even a U.S. presence in Southeast Asia, as long as it was not on Vietnamese soil, still represented the successful achievement of Hanoi’s goal. Our loss in that war was both human (more than 58,000 Americans killed) as well as political, the latter measured by our failure to ensure the freedom of our South Vietnamese ally and the influence we therefore lost. 

In our current confrontation with Iran, Tehran’s success, measured against our failure, has an entirely different boundary. The mullahs seek to have us withdraw from the entire Middle East, allowing Iran to build a caliphate unchallenged by any U.S. presence in the region. With that objective in hand, Iran’s leadership then seeks to expand their caliphate far beyond the borders of the Middle East. Thus, a U.S. withdrawal from the region includes the loss of our influence there and wherever else the mullahs end up expanding their caliphate. 

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Those doubting that this is Iran’s objective need only look to its constitution. It is the only constitution in the world mandating the extraterritoriality of its control by spreading the Islamic Revolution globally. Any remaining doubts about such intentions were clarified by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s declaration: “We shall export our revolution to the whole world. Until the cry ‘There is no god but Allah’ resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle.”

Such a caliphate makes Iran’s borders meaningless. Khomeini addressed this issue directly by proclaiming: “Our way is one of ideology and does not recognize borders of geography.”

During the Vietnam War, Hanoi resorted to terrorism to achieve its national goal. Today, Iran resorts to global terrorism to achieve an international objective. This is evidenced by the U.S. State Department’s labeling Iran as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Interestingly, since the Vietnam War’s end, the country responsible for more U.S. deaths than any other is Iran. Its aggressive expansion has been going on for more than 40 years but many Americans only recently have become aware of this, following the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, who led the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force.

Thus, the mullahs’ religious belief that they are ordained to establish a global caliphate makes the likelihood of a U.S.-Iran relationship similar to that enjoyed by the U.S. and Vietnam impossible. There simply is no ideological common ground upon which to build it. Perhaps what best distinguishes this is the aftermath of losing our confrontation with Iran, should that happen. 

For 45 years since failing to keep our South Vietnamese ally within the fold of democratic nations, we have never feared the enemy we fought following us home. In our conflict with the Iranians, should we lose, we have no similar luxury — they have been following us home since 9/11 as evidenced by the support they rendered those terrorists.

James G. Zumwalt is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who served in the Vietnam War, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War. He heads a security consulting firm named after his father, Adm. Zumwalt & Consultants, Inc.