The movie "Crimson Tide," starring Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, is one of my favorite political science films. My students enjoy watching it, too. Though it is set in a nuclear submarine, it actually provides a good lesson for the recent Iranian presidential election.
Set in the mid-1990s, the U.S.S. Alabama is tasked with patrolling the Pacific while a Russian nationalist attempts a coup against a democratic government. In the process, intelligence reports indicate that his allies have taken control of nuclear missiles, as well as some attack subs.
Gene Hackman's character, the sub captain, wants to launch a preemptive nuclear strike after getting a message from the U.S. to do so. Denzel Washington's character, the executive officer, refuses until the sub gets the rest of a second message that was sent, but cut off during a Russian sub attack. The rest of the movie progresses as a series of mutinies and counter-mutinies.
The U.S.S. Alabama eventually destroys the attacking Russian sub, and both Hackman and Washington finally agree to bury their fight and surface to get the rest of the message. It's a good thing they did. The second message reports that the nationalist forces surrendered. Nuking Vladivostok after the fighting ended would have been catastrophic.
Our policies toward Iran are a lot like the Crimson Tide film. President George W. Bush, the Gene Hackman character, labeled Iran part of the "Axis of Evil" in 2003, a huge mistake given that Iran actually had a moderate president (Mohammad Khatami) and had agreed to suspend enriching uranium in a deal negotiated with the Europeans.
Bush's bellicose response pushed the country toward President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. This nightmare of a president accelerated construction of a nuclear weapon and threatened to wipe Israel off the face of the earth in a play for domestic popularity.
Israel's Prime Minister Olmert actually requested permission to fly over Iraq to hit Iran's nuclear site in the waning days of the Bush Administration. Vice President Dick Cheney pushed hard for it, but Bush refused, showing some of Hackman's eventual restraint toward the end of the movie.
Barack Obama, similar to Washington's character, patiently rebuilt a coalition with the Europeans to isolate Iran, even getting other countries on board. Countries like Russia and China charged Iran more for refining oil (or paid less for their gas), citing the cost of working with a "rogue nation." Those stronger sanctions wrecked the Iranian economy. Ahmadinejad's populist policies did the rest, making the country take a nosedive.
Mitt Romney had a different idea. He said he would back an Israeli hit on Iran, and his foreign policy adviser (Dan Senor) even said America would do the strike itself. But America didn't show the same appetite for "Operation Iranian Freedom." They voted for sanctions and restraint.
The Bush-Obama patience paid off this week. Iran has now overwhelmingly elected moderate cleric Hasan Rowhani, who got 34 percentage points more than the next closest rival, a hardliner, a firm rebuke to Ahmadinejad. Rowhani, who negotiated the original suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment, is eager to work with the West. Just like the film "Crimson Tide," it's a good thing we didn't nuke a country just as peaceful change emerges.
John A. Tures, associate professor of political science, LaGrange College; firstname.lastname@example.org.