During a recent trip to Iran, where I have lived and have traveled to regularly for 40 years to conduct research on rural political and social change, colleagues and friends repeatedly asked me when the United States would attack their country.

The basis for their fear were House Concurrent Resolution 362 and Senate Resolution 580, both of which would authorize the president – Bush or his successor – to impose a naval blockade of Iranian ports. Although these resolutions have received scant media coverage in America, in Iran in June, they were lead items on TV news and talk programs, as well as the 20 national daily newspapers of Tehran, the capital city of seven million residents, with an additional five million more people in surrounding suburbs.

The Iranian media uniformly depicted these resolutions as tantamount to a declaration of war against their country. My efforts to explain the real differences between non-binding congressional resolutions and actual administration policies did not seem to reassure any of my Iranian hosts.

In fact, all Iranians I met agreed that any US-initiated war against their country would be a disaster. They cited the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – Iran’s neighbors on the east and west, respectively. They are puzzled by the Bush administration’s rhetoric about how dangerous Iran is, and they respond incredulously to their own government’s rhetoric about how prepared the Iranian military is to confront any foreign invasion.

Since all Iranian men over age 18 must serve 21 months of military service, every adult male uses this experience when declaring the country’s air force is comprised only of helicopters unable to defend Iran’s cities against “enemy” air strikes and its navy of 30-foot patrol boats would be no match against huge U.S. destroyers stationed off Iran’s Persian Gulf coast.

If Iranians believe their country lacks the military capability to pose a conventional threat to the United States, why are so many members of Congress – 249 of 435 House members, including Rep. Michael Michaud, and 43 of 100 senators, including both Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe – ready to offer the president a virtual carte blanche to initiate military activities against Iran?

Apparently, they believe the Bush administration’s charges that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program, even though the CIA reported last year that Iran does not, and even though the International Atomic Energy Agency never has found evidence of such a program during its inspection of Iran’s declared sites for processing uranium from its own mines, which will fuel a nuclear power generation facility being built by Russian engineers.

The Iranian government consistently denies it has a covert nuclear weapons program, insisting the Bush administration charges are meant to prevent Iran from reaping benefits from the peaceful use of nuclear technology.

This was the position of the progressive president, Mohammad Khatami, who, during his tenure from 1997 to 2005, advocated a “dialogue of civilizations” and cooperation with the United States. But it also has been the position of his conservative – and controversial – successor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Whenever I asked Iranians why there was so much tension between their government and the United States, about 75 percent mentioned Iran’s nuclear energy program as a source of contention. Half of these Iranians believe their government’s stated position that Iran lacks a secret nuclear weapons program and U.S. charges to the contrary are part of an aggressive policy to weaken Iran or even overthrow its government. Perhaps one-quarter of Iranians admitted the possibility of the nuclear energy program concealing a secret atomic bomb project, but they insisted their country had a right to develop nuclear arms, because it is under threat by nuclear-armed powers such as Israel and the United States. Another one-quarter were just as adamant that their country never should develop such weapons.

Yet all Iranians voiced support for unconditional negotiations between their own and the U.S. government.

The diplomatic track has not been “on the table” to date. Iranians disagree whether Tehran or Washington is to blame. Some fault the United States, which they accuse of being an arrogant superpower determined to force all other countries to accept its views, while others say their own government’s inflammatory rhetoric provokes the United States and its allies.

One way to break the impasse here would be for Congress to drop the current resolutions and adopt a new one: urging the president to conduct diplomatic negotiations with Iran, the very path advocated in the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in December 2006.

Eric Hooglund is a professor of politics at Bates College and president of Peace Action Maine.

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