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OPINION | Iran should become another Vietnam

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THE U.S. suffered two brutal humiliations during the 1970s — the fall of Saigon to Communist North Vietnam in 1975 and Iran’s invasion of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. The latter led to a hostage standoff in which 52 Americans were held for 444 days — the source of President Trump’s reference to 52 targets inside Iran in case of Iranian reprisals for the killing of Qasem Soleimani.

There’s a lesson for Iran in Vietnam’s experience. The latter remains a dictatorship, and Saigon is officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, named for the Communist revolutionary. Hanoi punishes dissent with torture and execution. Freedom House rates Vietnam 20 on its 100-point scale, little better than Iran’s 18. Yet the U.S. has good relations with Vietnam. Hanoi decided in 1986 to open itself to market economics, and since then has had one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. In 1994, as a step in the broad effort to improve relations, President Clinton lifted a trade embargo that dated to 1964. Full normalization of relations began in 1995.

By 2018 annual trade in goods and services between the U.S. and Vietnam amounted to more than $62 billion — so much that Vietnam’s surplus, more than $38 billion, was large enough to draw Mr. Trump’s criticism. The U.S. has also established security cooperation with its old adversary, starting with maritime coastal defense. Vietnam has received tens of millions in security assistance from the State and Defense departments. In 2018 the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson made a port call in Da Nang, the first since the war.

Geopolitics is an obvious factor in U.S.-Vietnamese relations. Hanoi has no wish to see China’s regional influence grow unchecked. While officially neutral, Vietnam has endorsed the Trump administration’s vision of “a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

This cooperation has increased notwithstanding the U.S. government’s candid criticism of Vietnam in its annual human-rights reports. Yet in contrast with Iran, Vietnam has no nuclear weapons or ballistic missile programs. Hanoi hasn’t sponsored terrorists or proxy militias, nor has it threatened to wipe other countries off the map.

Surely the U.S. hopes Vietnam’s economic liberalization will lead to political liberalization. But the Communist Party of Vietnam seems to understand perfectly well that the U.S. isn’t pursuing regime change there.

Iran supposedly has grievances with the U.S. dating back at least to 1953, when the Central Intelligence Agency helped orchestrate a coup that expanded the authority of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. But Hanoi could easily compile a long list of grievances against the U.S.

America’s problem with Iran isn’t rooted in longstanding enmity with the Iranian people, or even in the clerical dictatorship per se. It’s a security problem: Iran is a revisionist power and a regional threat.

Vietnam decided to be neither. Iran should make the same choice.

Mr. Lindberg is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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