Thursday, March 31, 2005

Three Ways to Stop Iran

Efraim Inbar, The Jerusalem Post argues the case for a regime change policy if there is time. READ MORE

The Islamic Republic of Iran is the greatest and most urgent threat to the new regional order in the Middle East and to American hegemony in world affairs. Iran is actively supporting the insurgency in Iraq against the establishment of a pro-American regime that is clearly more liberal than Saddam Hussein's. Such a regime, which could become a catalyst for democratization in the area, is anathema to Teheran so it encourages radical Shi'ite elements in Iraq to promote the establishment of another Islamic republic. Iran is attempting to create a radical corridor from its border to the Mediterranean by lending critical support to terrorist organizations such as Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Moreover, the nuclear ambitions of the mullahs' regime threaten regional stability. At issue is not just the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran – in itself a dangerous development. Beyond enhancing Iranian hegemony in the oil-rich Gulf area and creating a situation in which its containment would be more difficult to achieve, a nuclear Iran would inevitably have a proliferation chain effect in the region.

States such as Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and of course Iraq would hardly be able to resist the temptation to counter Iranian influence by adopting similar nuclear postures. A multipolar nuclear Middle East is a recipe for disaster. Therefore, Iran must be stopped. The US and Israel are not alone in the assessment that the mixture of a radical Islamic regime, long-range missile capability and nuclear weapons is extremely dangerous.

There are several ways to deal with the Iranian challenge. The current European approach, which the Americans decided to go along with for a while, is to provide incentives to Iran to cooperate on the nuclear issue. Yet this appeasement has little chance of ending the Iranian nuclear program, which has already made significant strides toward producing a bomb.

The US probably decided to go through the motions required by the Europeans in order to secure their support for a more militant approach when appeasement runs its course. Washington prefers to raise the issue of Iran at the UN Security Council in order to impose economic sanctions and eventually secure international legitimacy for military action against its nuclear installations.

Indeed, recent American statements indicate that the Bush administration clearly contemplates the military option to prevent Iranian nuclearization. Yet many pundits exaggerate the difficulties in dealing a severe military blow to the Iranian nuclear program.

While it is probably true that the intelligence services cannot provide military planners with an exact and comprehensive picture of the locations of all Iranian nuclear installations, what we know seems enough to allow the destruction of a large part of the nuclear program. Partial destruction is enough to cripple the Iranian ability to build a nuclear bomb in the near future. Moreover, no large-scale invasion is needed for doing the job, but only surgical air strikes in combination with limited operations conducted by special forces. The American military definitely has the capability and sophistication to perform such a preemptive strike.

The Iranian challenge can be dealt with also by adopting a strategy of indirect approach. This requires focusing on Lebanon – the weakest link in the Iran-Syria-Lebanon nexus – which harbors the radical Shi'ite strategic challenges to the West, i.e. terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

It is the Lebanese arena where much of the future direction of the Iranian foreign policy will be decided. Liberating Lebanon from Syria will in turn weaken the Damascus regime, leading possibly to its demise. This process will also weaken and isolate Teheran. An isolated Iran will be more susceptible to Western pressures. Lebanon is, indeed, the most vulnerable point for the rollback of the radical forces in the Middle East.

Finally, in accordance with the tenets of the indirect approach, the US can and should aim for regime change in Teheran. If Natan Sharansky in his recent book, The Case for Democracy, is right about human beings preferring to live in freedom rather than in fear, and that many of them are ready to take personal risks to make good on their preferences, Iran is ripe for removing the yoke of the mullahs.

Even today, the degree of freedom Iranians enjoy is greater than in any Arab state. Persian Iran is more advanced than the Arab states almost on every socioeconomic criteria, and is therefore a better candidate for democratization. American diplomacy aimed at strengthening the dissenting voices in Iran might be successful in fostering an effect similar to the one that brought about the disintegration of the Soviet empire.

The indirect strategy is clearly preferable to military action as it rests on regional and domestic dynamics and minimizes Iranian antagonism towards the American activist approach. Yet, the fruition of such a strategy may take too much time. Past diplomatic failures to delay the Iranian nuclear program may leave no other choice but the military option to prevent the worst-case scenario – a nuclear Islamic Republic of Iran.

The writer is professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.