Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Plan B for Iran

Jeffrey Gedmin, The Weekly Standard: Dealing with President Ahmadinejad.
YOU CAN BE SURE, had Hashemi Rafsanjani been voted president in Iran's recent election, a chorus of pundits would have been calling for the administration to drop its hard line and "engage" Tehran. We witnessed this last time, when "moderate" Mohammad Khatami became president in 1997. Of course, the Europeans have done their share of engaging, before and after that election, and Iran hasn't changed much.

This time, CNN dubbed Rafsanjani a "moderate conservative supported by progressives"--making him sound like an Iranian Lincoln Chafee. During Rafsanjani's last stint as president (1989-1997), the Iranians were sponsoring suicide bombings, blowing up Jewish cultural centers, chanting "death to America," and rubbing out dissidents. In one case, a German court concluded that assassins, who had carried out a hit against oppositionists in the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin, had acted at the behest of Iranian intelligence, with an "official liquidation order" having been approved by President Rafsanjani himself. We'll never find out whether Rafsanjani had become in the meantime a kinder, gentler mullah. But no one doubts that a real, honest-to-God hard-liner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has now been elected as Iran's new president. This should concentrate the mind.

Ahmadinejad calls himself a fundamentalist. He was an officer of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, taught for years at the Revolutionary Guard's staff college, and has served as special emissary for the "Supreme Guide" on a number of domestic and foreign policy missions. He supported the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, of course, and by all accounts Ahmadinejad is a real-deal Islamist.

He says he wants Iran to be a great "world power" capable of challenging the United States. So how should we respond?

The recent conversation about Iran has been dominated by one question: How do we keep the bomb out of the hands of the mullahs? And rightfully so: Imagine what a world with a nuclear Iran would look like. At a minimum it would mean an emboldened Tehran intimidating its neighbors, increasing its support for terrorism, revving up even more hate-mongering toward Israel, and attempting to undermine democracy in Iraq--not to mention dramatically increased oil prices. Even Joschka Fischer, Germany's dovish foreign minister, calls a nuclear Iran "the worst imaginable nightmare." If there is a chance to stop this scenario, the window may be closing very quickly. To go nuclear, "all Iranian engineers need," says Henry Sokolski, president of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, "is a bit more time--one to four years at the most."

Of late, the administration has been fond of the diplomatic track. Specifically, Washington has supported the European effort, led by Germany, France, and Great Britain, to persuade the regime that it should give up its ambition to acquire nuclear weapons. Mind you, this is after nearly two decades of the regime's cheat and retreat games. No serious person has ever believed that the "E.U. 3" would succeed. But then the administration has had its hands full with Iraq, Social Security reform, and a few other matters, including the president's sharp dip in popularity. Trying to slow the mullahs down, some have argued, has been the best available option. That was then.

By now it must be obvious that if the United States is serious about preventing the mullahs from getting the bomb, we have two choices: either preemption or regime change. By now it is also pretty clear that bombing would be difficult, which can only make one wonder why we have been so slow in giving serious support to the democracy movement in Iran. This regime has to go.

The moral case is compelling enough. While the New York Times charmed its readers recently with a front-page story on Iranian women playing golf at the Revolution Sports Complex in Tehran, the country's human rights record remains, in fact, dismal. The State Department's latest Country Reports on Human Rights Practices states that Iran continues to maintain facilities "notorious for the cruel and prolonged acts of torture inflicted upon political opponents of the Government." The French NGO Reporters Without Borders calls Iran the biggest prison for journalists in the entire region. READ MORE

Akbar Ganji, who some have begun to call the Iranian Vaclav Havel, is a journalist who has now entered his fourth week of a hunger strike inside Tehran's Evin prison. Ganji has written from prison two manifestos describing how ordinary Iranians can participate in civil disobedience against the country's ruling dictatorship. People have started to use soccer games as an occasion to show their discontent. At a game between Iran and Japan earlier this summer, a demonstration lasted all night, with paramilitary forces killing four people.

The country is ripe for revolution. Iran has a foundering economy, a large, disenchanted youth population (two thirds of the country's population is under 30), pockets of independent media (including a staggering 64,000 Persian-language blogs), and, of course, the powerful example of developments throughout the region. After Iraq's election last year, photos of Iranians holding up proudly their fingers dipped in blue ink to say, "It's time for us to vote, too!" swept the Internet like wildfire.

IF THE MORAL CASE to support the democracy movement in Iran is a powerful one, so too is the strategic case. When asked several months ago by the National Conference of Editorial Writers what happens if diplomacy fails to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons--"What's Plan B?" as it was put--Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "Well, that's a different question. The president has said that he believes very strongly that we can resolve this diplomatically." But there must be a Plan B, and surely Plan B must be a concerted effort to hasten the fall of this regime.

In fact, the United States has made some noises, but the efforts have been feeble to date. The Department of State has funded a Persian-language website. There are broadcasts into Iran through Voice of America. The FY 2005 Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs Appropriations Act doubled to $3 million the funds available to the State Department's human rights bureau to support democracy in Iran. This is all helpful, but small potatoes considering the stakes.

Of course, realist critics will argue that even a democratic Iran will want the bomb. Maybe. But a decent, accountable government in Tehran will be easier to dissuade, far less likely to lie and cheat, and far more probable to behave responsibly if it ever gets a nuclear weapon. Others will argue that we risk a new row with the Europeans, bent on negotiating with the old regime, if we start pushing seriously for a democratic revolution in Iran. But that is old thinking about Old Europe. With the collapse of the constitutional process and the impending political demise of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder, there is a new transatlantic moment the United States should be exploiting. Anyway, all we are asking the E.U. to do is support democracy and human rights in Iran through the serious application of civilian means and soft power. At home, the administration will find numerous allies on the Hill for such a policy, on both sides of the aisle. People like Sen. Sam Brownback and Rep. Tom Lantos have been agitating for more democratic support for the Iranians.

The secretary of state says Iran is an "outpost of tyranny." George W. Bush says the "Iranian people deserve a genuinely democratic system." There's a strong logic now to marry resources to rhetoric.

Jeffrey Gedmin is director of the Aspen Institute Berlin.