Sunday, October 02, 2005

A Dire Threat

Paul Owens, Orlando Sentinel:
For those who wonder why Washington is so worried about Iran's nuclear program, Ilan Berman's Tehran Rising is a gripping, timely reminder.

In this brief but compelling book, Berman details the growing threat to the United States posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The author is a foreign-policy expert who has consulted for the CIA and the Defense Department. He was in Orlando two years ago to discuss Iran with the Orlando Area Committee on Foreign Relations.

Since the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power in 1979 and installed a theocracy, Iran has been intent on spreading its radical Islamic revolution, and a sworn enemy of the United States. Behind a democratic facade, Berman says, hard-line clerics call the shots. Under those clerics, Iran has actively supported terrorist groups whose targets have included Americans and U.S. interests. Indeed, Berman provocatively declares that "the Islamist war against the United States" began with the Iranian Revolution, not the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks more than two decades later. READ MORE

Ironically, U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created opportunities for Iran to expand its power and regional influence, Berman argues. The fall of the Taliban eliminated an ideological competitor for leadership in the Muslim world. The toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq ended a rival regime that fought an 8-year war with Iran in the 1980s.

Iran has been taking full advantage of its new opportunities, in Berman's view. It has been supporting insurgents in Iraq while stepping up its backing for international terrorists. Its position as a leading oil exporter at a time of record-high prices has given it plenty of resources to bankroll its mischief abroad and a military buildup at home. Iran has leveraged its stronger position to boost its influence over other Persian Gulf nations and former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Berman is among those who think Iran is charging ahead with a program that could produce nuclear weapons within a few years.

Berman offers several reasons to be alarmed at this prospect: A nuclear-armed Iran could hold hostage the abundant energy supplies in its part of the world. It would be emboldened to back terrorist groups more aggressively and suppress internal dissent more brutally because its weapons would deter retaliation. And its arsenal could trigger a regional nuclear-arms race, as countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt play catch up. Berman does not hold out hope for negotiations to end Iran's nuclear program. Yet readers who expect his dire warnings to lead to a call for a U.S. attack will be surprised. He sensibly views force as a last resort. Iran's nuclear facilities are too numerous and too dispersed; many are hidden.

But Berman sees little point in detente between Washington and the current regime in Tehran. Instead, he advocates that the United States do far more, mainly through military cooperation with Iran's neighbors, to contain its nuclear and hegemonic ambitions.

At the same time, Berman wants the United States to provide more political and economic backing for Iran's "vast and growing domestic opposition" frustrated by a lack of freedom and economic opportunity. He insists that opposition, with sufficient support, could rise up and overthrow the country's hard-line rulers.

If the odds of success for Berman's approach seem long, perhaps it's because he has done such a convincing job in portraying the ruthlessness of the current rulers in Tehran. In challenging such a regime, there are no sure bets. Stopping Iran from becoming a nuclear power is a race against time. If the United States -- and indeed, the world -- lose, no one can say Berman didn't warn us.

Paul Owens can be reached at or 407-650-6514.