Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Danger from Iran

Martin Walker, Washington Times:
Book Review - TEHRAN RISING: IRAN'S CHALLENGE TO THE UNITED STATES, By Ilan Berman. Rowman & Littlefield, $24.95, 218 pages

Even President Bush's most ferocious critics must admit that he has a way of picking his enemies. His definition of an 'Axis of Evil' identified in Saddam Hussein's Iraq and in North Korea two of the most hideously brutal regimes on the planet. In Iran he singled out one of the most dangerous. Iran has been a consistent and unapologetic sponsor of terrorist groups and has steadily pursued an ambitious program of development in ballistic-missile and nuclear technology. Its human-rights record is appalling and its theocratic clerics have sought to crush internal reform movements and have ruthlessly suppressed dissent.

The latest statement by Iran's newly elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Israel "was a disgraceful blot" that "must be wiped off the map" reinforces this book's well-documented charge that Iran is an outlaw state that deserves regime change. Nonetheless, most U.S. allies and American 'realists' like former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski argue for selective engagement with Iran. They have a point; Iran is always likely to be a major power in the Middle East. Moreover, Persians are not Arabs and Shi'ite Iran has a deep doctrinal and historical animosity for the puritanical Sunni Islamists of al Qaeda.

So, despite the implicit threat of the 'Axis of Evil' speech, the Bush administration is backing the diplomatic efforts of the EU 3 (Britain, France and Germany) to negotiate Iran's nuclear program back into the international inspection regime, backed up by the questionable threat of United Nations sanctions. The prospect, however, of China acquiescing in such a process, after signing close to $200 billion in oil and gas deals with Iran, seems slim. And without U.N. and international support, any unilateral U.S. measures against Iran are constrained by the overstretched U.S. military. Distracted by Iraq and domestic politics, the Bush administration seems to have taken Iran off the front burner, and Ilan Berman's new book says this is a major strategic mistake.

"Iran has emerged as a cardinal threat to international peace and security. Its nuclear advances, its rising adventurism in the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and the Caucasus, and its support for the Iraqi insurgency, have put Tehran on a collision course with American policy in the greater Middle East," he writes.

Yet Mr. Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, also sees opportunities in the domestic opposition. He describes "a struggle for Iran's soul between the anti-Western, corrupt and authoritarian clerical establishment and the true advocates of Iranian democracy, the Iranian people themselves." But as Mr. Berman notes, there is as yet no credible leader for the disorganized opposition, and the Iranian regime has rallied Iranian patriotism behind the country's "right" to become a nuclear power. READ MORE

Mr. Berman lays out a thoughtful U.S. strategy for containing Iran diplomatically, by rallying Turkey, Russia and the Gulf states into a greater appreciation of the regional threat Iran represents, while assuring them all of U.S. support. Some of his proposals, like the one for a joint Russian-Turkish-American naval force in the Caspian with anti-missile technology to protect Europe from Iran's Shehab missiles, seem over-ambitious.

But in seminars he has given since writing his book, Mr. Berman has rightly warned that the absence of a clear U.S. strategy means that matters are getting worse.

The Gulf Cooperation Council
, for example, used to confer about ways to meet the Iranian ballistic-missile challenge. Most recently, however, tired of waiting for a reassuring American lead, the Gulf states have invited Iran to attend their meetings. Tehran, enriched by the rising oil price, is playing its energy card, winning Chinese diplomatic support while also wooing Turkey and India and dangling the prospect of oil-exploration deals before the Russians and Europeans.

"The United States can no longer afford the luxury of protracted inaction. Perhaps more than any other issue, the fate of Iran will dictate the direction of the Middle East," Mr. Berman argues.

Iran, with its Shi'ite connections, probably has the influence to determine whether the Bush administration's grand strategy to modernize and democratize the region succeeds or fails. And as Iran reaches for the status of a nuclear power, the rest of the region is already thinking about the accommodations that may have to be made. Mr. Berman's timely book explains both the urgency and the importance of the problem, but does a less persuasive job of showing that a policy of regime change in Iran would have any better fate than the messy aftermath of regime change in Iraq. And that is the political reality that helps explain the Bush administration's hesitation.