Thursday, July 13, 2006

Iran: Our Next Crisis?

Kenneth M. Pollack, Reader's Digest:
We're on a collision course with this radical regime -- unless we play just the right card.

America is the "world oppressor." Israel "must be wiped off the map." The Holocaust "is a myth." A world "without America and Zionism" is "attainable and surely can be achieved." (DoctorZin note: see photo)

The hateful pronouncements of an Al Qaeda leader? No, they come from someone whose prominence makes the words especially chilling: Iran's recently elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While Ayatollah Ali Khamanei has the last word on Iran's policies, Ahmadinejad has growing support from the masses and, for now at least, the backing of Iran's ruling clerics. He is the public face of a regime that is one of the leading state sponsors of terrorism. And his rhetoric is deeply disturbing for one reason above all others: The Islamic Republic of Iran, an avowed enemy of America and the West, may well be on a path toward building nuclear weapons. READ MORE

The Iranians insist their nuclear program is peaceful, to be used only to generate electricity. But Iran has lied in the past about nearly every aspect of its nuclear program, including secret facilities the regime acknowledged only after they were revealed by opposition groups. In another instance, the Iranians were caught experimenting with a substance called polonium-210, which is used only in deep-space exploration and nuclear weapons. Iran, of course, has no deep-space program.

Now, the United States and several other major powers are offering Iran economic and diplomatic incentives to forego its quest for nuclear arms. Success will hinge on Iran's response -- not in words, but in verifiable actions. Unless we succeed in convincing Iran to halt these efforts, it will probably join the nuclear club sometime in the next decade.

A More Dangerous World

What might Iranians do if they add nukes to their arsenal? They could make the world far more dangerous, though probably not in the ways some fear. There's little reason to think Iran would launch a nuclear strike out of the blue at Israel, at the Saudi oil fields, at Europe, or at some other key enemy target, because the retaliation from the West would be crushing. It's also unlikely that the Iranians would give these weapons to terrorists. The regime knows that terrorist groups are impossible to trust or control, and could use those weapons on targets not of Tehran's choosing.

But once Iran went nuclear, it could be bold in other ways, knowing no country would dare retaliate for anything short of a full-scale military attack. One way it could flex muscle would be to step up the terrorism it's long used against us -- acts that include bombing our embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers apartment buildings in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. airmen.

Iran could also try to coerce the United States and other nations by threatening the flow of Persian Gulf oil through the Strait of Hormuz, though Tehran's dependence on oil exports might make this move too risky for the regime.

So what should the United States and its key partners do? There are only a few viable options and, in my view, only one that really makes sense.

Option 1: Military Strikes

Back in 1981, when Saddam Hussein was openly building a nuclear program, a nervous Israel took action: It obliterated Saddam's nuclear facilities with air strikes. Today, you'll hear pundits suggest we do the same thing to Iran's program, with an American air campaign.

But Iran is not Iraq.

Iran's program is large, dispersed across a country the size of Alaska and, in some cases, well protected -- even buried underground in heavily fortified locations. To cripple the program would take several hundred air sorties and possibly an equal number of cruise missile strikes.

The United States could mount such an operation, but might set Tehran's nuclear program back by only two to four years. The one sure thing is that our attack would be seen as an unprovoked, all-out war by the Iranians. What could they do to hit us back?

Start with Iraq. We don't like to admit it, but the United States is heavily dependent on Iran's cooperation in Iraq. The Iranians have a great deal of influence with Iraq's Shia leaders, many of whom don't like the Iranians but rely on them for money and weapons. Even though they were serving their own interests, Iranians were instrumental in persuading the Iraqi Shia to take part in the U.S.-led reconstruction.

Iran also has several thousand soldiers and intelligence operatives in Iraq who, presumably in case of civil war, have reportedly established a clandestine warfare network that includes safe houses and arms caches. So it's unnerving that Iranian leaders have warned that if the United States goes after their nuclear facilities, they will retaliate in Iraq. Most likely, they would order or encourage the Shia groups they supply to attack our forces. In the same way, they could turn to their terrorist minions, such as Hezbollah, and urge them to strike American targets in the Middle East, Europe, Southeast Asia, South America, and possibly within the continental United States.

Weighed against the damage the United States could suffer from terrorist attack and chaos in Iraq -- and not to mention international condemnation, since few other countries would support us -- a military strike against Iran makes very little sense at this point.

Option 2: Regime Change

Some observers say the United States should push for regime change in Iran by backing dissident elements that might try to topple the clerical leadership. It's a seductive idea, mainly because analysts are convinced that many -- if not most -- Iranians would like to have a more democratic government. Last November, for instance, Tehran University students protested the regime's crackdown on campus activists, braving reprisals. So it's logical to think there's a base of support for deposing the government, if the United States can just get to it.

It's more complicated than that, however. Many Iranians may dislike their government, but they virulently oppose the slightest hint of American interference in their affairs. The United States has a long and sordid history with Iran, punctuated by events like the CIA's overthrow of the popular Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953. This was a defining element of the revolution that brought the radical clerics to power. Today, no Iranian dissident group will risk its legitimacy by accepting help from Washington.

Also, while many Iranians want change, they aren't ready to incite a new revolution. They remember too well the summer of 1999, when university students tried to start just such a revolution. Iran had a new president, Mohammad Khatami, who seemed determined to reform (if not replace) the Islamic Republic. So the students took to the streets in protest, and waited. They waited for President Khatami to lead them and for the people of Iran to pour out in support of them. But Khatami backed down. The people of Iran stayed home. And the regime moved in its thugs and beat the students into submission.

Afterward, the Iranians told Western governments that while they wanted a different government, they did not want another revolution to get it. They were sick of revolutions.

So regime change may someday come to Iran, but there is little reason to think the United States can make that happen soon. As Gen. Tommy Franks once famously remarked, "Hope is not a strategy."

Option 3: Carrots and Sticks

What's left? The diplomatic option -- which, fortunately, is the best option of all.

This strategy has one big thing going for it: Iran's economy. Simply put, it's a mess: high inflation and unemployment, low investment, decrepit infrastructure, large gaps between rich and poor, and massive corruption. Iran's economic woes are the No. 1 grievance of the Iranian people, and that anger is our trump card.

To play it, we need a policy of carrots and sticks that can convince Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. This seems to be the path we're now on, but the United States and its big power partners haven't gone nearly far enough. We should say to the Iranians, "If you will give up your nuclear program and your support of terrorism, and do so in a manner that we can inspect and monitor, then we'll lift the U.S. economic sanctions, unfreeze the Shah's assets, integrate Iran into the global economy, sell you properly safeguarded lightwater reactors for nuclear energy, give you access to nuclear technology (without actually providing the facilities or the fissile material), provide you with security guarantees that we would not attack, and begin an arms control process in the Persian Gulf so you can feel more secure."

As for the sticks, Iran should be told that as long as it continues to pursue nuclear weapons, the international community will impose ever harsher economic sanctions. This threat puts the Iranian regime on the horns of a dilemma: Either it has to give up its nuclear program and support for terrorism or, by refusing the West's offer, it has to acknowledge to its people that the regime cares more about nuclear weapons and terrorism than it does about Iran's economy, its energy supply, and its relationship with the rest of the world. That is a decision the Iranian leadership is desperately trying to avoid.

For this option to work, the United States must be willing to offer up the bigger carrots that might clinch a deal, and the Europeans need to be willing to wield the big sticks.

The Europeans and Japanese have been doing a fair amount of trading with Iran, and if they were willing to cut those ties, it would be a heavy blow to Iran's economy. The Europeans have been good at regularly threatening to impose serious economic sanctions, but they have yet to put their money where their mouth is.

Meanwhile, the United States is offering to provide airplane parts for Iran's civilian fleet, back Iranian efforts to join the World Trade Organization, and support Europe's sale to Iran of lightwater reactors. That's not the full range of concessions that the Europeans, Russians and Chinese want to see before signing on to heavy sanctions if Iran does the wrong thing.

If America and these other nuclear powers are able to consummate their own strange courtship, they will likely catch the Iranians in a vise, just as they did when they adopted a similar approach with the Libyans a decade ago. And there's every reason to believe that, like the Libyans, the Iranians would come to see it's in their best interests to accept the carrots to get rid of the sticks.

However, if the United States and its partners refuse to take these final steps together, it is very likely that the Iranians will once again slip through the gap between us. And that means, not too far down the road, we will all discover what it's like to live with a nuclear Iran.
Kenneth Pollack was director for Persian Gulf affiars on the National Security Council under President Clinton.
Kenneth Pollack's idea that if enough pressure is place on Iran it might accept US/Western demands to halt its nuclear program and support for terrorism is pure fantasy. The very raison d’être of Islamic Republic is to replace what they call the "failed ideology" and leadership of the West with a world living under their radical version of Islam. For the Iranian leaders to sell out their "vision" for "stuff" is ridiculous. For if the leaders of the Islamic Republic were to suddenly abandon their vision they would be betraying there small but powerful base of supporters.

Believing that Iran will ever retreat from their support for terrorists is as naive as Iran’s leaders expecting US leaders to abandon Western ideas of freedom and democracy; replacing these ideas with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s vision of the world. The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran will not ride off into the sunset willingly.