The Historian, the Diplomat, and the Spy
How the experts see the threat posed by Iran’s rulers.

Bernard Lewis, Uri Lubrani, and Meir Dagan


Clifford D. May

Iran is not our enemy. The regime that enriches itself while murdering, oppressing, and impoverishing ordinary Iranians; the regime that incites genocide against Israel, threatens its neighbors in the Persian Gulf, and vows to bring about a “world without America” — that is our enemy. This was one of the key points driven home by a trio of extraordinary individuals gathered for a dinner in Tel Aviv last week.

At the table were Bernard Lewis, for my money the greatest living historian of the Middle East; Uri Lubrani, Israel’s envoy to Iran prior to the fall of the Shah and an advisor to leaders of the Jewish state ever since; and Meir Dagan, a retired paratrooper, commando, and general who was recruited in 2002 by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to rebuild the Mossad as an intelligence agency “with a knife in its teeth.” (Dagan stepped down from that post in 2010 and has been increasingly outspoken ever since.) A small group of young American national-security professionals — from the Hill, the Defense Department, Homeland Security, even the D.C. police department — broke pita with them. None of the three minimizes how dire will be the consequences should Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s finger come to rest on a nuclear trigger. The Iranian president subscribes to an extremist school of Shia theology that, General Dagan explained, looks forward to an apocalyptic war that would “hasten the arrival of the Mahdi,” mankind’s ultimate savior. But he thinks Ahmadinejad and his associates are not as close as many analysts believe to acquiring a nuclear capability. “Two years to have such a weapon, in my estimation,” he said.

If that is correct — a big if — it means we have a little time to find out whether tough measures short of military force can be effective. Dagan notes, too, that bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would not end the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons: It will only delay it by perhaps two or three years. The technology, the expertise, and the components are all too readily available. North Korea and Pakistan both have them — and both have proliferated them before.

The larger point is this: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. It is the regime that rules Iran, more than weapons or the facilities in which they are produced, that constitutes the real problem. From that it follows that changing the regime — not destroying its hardware — is the higher goal.

Ambassador Lubrani, who predicted Iran’s 1979 revolution — when then-president Jimmy Carter, among others, saw Iran as “an island of stability” — believes regime change is a realistic goal. Indeed, he is convinced there will be another Iranian revolution and that it can come about sooner rather than later — soon enough rather than too late.

Which raises the question: Based on the analyses of the historian, the diplomat, and the spy, can a coherent strategy be constructed? Can we in the West belatedly learn, as Lubrani put it, to play chess, a game of strategy invented in Iran? I’d argue that such a strategy might begin with six specific policies.

1. Tighten the sanctions noose to maximally increase pressure on the Iranian economy. That must be done carefully: Spooking oil markets and raising the price of oil will put more money, not less, into the regime’s coffers. But sanctions can work if we focus on reducing oil revenues to Iran. European countries should impose an embargo on purchases. Other countries should drive for discounts. The fewer the buyers, the higher the discounts — and the lower Iran’s oil revenue.


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