The report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency last week confirms that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will soon have their fingers on nuclear triggers — unless serious actions are taken. “The biggest threat to the United States,” a senior U.S. military official told reporters, “has come into focus and it’s Iran.”
You think? Thirty-two years ago this month, Iranian revolutionaries committed their first act of war against America: storming our embassy in Tehran and taking 52 diplomats hostage. Four years later, the regime deployed Hezbollah, its terrorist foreign legion, to slaughter 258 American Marines and diplomats in Beirut. In 1996, the FBI believes, the ayatollahs ordered the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. airmen. Tehran has supported militias in Iraq that have killed hundreds of American soldiers. It has provided assistance to both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Iran’s rulers have vowed that “a world without America . . . is attainable,” and “Death to America!” has for years been scrawled on Iranian missiles. Last month, law enforcement authorities revealed details of an Iranian plot to blow up a restaurant in Washington, D.C.
All this and more the theocrats managed while Iran has been militarily weak. Imagine what they will do once they are packing nuclear heat.
Imagine this, too: Iran goes nuclear — despite American presidents, Republican and Democratic alike, vowing that such an outcome would be “unacceptable.” Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and other nations in the Middle East move quickly to acquire their own nukes. Over the years that follow, what do you think are the chances that one of those weapons winds up in the hands of “stateless” terrorists? Other countries will cut deals with Tehran — at America’s expense. The likelihood of a confrontation, sooner or later, between the nuclear-armed, oil-rich, global-revolutionary Islamic Republic and the “Great Satan” will rise. Or, also plausible, Americans will gradually submit to a new world order, one in which tyrants set the rules and everyone else abides by them.
The policy options available to President Obama, leaders in Congress and those running for election next year are not numerous. A quick review of what is currently on the table:
Diplomacy, outreach, and engagement: During his earliest days in office, President Obama famously told Iran’s rulers that if they will “unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Their fist remains firmly clenched. Anti-Americanism is a central pillar of Khomeinism, the regime’s murderous utopian ideology. What we have not done: engage with the Iranian opposition. Dissidents would benefit enormously from receiving America’s moral support openly and America’s material support covertly.
Sanctions: Passed by Congress on a broadly bipartisan basis, sanctions have cost Tehran tens of billions of dollars. This has weakened the regime — but not nearly enough. “Crippling” sanctions have been threatened but not implemented. On Tuesday, my Foundation for Defense of Democracies colleague, Mark Dubowitz, testified before the House Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense, and Foreign Operations on tougher and more creative approaches that could dramatically reduce Iran’s oil income — from which the regime derives 80 percent of its hard-currency export earnings — without roiling oil markets or further upsetting the global economy. These approaches would not require Russia or China to go along — because they will not.
Cyber warfare and covert action: Iran’s nuclear-weapons program has been delayed by the Stuxnet worm and the untimely deaths of a number of scientists. Can more be done, quickly, along these lines? Those who know are not talking and those who talk don’t know. What we do know: It is essential for the U.S. to establish and maintain a qualitative lead in both offensive and defensive cyber weapons, and to develop highly sophisticated clandestine capabilities.
U.S. military force: A last resort, after all peaceful efforts have been exhausted, would probably feature an aerial campaign to destroy or degrade Iran’s nuclear facilities — with no boots on the ground. The risks and uncertainties of such action should not be minimized. By the same token, standing up to Khamenei and Ahmadinejad will not be easier once they possess a nuclear arsenal. (In conversations with his generals, Hitler marveled that the West had not challenged him when he was weak and the costs would have been modest, but instead waited until he was strong and the costs catastrophic.)
Lead from behind: Geographically and theologically, Israel is on the front lines of the War Against the West. Though stopping Iran from establishing a new, anti-Western empire should not be the responsibility of Israelis alone, they may decide they cannot wait for the rest of the world to realize the folly of repeating the mistakes of the 1930s. The “Little Satan” does not have the military might of the United States but never underestimate the ingenuity and determination of this tiny state with its back against the wall. The U.S. might as well provide assistance. America’s enemies and the conspiracy theorists — those who blame the CIA and the Mossad for 9/11 — will point fingers at Washington in any case.
Containment: There are those who argue that Iran can’t be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons or that whatever attempts are made will prove counterproductive. But, they add, not to worry: If a nuclear-armed Soviet Union could be contained for 40 years, so can a nuclear-armed Iran. Soviet atheists, however, though evil, were generally rational and saw little prospect of rewards in the Hereafter. Ahmadinejad and Khamenei may actually believe that an apocalyptical war is necessary to summon the Hidden Imam, the Mahdi, the Savior. If so, for them, as scholar Bernard Lewis has said, “mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent; it is an inducement.” In any case, a serious containment policy would have to include comprehensive missile defense so that we could say to Iran’s rulers: “We have the means to prevent any nuclear-armed missiles you fire from reaching their intended victims.” In fact, though we have the technology to build such a missile shield, we are not doing it.
Appease, temporize, posture, and gesture: That’s a fair description of both American and European policy toward Iran over the past three decades. It’s taken a very long time for the Iranian threat to come into focus for many of America’s leaders. And it’s still not certain that they will respond, seriously and effectively, to this clear and present danger.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.