Fareed Zakaria is wearing his “I’m perplexed” face. On his weekly CNN program, he notes that Saudi Arabia did not go nuclear in response to “Israel’s buildup of a large arsenal of nuclear weapons.” So why, he asks the camera, would the Saudis do so in response to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons?
The camera did not answer, so I will: The Saudis are not fools. They know Israel poses no threat to them. They know, too, that those who rule the Islamic Republic of Iran seek to establish hegemony over the Middle East and lead a global Islamist ascendancy.
A nuclear-armed Iran would challenge the Saudi clan’s claim to be the rightful guardian of Mecca and Medina and embolden Arabia’s Shia minority. It would threaten the small states in the region, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain among them. It would dominate Iraq (where its influence has been growing as American forces have withdrawn) and Afghanistan (from which American forces soon will withdraw).
So if the Iranians get nukes, the Saudis can be expected to acquire them not long after (with Pakistan likely providing express delivery). Turkey probably will not trail far behind. Other states may follow suit. In such a situation, the chance of a nuclear device finding its way into terrorist hands would increase substantially — as President Obama and others have pointed out.
“But,” Zakaria asks in his most recent Time magazine column, “would a country that has labored for decades to pursue a nuclear program and suffered huge sanctions and costs to do so then turn around and give the fruits of its efforts to a gang of militants?” The obvious answer is yes — if those militants were planning to kill people Iran’s rulers want killed. That’s kind of what it means to be a sponsor of terrorism, and Iran has been the world leader in this field for a long time. To take just two instances: Iran was implicated in Hezbollah’s bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in 1983 and al-Qaeda’s bombing of American embassies in Africa in 1998.
Zakaria asserts that “the evidence is ambiguous” as to whether Iran’s rulers “have decided” to develop nuclear weapons — despite the fact that Yukiya Amano, who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency, said last week that “Iran has engaged in activities relevant to the development of nuclear explosive devices.” (Also despite the fact that there are few good reasons to bury non-nuclear facilities inside mountains and prevent IAEA inspectors from having a look at them.)
In the same column, Zakaria asserts that Iran is being told to “surrender.” Now he’s got me perplexed: Why is asking Iran’s rulers not to develop a weapon they have not decided to develop a demand for “surrender”?
Zakaria’s commentaries omit any mention of the stated intentions of Iran’s theocrats. Is that because quoting them would make it apparent that this crisis has been caused by them — not by what Zakaria calls a sudden attack of “war fever” whipped up by those addressing the AIPAC conference earlier this month?
Iran’s rulers for years have threatened Israelis with genocide. In the chilling words of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Israel is “a cancerous tumor” that “will be removed.” That Iran now appears close to acquiring the nuclear scalpel to perform such surgery makes the problem urgent for Israelis. But it should not be their responsibility alone. That becomes clear when you consider the broader goal declared by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:
We are in the process of an historical war between the World of Arrogance and the Islamic world . . . Is it possible for us to witness a world without America and Zionism? You had best know that this slogan and this goal are attainable, and surely can be achieved.
Both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are disciples of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who more than three decades ago founded the Islamic Republic, conceived as the first modern jihadi state. He, too, had a fondness for medical metaphors, as in his theological justification for the slaughter of non-Muslims:
To allow the infidels to stay alive means to let them do more corrupting. [To kill them] is a surgical operation commanded by Allah the Creator.
Once upon a time, one could harbor the hope that moderates or at least pragmatists would come to power in Iran without another revolution. But that has proven to be a fairy tale as Zakaria and other leading lights of the foreign policy establishment would see were they not willfully determined to remain perplexed about the threat that Iran’s theocrats pose.
Might they at least listen to Don Cooke? The youngest of the American diplomats taken hostage in Tehran in 1979, he retired from the Foreign Service this year and went on to recall his experience — which included mock firing squads, manacles, and blindfolds. He and his fellow captives, he wrote, were released only when Khomeini became convinced “that the Reagan administration was committed to end the hostage crisis by any means necessary.” In subsequent Iranian– American confrontations, too, “the success of our response depended both on appearing resolute and on being resolute.”
Today, once again, Cooke argues, Iran’s rulers must be convinced “that we have the capability and the will to end their [nuclear] program ourselves. The irony is that the more clearly we demonstrate that capability and will, the less likely we will need to use them.”
One way to start would be for President Obama to speak directly to the Iranian people. He would say how much he regrets the suffering caused them by the economic sanctions implemented so far and still to come. He would make clear that the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of those who rule Iran, because civilized people cannot turn a blind eye to what they have been doing: supporting terrorism, threatening genocide, illegally developing nuclear weapons, ordering assassinations abroad, backing Assad’s butchery in Syria, and, not least, brutalizing and oppressing ordinary Iranians at home.
He would say without equivocation that he intends to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran’s rulers from resting their fingers on nuclear triggers. He would add that he hopes such measures prove unnecessary; that he looks forward to the day when sanctions can be lifted and Iranians can be helped to achieve peace and prosperity.
Belatedly, he would answer the question posed by the protestors on the streets of Tehran in 2009: “Obama, are you with us or against us?” He would say that he and other Americans will always be on the side of those fighting for freedom, human rights, and tolerance. Why would Obama not do this? And why, by the way, does that question not perplex Fareed Zakaria?
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.