If the more excitable European statesmen and American pundits are to be believed, the U.S. is on the verge of invading Iran in order to advance its strategic plan to reshape the entire Middle East along democratic lines. Or if not actually invading Iran, then the U.S. is planning to overthrow its government. Or if it is not planning actually to overthrow the mullahs in Teheran, Washington intends to help the Iranian opposition in some way. Or maybe the U.S. will simply shake its fist threateningly and mouth insults.
In the immortal phrase of Bob Dole: Whatever.
These vague and uncertain menaces are the symptoms of a problem with no very good solution. No one really doubts — not even President Chirac or Howell Raines of the New York Times — that Iran is a serious international problem.
It is a terrorist state that gives financial, military, and logistical support to terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, in and beyond the Middle East.
It seems to be harboring al Qaeda terrorists wanted by the U.S. — though its denies doing so, or at any rate harboring them in large numbers, or maybe harboring them for long periods of time.
It is currently seeking to undermine the Anglo-American occupation forces in next-door Iraq by supplying money and arms to Shiite forces and helping them to organize resistance to American forces.
And it is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons through an ostensibly peaceful program of nuclear power (and the means of their delivery.)
As the principal target of international terrorism, the U.S. cannot acquiesce in the rise of a nuclear-armed Iran ruled by its current regime of revolutionary mullahs. For a terrorist state would then become essentially invulnerable to any serious retaliation for its terrorism (as well as posing the risk that it might covertly give nuclear material for a “dirty bomb” to one of its terrorist clients). Either Iran must cease to be a terrorist state — or it must be compelled to give up its nuclear-weapons program. There is no third way.
As UPI’s Eli Lake has pointed out, however, the U.S. is dithering between two very different strategies designed to achieve these desirable objectives.
The first broad strategy is that outlined, with variations, by the U.S. State Department, the European Union, and bien pensant liberal opinion generally — the strategy of “dialogue,” trade, and “constructive engagement” with the Teheran regime designed to persuade the mullahs to become good international citizens, both giving up aid to terrorism and subjecting their nuclear programs to international U.N. and IAEA inspection.
Reasonable though it sounds, there are several drawbacks to this approach. Iran’s mullahs, if they are to remain in power at home, cannot afford to allow the development next door of a peaceful and democratic Iraq with a large Shiite majority and influential Shia clerics who preach a very different brand of Islam. Their efforts to subvert this potentially appealing Islamic alternative will inevitably carry them into a sustained clash with the U.S.
Even without this incentive, the Iranian mullahs would be very unlikely to give up their support of terrorism. It is their main means of prosecuting their wider foreign policy against the Great Satan and Israel. And it explains why they are apparently harboring al Qaeda operatives inside Iran — and telling the U.S. they have arrested them but not actually turning them over.
Above all, the policy of persuading Teheran not to develop nuclear weapons by a combination of trade, aid, and inspections is exactly the policy that failed against North Korea. The North Koreans went along with an inspections regime until they reached the point where concealment was impossible — whereupon they kicked the inspectors out. What is to prevent Iran doing the same thing? Nothing at all. And some Europeans, like Britain’s foreign secretary, Jack Straw, are warning the Iranian mullahs that they must demonstrate plainly that they have halted any nuclear-weapons program now.
All in all, then, the policy of constructive engagement is a bust. But unlike the Roman emperor who, judging a song competition with two singers, heard the first and promptly gave the prize to the second, we cannot simply adopt the second strategy.
This is the strategy, favored by the Pentagon and the famously sinister neoconservatives, of bringing about “regime change” in Iran on the grounds that the present Teheran regime is worse than hopeless. Even if the justification is valid — and the present Teheran regime is worse than hopeless — that still leaves the vital question of how regime change is to be accomplished.
Even though the fevered European media spins sinister theories that “neoconservatives” have captured George Bush’s brain and are bent on war everywhere, the U.S. has no intention of waging war against Iran unless the mullahs are foolish enough to start it themselves. Nor does Washington intend to help the exiled Mujahedin Al Khaq guerrillas to wage a military campaign inside Iraq. Washington wants to keep the MEK at arms length because it has used terrorist methods — and the U.S. is dubious about using terrorism to wage war on terrorism.
That leaves assisting the opposition Iranian students on the streets in the same way that the U.S. helped Solidarity in Poland in the early 1980s — namely, giving them the means of communication and propaganda to enable them to sustain riots and dissidence against what is now a deeply unpopular regime. If this support for Iran’s domestic democratic resistance were combined with a policy of diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions, it might conceivably result in the gradual collapse of the Iranian mullahs before a long-drawn-out popular uprising.
Unfortunately it might result in no such thing — as the survival of Castro in Cuba against a long U.S. embargo demonstrates. In addition, its chances of success would be greatly reduced if countries like France and Germany were to persist with the first policy of trade and dialogue.
But a judicious combination of these strategies might have better prospects of success. The U.S. might begin by hinting that if all other methods failed, we might be compelled to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities — just as Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor 20 years ago. Then President Bush might suggest to our European allies that, in order to avoid this regrettable necessity, we should cooperate on a policy of imposing the strictest possible inspections regime on Iran — one that includes the use of military force — until either the mullahs abandon their nuclear program or are overthrown by internal opposition.
Mr. Bush’s “Proliferation Security Initiative” at the G8 meeting in Evian this week-proposing that ships suspected of carrying nuclear contraband, should be stopped and inspected on the high seas — could well be part of such a strategy. It already has the support of those allies that backed the U.S. over Iraq. And if France and Germany resist such ideas unreasonably, they convict themselves of not taking the threat of nuclear terrorism seriously.
Suppose, however, that this mixed strategy is adopted and in due course fails too. We would then be compelled to make good on our hint, reach for the Osirak option, and bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Or if we are feeling shy, we might ask Israel to do so on our behalf.
— John O’Sullivan is editor-in-chief of United Press International and editor-at-large for National Review. This was written for Chicago Sun-Times and printed with permission.