Politics & Policy

Iran, Now

Four years ago, George W. Bush said his administration would not “permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” Yet precisely that is about to happen. With Iran’s announcement this week that it has begun uranium enrichment, we know that the world’s most dangerous regime–a sponsor of global terror and sworn enemy of the United States that openly threatens the annihilation of Israel–is on a fast track to building an atomic bomb. If we don’t want that to happen, we must recognize that our Iran policy has failed and change it–now.

Or, to be more precise, the Bush administration must recognize that it never had an Iran policy. It chose instead to second the policy devised by France, Germany, and Britain, which rested on the premise that Iran’s rulers could be bribed and browbeaten into submission. This was never a reasonable assumption. Since its birth in 1979, the Iranian theocracy has shown pure contempt for the norms that govern relations among sovereign states: by permitting the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran; by declaring a fatwa on a British subject; by orchestrating a 1994 massacre at a Jewish center in Buenos Aires; by murdering 19 U.S. airmen in the Khobar Towers bombing of 1996; by subsidizing terror attacks and armed militias in Lebanon, Israel, Iraq. Is there now–was there ever–any reason to think the mullahs will play by the rules?

The problem with Iran is precisely not its nuclear program. The problem is the regime. We have every reason to think this regime would use its arsenal to threaten the U.S. and its allies, and to extract concessions inimical to our interests. Nor can we exclude the possibility that the mullahs would actually launch their nukes. Consider Hashemi Rafsanjani, that celebrated “moderate,” exulting that the Muslim world will “vomit [Israel] out from its midst,” since “a single atomic bomb has the power to completely destroy [it].” Nuclear deterrence operates on the assumption that your foe is rational. Things start to break down when a significant part of its ruling establishment fancies itself on divine mission to evaporate the Zionist Entity in a mushroom cloud, roll back the Great Satan, and usher in a paradisiacal rule by sharia. That’s not a regime to bargain with. The goal must be to remove it from power.

This does not mean invasion and occupation. But it does mean getting serious about supporting the Iranian democracy movement. The contradiction of Iran is that its people, the most educated, moderate, and pro-Western of the Muslim Middle East, are ruled by the most aggressive Islamists in the world. It wouldn’t take a large expenditure to catalyze that tension. President Bush routinely declares his support for the cause of Iranian democracy–something that, according to a dissident inside Iran who recently spoke to National Review Online, has made a deep impression on his countrymen. Why, then, has Bush’s administration failed to give material aid to the Iranian democrats?

There are three things we should begin doing now. First, supporting Iranian labor unions. The Iron Curtain would not have fallen without Lech Walesa and Solidarity, and unions could play a similar role in Iran. As recently as three months ago, Iran’s rulers had to dispatch the goons to crush a strike among Tehran’s bus drivers, who were protesting not just their work conditions but also the oppressive nature of their government, and were joined by demonstrators from all walks of Iranian life. The mismanagement of the Iranian economy–particularly its lack of refinery capacity–is such that a well-planned strike in the right sectors could bring the country to a standstill. Some will object that American support would discredit the unions, but let’s not forget that similar things were said of Solidarity, or that there are ways of directing funds through nongovernmental channels.

“None of this is guaranteed

to spark a revolution, but

it has better odds than

doing nothing.”

Second, we should do everything we can to help Iranian student groups. Roughly 70 percent of Iran’s population is under 30. These youths are the most pro-Western segment of Iranian society–and they happen to be mad as hell at Iran’s rulers, who they think have isolated them from the modern world. The U.S. could galvanize that sentiment to its advantage if only it tried. A good place to start would be opening channels of communication with their leaders and repeating their message at every opportunity.

Which brings us to the third point: We should massively increase our pro-democracy broadcasts into Iran, both by funding U.S.-based Farsi satellite-TV networks and by exercising a modicum of intelligence in our Voice of America programming. VOA officials act like they’re running the Columbia School of Journalism, but “balance” should count for a lot less than inspiring the Iranians to rouse themselves against tyranny and explaining to them the value of what we have over against what they don’t have. We should also send them the message–through both broadcasts and the utterances of our diplomatic establishment–that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons will only isolate them and entrench the mullahs they so despise.

None of this is guaranteed to spark a revolution, but it has better odds than doing nothing. Indeed, these efforts should have begun years ago. Instead, we’ve waited for centrifuges to start spinning at Natanz. The sad consequence of that delay–and the world’s indifference–has been to make military action against Iran much likelier. The U.N. Security Council’s resolve to confront Iran looked serious for all of 15 minutes. Then China and Russia made it clear they’d block any resolute move to punish Iranian intransigence. There is talk of America’s joining the EU-3 in targeted economic sanctions, but these would almost surely be ineffective. Not only does Iran’s wealth come from oil–which no importing country is ascetic enough to deny itself–but there is no clear precedent of sanctions’ having reformed a regime that already perceived itself as the enemy of those doing the sanctioning. The most likely consequence of sanctions would be to tie our hands and stop us from taking effective measures.

That leaves air strikes. We know where the nuclear facilities are; we have the means to target them; and we should not hesitate to do so if we reach a point where there is no other way to thwart the mullahs’ atomic ambitions. While a massive bombing campaign can’t stop Iran from eventually building nukes, it would delay that outcome by several years. But then what? If the mullahs stay in power, all that will change is the intensity of their lust for a bomb and the brazenness with which they export terror. Any air campaign should therefore be coupled with aggressive and persistent efforts to topple the regime from within. Accordingly, it should hit not just the nuclear facilities, but also the symbols of state oppression: the intelligence ministry, the headquarters of the Revolutionary Guard, the guard towers of the notorious Evin Prison.

Make no mistake: This is not a good option. Iran would probably retaliate with terrorist attacks against U.S. interests around the world, as well as aggressive efforts to destabilize Iraq. But the alternative–letting the mullahs go nuclear–is incalculably worse. For a quarter-century those mullahs have been fighting an undeclared war against the West with the only weapons they had: terrorism and a poisonous ideology. For a quarter-century we have failed to respond. They now stand on the brink of getting a new weapon–and this one will let them threaten the incineration of millions of infidels at the push of a button. Is this something that we–that anyone–should be willing to live with?

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