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.
2. Isolate the regime diplomatically — for real. Long ago, when Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the execution of a British novelist for “insulting” Islam, or when Iranian officials first talked of wiping Israel off the map, or when, most recently, the British embassy in Tehran was attacked, serious diplomatic isolation should have been imposed: no funding of international agencies manipulated by Iranians, no visits to New York for Ahmadinejad or to Europe for Iranian oil czars, don’t even let Iran’s planes land in at Western airports. Now is the time.
3. Do not underestimate the potential for high-tech, cutting-edge cyber weapons to further delay the Iranian nuclear-development program. The Stuxnet worm, a cyber weapon for which no one has claimed credit, set Iran’s program back by at least a year. The West must maintain an offensive and defensive lead in this critical, new field of warfare.
More conventional clandestine measures also can play a role — things that go boom in the night and the untimely deaths of individuals contributing to illegal nuclear-weapons development. (None of the above should be discussed more than necessary in public forums, by the way.)
4. The threat of force must be credible. Iran’s rulers should lose sleep over the possibility that a military strike — against their nuclear facilities or against them more directly — may be seen by Americans and Israelis as the least bad option.
5. Help Syria break free of Iran. Under Bashar al-Assad, Syria has been Iran’s bridge into the Arab and Sunni worlds. Syria also has been the patron of Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist foreign legion, and Hamas as well. An incredibly brave Syrian opposition is attempting to bring down the dynasty. The loss of Syria would be a heavy blow to the Tehran regime. America and the West should be doing all they can to support the rebels. 6. Iran’s anti-regime opposition also deserves moral support and material assistance. That should have begun in 2009 when, in the wake of blatantly fraudulent elections, mass protests broke out with demonstrators chanting: “Obama! Are you with us or against us?” Professor Lewis lamented: “We have not done a damn thing to help them. It’s a mind-boggling absurdity.”
In addition to all of the above, recognize that this has become the top national-security priority: In what has been misperceived as an “Arab Spring,” the downtrodden masses in Egypt and elsewhere now may be coming to the conclusion that “Islam is the answer.” Iranians, having tested that proposition over decades, know it is the wrong answer. Rule by mullahs has made them less free and poorer than they ever were under the Shah. Lewis, Lubrani, and Dagan agree that these disenchanted Iranians may offer the last, best hope for the Muslim world — and for winding down the global war against the West.
The alternative is to risk the possibility that jihadis with global ambitions and nuclear weapons will make the 21st century history’s bloodiest era. That is the most important point that Lewis, Lubrani, and Dagan are attempting to communicate — at a dinner last week in Tel Aviv and on other occasions.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.