June 3, 2003
usual suspects are pushing for Iran to be the next target of pressure,
criticism and eventually (perhaps) military activity. Much of this
bellicose advice emanates from some of the same mostly neoconservative
quarters that promoted the war on Iraq for months and even years
before the U.S. government had actually decided to undertake it
(or, depending on which version of events you believe, before the
U.S. government had decided that plans were sufficiently advanced
that it was time for the propaganda campaign aimed mostly at the
American people to move into full gear).
is a little ironic that virtually the same template is being tried
in various trial balloons that was used for Iraq, just as the ostensible
justifications for the Iraq war are crumbling, leading to hasty,
almost desperate-sounding defenses on the weapons-of-mass-destruction
issue from the likes of Bill Safire, Bill Kristol and the Wall
Street Journal editorial page. Even if there was faulty intelligence,
the gist of the defense is, the invasion was the right thing to
defenders of empire studiously avoid coming to terms with the fact
that either the interpretation of the available intelligence, most
likely by the "B-team" put together by Asst. Defense Secretary
Paul Wolfowitz was so faulty as to amount to near-criminality, or
the administration knowingly lied to the American people to buttress
support for a war of choice rather than necessity – an act of aggression.
either of these assertions is true – and I suggest that one of them
must be, though there’s a slim possibility that further information
will come out that might cause me to change my mind – then the American
people would do well to be very skeptical of anything this administration
puts forward as justification for a future conflict. And they should
be especially careful of those who have made no secret of the fact
that their agenda extends far beyond Iraq, to a reshaping of the
THE IRANIAN CASE
Bush has placed Iran firmly on the agenda of his current foreign
trip. The issues, as he has suggested them, have to do with growing
American concern over whether the Islamic Republic regime is pursuing
an active program to develop nuclear weapons, has given sanctuary
to al Qaida operations, and might even have been behind the recent
bombings in Saudi Arabia. There is also concern that Iran is backing
some of the more militant Shiite troublemakers in Iraq as the United
States struggles (without much apparent success to date) to put
together a credible regime that can at least preserve a modicum
of order and command a soupcon of respect.
any of these concerns provide justification for a preemptive military
strike? Before Iraq, many Americans would have doubted that their
government would be so bold as to go to war preemptively because
of what a government is doing within its own borders. But Iraq has
changed that perception. The trouble for America is that the perception
of millions of people around the world has been altered too. Many
people overseas now believe the United States is capable of virtually
any preemptive mission it might conceive. Plenty of governments
beyond President Bush’s conceptually unjustifiable "axis of
evil" wonder whether they will be next.
far the administration has been suitably vague about what actions
it might undertake to stave off potential threats from Iran. But
there is no shortage of bellicose advice.
the current issue of The Weekly Standard, for example, a
lengthy article (and in fact relatively responsible and reasonably
attentive at least to certain facts) on Iran’s nuclear ambitions
by the American Enterprise Institute’s Reuel Marc Gerecht advises
that "a preemptive military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities
... is the only option that offers a good chance of delaying Iran’s
production of nuclear weapons."
should think long and hard before considering this option.
IS PROLIFERATION POPULAR?
for starters, it would be helpful to consider the extent to which
U.S. foreign policy has the perverse effect of encouraging other
countries to acquire nuclear weapons. The invasion of Iraq certainly
put other countries in the "axis of evil" on notice that
they might be next, and it is hardly surprising that they might
conclude that the most effective way to deter an attack is to have
nuclear weapons. Indeed, there has been plenty of discussion, from
hawks, doves and otherwise, on the phenomenon that the U.S. has
handled North Korea, which U.S. intelligence believes might have
a nuke or two, and the capacity to produce more, rather differently
than it handled Iraq.
lesson for any country that thinks it might just come to the attention
of the world hegemon? The smartest thing to do is to acquire a nuke
or two quietly, not announcing the fact until it’s a done deal.
Then the United States will handle your situation with diplomacy
rather than military force.
short, the United States seems to have inadvertently (or not) encouraged
the nuclear proliferation our leaders profess to deplore. Perhaps,
then, the best way to discourage proliferation would be an explicit
abandonment of the idea that the U.S. is in the business of targeting
countries for preemptive strikes. But how likely is that to happen
in advance of a disaster or serious setback for the current policy?
is another strong reason to be skeptical of a rush to begin provocative
actions against Iran, as Stanley Kober, a research fellow at the
Cato Institute and former editor of the journal Comparative Strategy,
told me. An aggressive U.S. stance just might do serious harm to
the resistance movement that has been building in Iran for some
years. A number of observers have noted that Iranian students, especially,
who have known no regime other than the Islamic Republic, have been
notably restive. Some Iranian clerics have engaged in spates of
resistance to the central government and its repressive ways.
is different from Iraq, where no serious indigenous resistance movement
seemed visible. In Iran, the absolute power of the mullahs is under
siege. Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s president, was elected as a "reformist,"
although in practice he has done little to ease the clerical dominance.
Whether this is because he has little serious power or because he
was never serious about being a reformer is difficult to tell. But
relatively large majorities in Iran, to the extent the ballot box
means much, have indicated that they want a regime at least somewhat
more liberal than the present one. Eventually, some change – although
probably slower and less extensive than groups like Human Rights
Watch or the neocon cabal would prefer – is virtually inevitable.
seeing what almost amounts to an Islamic reformation movement, complemented
by a generational split in which young people in Iran are increasingly
discontent with the mullahs," Mr. Kober said. "If that
movement can be cast as American 'puppets,’ the hope for regime
change from within might be lost for some time."
the best hope for real change in Iran might be for the United States
to stay out of the situation, and avoid overt or covert support
of dissidents that would either give the regime an excuse to crack
down on them harder or discredit them among the general populace
– or both. Even if the change is less then a pure libertarian might
prefer, it will have the merit of having come from within, and is
therefore likely to be more stable than a change imposed from without.
be sure, people like AEI’s Michael Ledeen, who has followed Iranian
developments more closely than most conservatives or neoconservatives
and is probably reasonably sincere in his desire to see something
close to genuine liberation in Iran, would disagree. He has urged
President Bush to support Iranian dissidents, at least in speeches
and statements, more openly than he has to date. And he seems to
believe that a few covert support operations can be carried out
fairly competently without alienating serious portions of the Iranian
general public. Indeed, he seems pretty sure that there would be
rejoicing in the streets of Tehran if the U.S. let it be known that
it was serious about ousting the Islamic Republic.
course, he seems to think the Iraqis are still rejoicing. And, as
Stanley Kober pointed out to me, he and some others still seem to
be working from a Cold War model. Because the United States supported
certain dissident movements in the old Soviet empire and the Soviet
empire collapsed, the U.S. should support other dissident movements.
it is dubious just how influential U.S. support of dissidents was
in bringing on the collapse of the Soviet regime. And the U.S. and
Europe had more in common culturally and politically with Russia
and Eastern Europe than with a Muslim nation that has for the time
being gone along with the Islamic Republic model, so it will be
more difficult to support and coordinate a truly effective dissident
movement. All and sundry have commented on the lack of U.S. intelligence
and military assets who speak the language, have an appreciation
of the culture and have a realistic potential of moving like a fish
in Iranian waters.
YES, THE MILITARY PROBLEM
military success in Iraq might have caused some Americans to assume
a similar campaign in Iran would be relatively easy. But Iraq has
23 million people and Iran has 66 million. Iraq had a river plain
that offered an invasion path, while Iran is mountainous. And it’s
questionable whether even Britain would be with us on this one.
like Gerecht argue that it’s a matter of time. If the United States
doesn’t do something soon to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear
weapons capability, the country will have them and be able to thumb
its nose at the sole superpower – or at least force the U.S. to
tread carefully and use diplomatic more than military tools. Some
wonder whether this would really be such a horrendous outcome.
Gerecht knows that his real target audience is George W. Bush who
(let us assume for the moment) hasn’t quite decided exactly what
to do about Iran besides tell the rest of the world about its "duties"
to support whatever he eventually decides. So Gerecht casts Iran
as a test of the insecure son’s manhood. He argues that Iran is
"the litmus test of President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism
and his 'axis of evil’ doctrine. Neither will end up making much
sense unless the Bush administration confronts the Islamic Republic
on both issues [terrorism and nuclear weapons] in a way different
from the Clinton administration."
is legitimate to be concerned about potential threats from Iran.
But we should move cautiously and consider the possibility that
some policy other than confrontation, non-negotiable demands and
aggressive displays of power might just be more efficacious.
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