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Tapping the Hornet's Nest
by Michael Rubin, December 13, 2004
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December 10, 2004
* Cross-posted with permission

Editor's note: Readers may also be interested in Iran: The Invisible Revolution.

During the U.S. presidential campaign, debate over Iran policy received unprecedented attention. The reasons are multifold. With Iran on the verge of developing both nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile capability, Washington policymakers can no longer ignore the Iranian threat, especially when confidants of Supreme Leader Ali Khomenei lead televised chants of "American will be annihilated," as Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati did last June.

American concern over a nuclear Iran is multifold. The danger is not necessarily that Iran would conduct a nuclear first strike, although former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani threatened to do exactly that on December 14, 2001. Rather, Washington fears that a nuclear Iran would feel itself immune from retaliation and so less obligated to international norms.

An anti-Western ideology remains at the core of the Islamic republic, even as the majority of Iranian citizens long to join the West. The Islamic Republic founded Palestinian Islamic Jihad, bankrolls Hezbollah and supplies other Palestinian factions with weapons. According to the Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat, Iran shelters several hundred Al-Qaida members at Revolutionary Guard facilities near the Caspian town of Chalus and Lavizan, on the outskirts of Tehran. Iranian diplomats know that Washington would consider it a casus belli if Al-Qaida were to plan a terrorist attack from Iranian soil. But if Tehran felt a nuclear deterrent would prevent American or Israeli retaliation, it would have less incentive to rein in its proxy groups.

A nuclear Iran would also have profound impact upon ordinary Iranians. While the Islamic republic uses nationalism to justify its nuclear program, once sympathetic citizens have second thoughts. Students I met in Tehran during the 1999 democracy protests question whether after getting the bomb, the country's ideological guardians might engage in a crackdown "10 times worse than [China's 1989 assault on] Tiananmen Square." And, as the first anniversary of the Bam earthquake approaches, some environmentalists also voice concern about the wisdom of a Russian-built reactor in an earthquake zone.

Despite the growing challenge, U.S. policy remains confused. The Bush administration has yet to reach a consensus on a national security presidential directive for Iran. Bureaucrats continue to stumble over arcane questions about whether Jimmy Carter's non-interference pledges - made under duress during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis - prohibit funding of Iranian opposition radio and television broadcasts. Also unresolved is whether the dichotomy within Iran is between hard-liners and reformers, as the State Department maintains, or between the government and democrats. The result has been muddle. While Bush included the Islamic Republic of Iran in the "axis of evil," outgoing Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage labeled Iran a "democracy."

Before assuming her post, a senior director at the National Security Council criticized U.S. sanctions on Iran and the "rogue regime" label. She suggested Washington engage Tehran, and dismissed opponents as the "Israel Amen" crowd. Her predecessor, upon leaving government service, met with former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezai, an encounter the Iranian press suggested had White House sanction. National Security Council compromises brokered between the state and defense departments were often worse than either's proposal. When faced with a hornet's nest, the choice to destroy it or leave it alone is better than the compromise of lightly tapping it with a stick.

The clock is ticking for Iran. The insincerity of Iranian pledges regarding its nuclear program and its activities in Afghanistan and Iraq undercut proponents of engagement. The Bush administration no longer has the luxury of indecision. The fundamental question facing Bush now is not whether Washington can live with a nuclear Iran, but whether it can live with a nuclear Islamic republic. Some policymakers argue that the White House may have no choice. On November 26, 2004, the State Department, without administration sanction, posted a statement on its Web site labeling as "unwise, the possible use of military force by the United States or Israel to eliminate Iran's nuclear installations."

The statement went on to argue that a strike on Iran's dispersed nuclear facilities would not only fail to eliminate the program, but might spark a nationalist reaction and cause the Iranian leadership to unleash terrorist proxies against U.S. interests in the Middle East and Israel.

Such concerns are valid, but terrorist blackmail should never determine foreign policy. The Islamic republic does not seek nuclear weapons for security. On September 22, 2003, Iran paraded a Shihab-3 missile bearing the slogan, "Israel must be uprooted and erased from history." Proponents of security do not threaten to annihilate neighbors. Any concern about Iranian-backed terror now would only increase if the Islamic republic goes nuclear. Should engagement and diplomacy fail, Bush may have no choice but to order a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Should he do so, then he should also target Iran's apparatus of repression, be it Revolutionary Guard facilities or the guard towers at Evin Prison, where the Islamic republic imprisons its dissidents. Regardless, the second Bush administration cannot afford to replicate the indecision of the first. The challenge is too serious and the stakes too high. Diplomacy can only work when both sides are sincere. Let us hope that the Islamic Republic of Iran is, because time is running out.

Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of Middle East Quarterly. Until April 2004, he was an Iran and Iraq adviser in the Pentagon.


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