Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Bush, Kerry, and Iran

One of the key issues confronting America is how to deal with the growing threat posed by the mullahcracy of Iran, and in particular its ongoing nuclear weapons program. As I have noted previously, the mullahs continue to press ahead with this program in spite of European efforts to persuade Iran to submit to full international inspections and controls. As Associated Press has reported just today:

Iran is once again building centrifuges that can be used to make nuclear weaponry, breaking the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency's seals on the equipment in a show of defiance against international efforts to monitor its program, diplomats said Tuesday.

In another previous post, I briefly described the continuing terrorist threat that the Islamist regime in Tehran poses. Since then, Time Magazine has reported that al-Qaeda members, including a number of the 9/11 hijackers, were able to travel through Iran with the direct knowledge and cooperation of the Iranian regime and intelligence services. Based on information from the 9/11 commission report, Time also states that "Iranian officials approached the al-Qaeda leadership after the bombing of the USS Cole and proposed a collaborative relationship in future attacks on the U.S., but the offer was turned down by bin Laden because he did not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia." Newsweek has more on the Iran/al-Qaeda connection, including information that 9/11 planner Ramzi Binalshibh passed through Tehran in early 2001 with the cooperation of Iranian authorities. On Friday July 23, the Washington Times reported that "al Qaeda operatives in Iran probably had advance knowledge of recent terrorist attacks, a sign that the cooperation between Tehran and al Qaeda is continuing since September 11." An Arab newspaper based in London recently stated that nearly 400 al-Qaeda operatives are being harbored in Iran, including 18 high-ranking leaders. Dan Darling at Winds of Change has more on possible Iranian connections to 9/11 and al-Qaeda.

Regardless of who wins the election this November, formulating a strategy for dealing with the mullahcracy will be an immediate priority. As the Washington Post recently noted, the Bush Administration's policy towards Iran has been "generally been piecemeal and reactive to broader or tangential issues, rather than to Iran itself, U.S. officials say. "What we have is a summation of various pieces -- one piece on nuclear weapons, one on human rights, another on terrorism, other pieces on drugs, Iraq and Afghanistan," a senior State Department official said."

Essentially, the options boil down to two. One, negotiate with the mullahs and hope to cut a deal that halts their nuclear program and ends their support for terrorism. The second option, is to keep the pressure on and pursue a policy of regime change. Each option carries its own risks.

Citing a recent report issued by the Council on Foreign Relations, Gregory Djerejian at Belgravia Dispatch makes the case for engaging the mullahs:

1) the Task Force found that "despite considerable political flux and popular dissatisfaction, Iran is not on the verge of another revolution" (correctly, in my humble opinion);

2) from that finding flows the conclusion that engagement is likelier a better policy option than military action right now (especially given how we are not, er, particularly well positioned right now to mount a regime change operation in Iran);

3) an ambitious "grand bargain" or, even, a more modest "roadmap" style delineation of the going forward relationship is not likely to be achieved at this juncture ("A quarter-century of enmity and estrangement are not easily overcome, the issues at stake are too numerous and complex, and the domestic political contexts of both countries are too difficult to allow the current breach to be settled comprehensively overnight.")

so therefore;

4) better for Washington to propose to Teheran a "compartmentalized process of dialogue, confidence building, and incremental engagement. The U.S. should identify the discrete set of issues where critical U.S. and Iranian interests converge, and must be prepared to make progress along separate tracks, even while considerable differences remain in other areas."

Unfortunately, there are numerous problems with a strategy of engagement. Judging by their rhetoric, there is no indication that the radical Islamists who dominate the regime are interested in rapprochement with the US. Won't the mullahs simply interpret a newfound American willingness to negotiate as a vindication of their hardline policies, and as confirming American weakness? How will "incremental engagement" prevent the Iranian regime from pursuing its nuclear program, supporting Islamist terrorism, or seeking to export its theocratic vision to Iraq? Finally, why would the mullahs suddenly agree to democratic reforms as part of this process when they have spent the last several years assiduously purging their system of its more democratic components? In short, I fail to see how "incremental engagement" will solve any of these issues.

The other option is to pursue regime change in Iran. This does not mean by military means. The use of military force is neither plausible nor desirable in Iran at present, with the one exception being a "surgical strike" against Iranian nuclear facilities. In order to pursue regime change in Iran, the US will have to do three things. The first is to make it abundantly clear to the mullahcracy that it will not be allowed to produce nuclear weapons, and be prepared to use force if necessary. The second element is to stand by the Iranian people in their hour of need. We will have to aid the democratic opposition through financial, material, and rhetorical means. Finally, we need to finish the task of creating a democratic, pluralist Iraq. Such an Iraq would provide a model for the hopes and aspirations of the Iranian people, as Western Europe did for Eastern Europe during the Cold War. As Reuters reported on July 1, the "rise of a secular, democratic Iraq could pose a threat to Iran's Shi'ite clerical establishment, which fears it would serve as a powerful model for moderate Iranians who seek change, clerics said." To a large extent, then, the fate of Iran will be decided in Iraq. Assuming of course, that we refrain from engaging the Mullahs and throwing them a lifeline.

That leads me to the choice we face this November. As Reuters noted on July 14:

U.S. policy toward Iran, whose nuclear policies and involvement in Iraq fly in the face of U.S. interests, could hinge on the outcome of the November presidential election.

If re-elected, President Bush is expected to pursue more aggressive support for factions that want to topple hard-line leaders in Iran while Democratic challenger John Kerry is more inclined toward engaging the Islamic republic.

"I think you would see us continue a very hard line on the nonproliferation issue and support for dissident elements inside Iran would pick up," a senior administration official said. He ruled out military action.

Added another Republican insider said, "My understanding is that this tough view is one that has been expressed by the president himself on a number of occasions lately."

Reflecting a different approach, Kerry foreign policy adviser Rand Beers told Reuters in an interview: "Yes, we would be prepared to talk to Iran."

Link courtesy of Pejman Yousefzadeh

Sadly, it is obvious that a Kerry Administration would not confront the mullahcracy, but rather would seek to cut a deal with it. In my view, such an effort would be a fool's errand that will only give the Iranian theocracy the opportunity to bring their nuclear program to fruition. That is something we cannot allow to happen. This raises the problem of what a Kerry Administration would do then. Would John Kerry really have the courage to use force against the Iranian regime, on the basis of incomplete intelligence and over the objections of our European "allies" in whose opinion he puts so much stock? Sadly, there is nothing in his record to indicate that he is capable of making such a choice, at least not before it's too late.


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