On to Iran?

The 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).

It 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 do.

The 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.

If 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 Middle East.


President 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.

Would 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.

So 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.

In 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."

We should think long and hard before considering this option.


Just 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.

The 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.

In 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?


There 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.

This 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.

"We’re 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."

So 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.

To 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.

Of 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.

But 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.


Finally, 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.

Commentators 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.

But 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."

It 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.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).