Jewish World Review
April 18, 2007
/ 30 Nissan 5767
Bad Options on Iran
Look behind the curtain of virtually every major problem in the Middle East, and you will find Iran: killings in Iraq; arms and money for Hezbollah's assaults on Israel and Hezbollah's attempts to usurp the elected government of Lebanon; support of Syria as the hotelier of the region's major terrorist groups; support and training of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and sleeper networks in countries beyond; promotion of a messianic revolutionary ideology that has deepened the Sunni-Shiite divide; the reckless seizure of 15 British sailors and marines as hostages; and defiance of the U.N. in pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Only the United States has the will and the capacity to constrain Iran. Most members of the EU and the U.N. like to believe that Iran's nuclear ambitions, and its meddling in terror, are manageable challenges that can be addressed without military force or serious economic pressure. President Bush thinks otherwise. He is right. To limit the options for countermeasures is to increase the threat. The Iranians cannot be allowed to believe military force is ruled out. Admittedly, however, we are severely constrained by our commitments to Iraq; by the war-weariness of Congress; and not least by the way Iran has dispersed and buried its nuclear facilities. How do you contain a state that nurtures terror in the shadows? And how can Iraq be restored to its traditional balancing role when the leading Shiite parties in Baghdad look to co-religionists in Iran?
Scant diplomacy. The diplomatic options are dim, too. The United States has tried to arrange multilateral talks with Iran on condition it suspends its uranium-enrichment program. The offer was rejected, even though it acknowledged Iran's enhanced role in the region, envisaged improved trade, and promised warmer political ties and cooperation in peaceful nuclear technologies that would have allowed Iran to produce the electricity it says it seeks.
What is there to do when Iran remains so defiant? Its leadership believes that China, a major buyer of Iranian oil, and Russia, with major economic interests, will limit sanctions. This is the pivot point because Iran depends heavily on trade. With two thirds of its people under the age of 30, with high unemployment and inflation, and with capital fleeing the country, Iran is desperate to attract outside finance to maintain and expand its oil and gas industries and infrastructure. No wonder there is rising popular discontent given President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reckless rhetoric and poor management of the economy.
Ironically, Iran has been the great beneficiary of the war in Iraq. Elections replaced the hostile Baathist regime with a government dominated by Shiite parties close to Tehran, thus realizing the ambition of the Shiite regime in Iran to establish an ally next door. Indeed, if the war in Iraq should abate or end, Iran would be stronger because a quasi peace would accelerate the departure of U.S. forces-though it would also hasten a confrontation between Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab countries and a Shiite Iran. The DNA of the Iranian regime, both rejectionist and expansionist, is a source of anxiety among all the Sunni Arab countries that have formed a lobby against Iran, led by Saudi Arabia.
Iran is not a monolith. There is a division among the conservatives between hard-liners and pragmatists. The hard-liners hostile to the West play up nationalism. They are boosted every time there is a confrontation with the West or when the United States does not rule out military conflict. For the hard-liners, when the price of oil rises to reflect what oil traders call "the risk premium," it gives the group billions of dollars it would otherwise not have had to broaden support.
Iran's middle and lower classes are frustrated because only the corrupt elites have benefited from windfall oil revenues. How then can we reach out to the pragmatists who believe that the nuclear issue should not be the first priority of Iran because it induces increased international isolation and has a negative impact on its economy? Do we ratchet up the pressure and engage, or would engagement be interpreted as a symptom of a weaker America bogged down in Iraq?
There could be no worse time for the United States to have a showdown. Iran is in a comparatively strong position, and we are in a relatively weak one. The only realistic course today is to sustain a policy of careful diplomacy, supported by sanctions or the threat of greater sanctions; an approach that led to the recent release of the 15 kidnapped British sailors and marines. This will require patience, statesmanship-and a thick skin, given the outrageous behavior of the Iranian regime.
The critical moment will arrive when this or the next president's national security adviser walks into the Oval Office with credible intelligence that a radical Tehran is at the point of getting the bomb and only military action will stop it. Then the crisis will escalate no matter what the president's decision will be. Time is not on our side.
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© 2005, Mortimer Zuckerman