The Magazine

The Mullahs' Manhattan Project

From the June 9, 2003 issue: Do we dare let these men acquire nukes?

Jun 9, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 38 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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FOR BETTER or usually for worse, the Islamic Republic of Iran can always command our attention, easily reminding us, as did the wars with Saddam Hussein and September 11, that the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation isn't the cutting edge of modern Middle Eastern history. Clerical Iran's ever-advancing nuclear-weapons program and its fondness for using terrorism as statecraft have made the country 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 somehow confronts the Islamic Republic on both issues in a way different from the Clinton administration. After all, the Clintonites tried to staunch the flow of nuclear technology to the Islamic Republic (the rather advanced Natanz gas centrifuge facility near Isfahan and the nearly completed Bushehr nuclear reactor suggest that they failed). But they didn't try at all to hold the Iranians responsible for the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. As the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Louis Freeh recently pointed out in an amazing cri de coeur in the Wall Street Journal, the Clinton White House willfully dragged its counterterrorist feet for fear of damaging what it perceived as a possible fruitful dialogue with Iran's new (1997) "reformist" president, the ever-smiling, Tocqueville-quoting Mohammad Khatami. Khatami would be more likely to triumph over the hard-core clerics, so the theory then went, if the United States didn't aggressively confront Iran for its culpability in killing and maiming dozens of American soldiers. The Clinton administration went for engagement. Khatami neither responded nor seriously confronted his more hard-core clerical brethren on any contentious foreign or domestic issue.

Still the most revolutionary country in the region, Iran has the natural resources, population, geography, culture, and experience with faith-based politics to transform the Muslim Middle East through its successes and failures. A clerical Iran armed with nuclear weaponry might recover some of the dynamism of its early years. The hard-core mullahs' abiding hatred of the United States and its threatening liberal culture could become bolder, fueled by the security of nuclear deterrence and ever-growing anxiety about an "America-inspired" reform movement, which has turned Iran's clerical rulers into dictators in the eyes of most of the country's people. The terrorist reflex in Iran could again start powerfully acting up against the United States, with horrendous results. On the other hand, a democratic Iran, where clerics no longer had dominion, would have an enormous impact on the Middle East. The Islamic revolution would be dead. A secular, democratic alternative would have finally taken root in the heartland of the Muslim world.

An American-born democratic Iraq may well have this capacity too, which is why the Islamic Republic will seek to ensure that a friendly, cleric-driven political system prevails next door. Tehran's ruling mullahs are surely anxious about the increasing discussion in Iran of Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali as-Sistani, arguably the most senior Shia cleric in the Muslim world, and the influence of the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, the preeminent center of Shia learning. Sistani's long-held aversion to clerics as politicians is a rebuke to the Islamic Republic's identity. When the grand ayatollah becomes a more public figure, which is inevitable as normality returns to Iraq, and if Najaf follows Sistani's lead, Tehran's ruling mullahs will confront a threat worse than Saddam Hussein.

Clerical circles in Iran are already talking about the tithes flowing from ordinary Iranian believers to Sistani. This is unstoppable in the Shia system, where each Muslim may freely choose his religious guide. That money is undoubtedly given in part because of Sistani's eminence and out of sympathy for the suffering of Shia brethren next door. It is also undoubtedly given in part because Sistani is religiously the exact opposite of the clerics who rule in the Islamic Republic. The Iranian meddling in Iraq is the easiest of America's Iranian problems. The Islamic Republic's quest for nuclear weaponry and its support for terrorism will be much more difficult to solve. In Iraq, the senior Shia clergy will likely do most of our heavy lifting, provided the United States does not hopelessly screw up the administration of the country. Like Afghanistan, Iraq is for us to lose, not for the Iranians to win.