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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.

THE POSSIBLE recrudescence of Iranian-supported anti-American terrorism is obviously an immediate concern for Washington. The specter of al Qaeda taking refuge in Iran, and from there waging war against the United States, isn't something, like the attack against Khobar, that can be bureaucratically shuffled by the State Department into our inactive memory. Association with al Qaeda is an inexcusable no-no, even among Washington's most hard-core, trade-loving Republican realpoliticians and conflict-averse liberals and diplomats. Which is, in part, why those who have favored reestablishing some "dialogue" between Washington and Tehran about Iran's nuclear program and its influence in post-Saddam Iraq have uniformly reacted with skepticism toward recent Pentagon and State Department statements about an operationally live al Qaeda presence inside the Islamic Republic.

One Bush administration official, according to the New York Times, describes the hawk-dove division on Iran within the U.S. intelligence community. There is disagreement, the official says, about what recent intercepts and "so-called chatter" mean--"whether it represents a link to the Saudi bombings or to the Iranian regime." (Which provokes the question: If the intercepts are of al Qaeda members talking to the Iranian regime, are these low-level, "harmless" al Qaeda Arab footsoldiers hiding in the foothills or villages of non-Arabic-speaking Iranian Kurdistan and Baluchistan, and if so, why would the Iranian regime be talking to them?) The Times adds that some "officials" suspect that al Qaeda forces, who've fled from northern Iraq, might be using "Iranian territory temporarily but not necessarily with the approval of the government in Tehran, or [emphasis added] that while some parts of the Iran government want them to leave, others want them to stay." This type of Iran observer consistently divides and subdivides responsibility for nefarious Iranian actions into small extremist cabals. Do this enough and one can even exempt Hojjat-ol-Islam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, two of the principal powers in Iranian politics for over 20 years, from any responsibility for terrorism.

Getting it right on al Qaeda is an urgent issue for the Bush administration. If the White House concludes that bin Laden's organization is operationally alive in Iran--and this couldn't have happened without the support of the ruling mullahs--then the administration tempts an ugly fate by not responding militarily to the clerical regime's blatant provocation. Iran's ministry of intelligence and Revolutionary Guards Corps and the ruling clerics who control these institutions need to know that any cooperation with al Qaeda will lead to a ferocious American counterstrike against these institutions and the individuals who oversee them. If the ruling clerics know that we know al Qaeda holy warriors inside Iran were connected in any operational way with the May 12 suicide-bombings in Saudi Arabia, and we do nothing in response, then the Bush administration is clearly telling Rafsanjani and Khamenei, the Islamic Republic's two kingpins, that American calculations and reflexes have not really changed since the Clinton years. It is important to remember that clerical Iran in its terrorist attacks against the United States in Lebanon in 1983 and in Saudi Arabia in 1996 actually didn't try hard to hide its hand. Its efforts were nonetheless sufficient to allow Washington to choose moderation and restraint.

After the war in Afghanistan, the Bush administration let out an alarm about al Qaeda gaining refuge in Iran. The issue, for whatever reason, was then dropped. If that information was good--and it would be wise to compare closely the intercept and human intelligence from that episode with this one--then the Bush administration has already established one bad precedent. The restoration of American awe in the Middle East accomplished by the Iraq war could be considerably undone by a successful Iranian probing action. So, is the information the U.S. government possesses on an Iranian-al Qaeda connection good?

It is impossible to critique with any certainty clandestine intelligence that you cannot personally peruse. Human intelligence is always tricky to assess: Its quality is heavily dependent upon the controlling case officer and the particularities of the foreign agent, which are often unknowable. Intercept information is usually somewhat easier to handle. When it is good, it is ironclad. When former Iranian prime minister Shahpur Bakhtiar had his throat cut in his suburban Paris home in 1991 while under the protection of the French police, it was crystal clear that the Iranian intelligence service had orchestrated the operation. Somebody leaked an intercept text to the French press, conclusively proving official Iranian culpability. The Iranian government, of course, denied any involvement in the affair. Hashemi Rafsanjani, always entertaining, suggested that it was perhaps the work of vengeful Iranian expatriates or the Israelis. More than a few Iran observers and scholars also preferred to believe that Rafsanjani, then seen as a moderate cleric (he was) in favor of greater openness toward the West (he was), wouldn't have approved such an operation (he did).

What is certain is that most of the skeptical views today on the intelligence on Iran and al Qaeda make little sense. It is unquestionably true that clerical Iran is not an Orwellian state. People cannot travel freely in the country, but they can move about without planning and not much trouble (at least if they are carrying Iranian identity papers). In certain regions, particularly in Baluchistan near the Afghan border, local smugglers enjoy considerable autonomy, especially at night. This is much less the case in the Kurdish regions of western Iran, where the Bush administration has also apparently tracked members of al Qaeda. The situation in Baluchistan now is not nearly as violent as it was a few years back, when a virtual state of war existed between drug smugglers and Iranian security services.

Nonetheless, when Tehran wants to make a show of force in any region, it can deploy forces fairly quickly. Also, the internal informant network in clerical Iran, though not nearly as effective as in Saddam's Stalinist Iraq, is good. It is just not credible that Arabic-speaking members of al Qaeda could sustain themselves for any length of time in Kurdistan or Baluchistan (where Arabic speakers are few) without Iran's internal security services getting wind of their presence. Why local Iranian Kurds or Baluchis would want to aid a foreign Arab group like al Qaeda is another question. Fleeing members of al Qaeda are probably not cash-rich, their drug-trade utility since the fall of the Taliban must at best be marginal, and the Kurds and the Baluchis would obviously not want to incur Tehran's wrath or closer supervision for foreign holy warriors unrelated by blood. If Tehran didn't mind al Qaeda in Baluchistan or Kurdistan, then the local reaction would, of course, be different.

If there were units of al Qaeda in Iran without permission--or, as certain U.S. officials, particularly in the State Department, like to suggest, in Iran courtesy of "rogue" elements in the Iranian government--you would also see a completely different reaction in Tehran. The Islamic Republic's clerics, no less than the shah, take Iranian national sovereignty quite seriously. If al Qaeda elements were running around their country unaccounted for, or, worse, unauthorized elements of the Iranian government were granting them refuge, you'd see all hell break loose in Tehran. Clerical Iran is not, like Saddam's Iraq, a closed society. You can hear the various factions of Iran's ruling elite constantly reprimanding each other. If al Qaeda were in Iran without permission or courtesy of "extremist" elements, you'd hear about the bosses of the ministry of intelligence, the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Army, and the Gendarmerie getting their heads metaphorically taken off. You'd hear about officials of lower rank getting sacked. Rafsanjani and Khamenei are not pussycats. They are tough men. And you'd also hear the dissident and "reformist" elements of the clergy making great hay out of this. Iran's nonclerical political voices, at home and abroad, would not likely miss such an opportunity to underscore the incompetence of their mullah rivals. Yet, Iran is quiet. There are no accusations against anyone.

It should also be noted that the Guards Corps and the ministry of intelligence are not bureaucratically fractured institutions. The Corps, as it has aged, has become ever more like the regular standing army, with established chains of command and dedicated communication channels. And the ministry of intelligence is perhaps the most streamlined, efficient organization in the Islamic Republic. It was the first institution to be thoroughly purged after the revolution in 1979 (which did not keep it from retaining the services of some officers from Savak, the Shah's intelligence and security service). In other words, if rogue elements are operating inside the Islamic Republic's intelligence service or Guards Corps, it is because Rafsanjani and Khamenei wish them to do so.

Also, philosophically, clerical Iran and al Qaeda aren't incompatible. For 25 years, there has never been a real moral debate among the ruling clergy about terrorism. One hears reports about discussions on the utility of terrorism, especially within the Combatant Clerics Association, which is in some ways an Oxford Union for VIP mullahs. The enormous influx of left-wing Western thought into Iran from the 1950s forward has taken a terrible toll on the traditional Muslim understanding of right and wrong (terrorism for any devout traditional Muslim is an egregious sin). It is by no means clear that among "reformist" elements of the clergy, in whose ranks we find the nearly powerless and timid President Mohammad Khatami, there is a different ethic on terrorism. The "reformist" clergy are nearly all children of the left, who have, more than their elders, soaked up third-world political theories that countenance terrorism against "Western imperialism." These "reformist" mullahs tend to be ferocious when it comes to Israel--the mild-mannered Khatami sometimes seems indistinguishable from the country's hard-core guide Ali Khamenei on the Jewish state and Hezbollah's continuing war against Israel and "Zionists" abroad. The morality that condones terrorism against Israel is the same rationalization that led clerical Iran to kill Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s and in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. Terrorists can, of course, always become reformed terrorists, but we have not seen in Iran, especially among the ruling clergy, the type of gut-wrenching debate and soul-searching that comes when people purge themselves of their affection for extreme violence as a tool of statecraft and as a spiritual expression of God's wrath upon His enemies and the oppressed's vengeance against the strong.

Al Qaeda is, for the most faithful children of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution, an answer to a 25-year-old quest. Al Qaeda consists of Sunni holy warriors who want first and foremost to attack the Great Satan, the United States. Contrary to what has been said by some, al Qaeda's declarations, guides, and battle manuals are remarkably free of the vicious anti-Shia propaganda that is typical of Saudi Wahhabi missionary literature. Osama bin Laden has been flawlessly ecumenical in his statements, instructing his faithful clearly that all Muslims, bad or good, should unite in the battle against America. Bin Laden's wickedly lethal number two, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, has long been a favorite of Iran's revolutionary clergy, sort of a holy-warrior poster boy for correctly guided Sunni fundamentalists. The Sunni-Shia divide would certainly not keep Ali Khamenei, who believes that Sunni Muslims, too, should resist America and its baleful culture, from welcoming the brave holy warriors of al Qaeda into Iran.

Regardless of what conclusion the Bush White House reaches on the quality of its intelligence about al Qaeda in the Islamic Republic, an unpleasant collision between clerical Iran and the United States seems likely within the next few years. Iran's nuclear program and its inevitably hostile position toward the development of a federal, secular democratic system in Iraq (still apparently the Bush administration's goal) will force Washington to become much more diplomatically aggressive toward Iran--and could provoke U.S. military strikes, depending on Tehran's nuclear intransigence and its ability to develop Hezbollah-like forces inside Iraq. Also, if the White House is serious about applying the war on terrorism to Islamic holy warriors in Tehran's pay, which would certainly include Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, then military confrontation there is also possible. The odds are decent, however, that the Bush administration will default to the traditional American diplomatic position that terrorism against Israel is bad but insufficient to provoke the United States into much diplomatic, let alone military, hostility toward the state sponsor of this terrorism.

BUT WHAT SHOULD the United States do to checkmate clerical Iran's pursuit of nuclear weaponry? The first thing we ought to do is not deceive ourselves about Iran's nuclear intentions and the broad-based support that the weapons program enjoys throughout the clergy. The "reformist" clergy, who are more nationalist-inspired than their old-fashioned revolutionary brethren, love the idea of a nuclear-armed Iran easily as much as Rafsanjani and Khamenei. Bernard Hourcade, of the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique in Paris, has tracked the "reformist" clergy firsthand for years. He has certainly not seen a "dovish" anti-nuke attitude among the "reformers," who in any case have repeatedly proven themselves inept at countering the political power of Rafsanjani and Khamenei. Though it is possible that Rafsanjani and Khamenei could decide to restrain the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions just short of the fabrication of a nuclear weapon, it seems highly unlikely given the time and money these two have invested in the effort.

And the reasons to go nuclear are now far stronger than they were in 1991, when the ruling clergy decided to make the development of nuclear arms a top priority. Serious discussions of nuclear deterrence occurred in the Combatant Clerics Association after the Gulf War. The conclusion was reached that the United States probably would not have countered Iraq's invasion of Kuwait if Saddam Hussein had had nuclear weaponry (which he would've had but for Israel's preemptive strike against the Osirak reactor in 1981). The Islamic Republic's chattering classes regularly now remark on the differing American approaches to Saddam's Iraq and Kim Jong Il's North Korea, which already has nuclear weaponry. Since Mohammad Khatami's public announcement on February 9, 2003, that Iran was developing its own means to produce nuclear fuel, senior officials have made it unmistakably clear that the nuclear program, in their eyes, makes the Islamic Republic more secure. It is quite probable that for Rafsanjani and Khamenei, and perhaps for many in the loyal "reformist" camp, the possession of nuclear weaponry spiritually reinforces the regime from domestic as well as foreign threats. In any case, whether you're a "Khomeini-heavy" or "Khomeini-lite" cleric, the case for an Iranian bomb is compelling.

We also ought not deceive ourselves about the chances diplomacy can stall Iran's quest for nuclear weaponry. The clerical regime may well now be sufficiently advanced in its nuclear program that foreign assistance is not required for building a bomb. It's just a matter of Iranian engineering and time--in other words, the Manhattan Project in 1943. Washington should certainly proceed on all fronts diplomatically against the Islamic Republic, encouraging, cajoling, and threatening Iran's trading partners to cut off tech transfers. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should also be encouraged to become as rigorous as possible toward the Islamic Republic, and a massive diplomatic effort ought to be launched to arm-twist the Iranians into signing the 1993 protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would allow for more intrusive inspections of their nuclear sites. But we need to be honest: The odds of this diplomatic offensive proving successful are poor. The Clinton administration worked hard on this front, with little to show for its efforts. We can huff and puff all we want, but it's not likely the Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese, the Pakistanis, and the North Koreans are all going to cooperate effectively.

In any case, given how advanced Iran's nuclear program appears to be, it's likely that if the Iranians still require foreign help, they don't need much. A gap anywhere in the technological cordon sanitaire might well be sufficient to give them the bomb. And the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese are all now trying to expand trade with the Islamic Republic, not shrink it. Russian atomic energy minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev declared on May 19 that Russia has no plans to freeze its nuclear-energy cooperation with Iran, which "has not violated any international agreements in this sphere so far." (It is a good bet that Tehran won't appear to be violating any non-proliferation agreements until it tests its first weapon.) Iran's critical trading partners could of course become fastidious about selling nuclear-related technology to Iran, particularly the ever-tricky dual-use items, at a time when they're hoping for expanding trade. Then again, past history may hold. It seems clear that the only thing that could compel such trading partners into a more rigorous stance toward Iran is the certain knowledge that (1) the United States will commercially retaliate in a massive way against them if they do not and (2) Washington will preemptively bomb Iran's nuclear facilities if we don't get maximum compliance.

But Secretary of State Colin Powell, in an Iraq redux, has already suggested that the United States has no military plans against the Islamic Republic. Powell's number two, Richard Armitage, has also been making dovish and downright odd comments about the virtues of Iran's clerical democracy. The State Department's organic fondness for process and negotiation makes it very unlikely, if State is allowed to lead on the Iran portfolio, that the countries concerned will be convinced of America's seriousness about the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. It would be amusing--for the Democrats, delightfully ironic--if part two of the Bush administration's Axis of Evil doctrine came down to encouraging the IAEA to become more aggressive about Iran and sending America's diplomats to cajole foreigners into an Iran-suspicious trade association. More or less, this is where the Clintonites left off.

Nor are the covert-action ideas floating about the Pentagon and certain think tanks going to save us from making very hard choices about Iran's coming nukes. Bureaucratically and legally, covert action has almost always been under the control of the Central Intelligence Agency. And the CIA's clandestine service has strongly disliked covert action for more than 30 years. Don't let the sexy magazine articles post-9/11 about CIA ninjas and worldwide anti-al Qaeda covert action fool you. The clandestine service hates covert action that it has to start from scratch, that can't be jointly run with (i.e., subcontracted to) some foreign intelligence service, and that involves mobilizing large groups of people for concrete political action. This is very hard to do, chances of success are never good, chances of embarrassment are high, and the educational, linguistic, and cultural requirements for case officers who must run these programs are vastly too demanding for most of the officers whom Langley can actually field. And the CIA especially hates Iranian covert action. This has been true for a very long time. Langley will fight either openly in the bureaucratic trenches or stealthily within its own walls any Iranian covert action program thrown its way. And there is nothing the Pentagon can do about it.

The Pentagon could, of course, try to run its own covert-action program, assuming it could convince the White House and Congress to go along (which isn't likely). But the Pentagon would have many of the same personnel problems that Langley has. Covert action is difficult. Agents have to work at it, slowly and painfully gaining expertise that will in most circumstances end in disappointment. The brightest minds of the Defense Department cannot pull covert action off the shelf and seriously expect it to work before the Islamic Republic develops a nuclear weapon.

And even if the Pentagon, or another government agency, could come up with an interesting plan--and there is nothing wrong with trying--the circumstances in Iran would very likely frustrate even the most thoughtful efforts. The Islamic Republic isn't the Iran of 1953, where a tiny group of people were the pivotal political players. Iran today is a massive, modern society with a very big power matrix. Though the clerical regime is broadly detested, millions of Iranians are invested in the system. Millions of Iranians who hate the mullahs still know they are bound to the regime. Civil unrest produced by popular disgust could conceivably bring down the system, and the ruling clergy fear that possibility. But the mullahs have so far been wise in how they handle dissent. They harass and kill judiciously--enough to intimidate the society, but not enough to galvanize widespread violent opposition.

Iranian society, which was deeply scarred by the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, still appears to fear the violence that would inevitably arrive with a serious confrontation. Until young men feel differently, it is difficult to see how a new revolutionary movement can develop. It is conceivable that an effective covert action against the mullahs could be devised, but it's just not likely within the time frame allowed by Iran's nuclear program, which may well produce nuclear weapons within two years. If President Bush and other American officials want to use their bully pulpits more often to support liberal democracy in Iran, that can't hurt. Millions of Iranians want to be free, and it's good to let them know that America opposes their oppressors. Any American effort to help the Iranian people should start with regular denunciations of the regime by Washington VIPs. If this at least can't be done, then it would probably be best that we not invest time, money, American prestige, and Iranian lives in trying to do more, covertly or overtly.

Which brings us to the last option: a preemptive military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. It is obviously an unappealing choice. But it is the only option that offers a good chance of delaying Iran's production of nuclear weapons.

We can, of course, give the other avenues time to work. But we shouldn't deceive ourselves. Unless we have rock-solid intelligence that Iran's nuclear program has gone into cold storage because of our diplomatic campaign, we should assume the earliest date conceivable for the Islamic Republic to have the bomb, and then decide whether we want to learn to live with Rafsanjani's and Khamenei's nuke.

An American preemptive strike against the nuclear facilities might fail--the Iranians have been putting their facilities underground and hiding them as best they can. We think we know where they are, but we might be wrong. And a strike could produce enormous anger in Iran. But it could also unblock Iran's frozen political system. Once the nationalist outrage has died down, once Iranians focus again on their daily lives under the mullahs, the political debate will start to roar. Khamenei and Rafsanjani will have put Iran on a lethal collision course with America. There is not an Iranian alive, including Khamenei and Rafsanjani, who doesn't know that in such a contest, Iran loses. So we can give diplomacy a chance. But in the end, if we turn away from preemptive action, then the "axis of evil" doctrine is over. The Bush administration, if it is still in power, may not want to admit this, but the ruling clergy in Tehran will no doubt point it out once they have the bomb.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.