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Going Soft on Iran

From the March 8, 2004 issue: The temptation of America's foreign policy "realists."

Mar 8, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 25 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The issue of weapons of mass destruction is thus an ideal wedge for the realist camp. If Libya can become, as the British Foreign Office is obviously hoping, the template for approaching the rulers of the Middle East--that is, if stopping WMD trumps spreading democracy--then the realists have an excellent chance of stifling the Bush administration's post-9/11 rhetoric. President Bush's pro-democracy speeches have been driving U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. They have been driving the efforts, feeble though they may be, by the rulers of the Middle East to open their political systems. The national dialogues of Saudi Arabia's Prince Abdullah are a direct result of President Bush's words and actions (the invasion of Iraq and the inevitable empowerment of Iraq's Shiites certainly encouraged Prince Abdullah to have his first dialogue about Saudi Arabia's oppressed Shiites, who happen to live on top of Saudi Arabia's oil in the Eastern Province). Silence those Reaganite speeches, and the foreign affairs bureaucracies will take over.

Then Bush II could start looking like Bush I a lot faster than Brent Scowcroft or Zbigniew Brzezinski has ever dreamed. Because Iran's nuclear weapons program is so damnably hard to delay without preemptive American or Israeli airstrikes, and the Bush administration remains understandably loath to contemplate military action against another Middle Eastern state, the realists within the administration and without could lock the White House into exploring some kind of dialogue with Rafsanjani and Khamenei, who would, of course, approve of any American effort to lift unilaterally economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic. (They know, even if the realists do not, that these sanctions have seriously cramped Iran.)

There is a big hurdle coming up for those who want to believe (or to pretend to believe) that diplomacy offers a solution to Iran's WMD aspirations. The International Atomic Energy Agency must issue another report on Iran's compliance in June--the same time the Bush administration is supposed to release its Greater Middle East Initiative, which will show how serious the administration is about pushing democracy in a region where the leaders hate it. It has become obvious to all concerned that the Iranians have been willfully trying to deceive IAEA officials and the European diplomats who are responsible for maintaining the WMD dialogue with the clerical regime. European officials, including the French, don't bother even in private to deny Iran's nuclear weapons objectives, its continuing deceit, and the difficulty they are going to have in verifying Iranian compliance.

The clerical regime has yet to sign the more intrusive protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, despite its promise to do so. (The Europeans, of course, have not yet seriously threatened the clerics with any penalty for their failure to sign.) Hassan Rohani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council--a long-time bastion of power for Rafsanjani--recently declared, in one of those delightful and not infrequent moments when Iranian hubris betrays the revolutionary clergy's bent for mendacity and deception, that the Iranian use of polonium, an element applicable in both power-generation and weapons, and P2 centrifuges, which are designed for enriching uranium, "is not the only research we are doing. . . . We have other projects which we have not declared to the IAEA and we see no need to do so." It is very likely that the Europeans, including the British, will be able to walk round Rohani's prevarications.

Anyone who has dealt with the Europeans involved in this process, particularly the French, knows that the odds of Paris agreeing to threaten Tehran with sanctions that would truly hurt--for example, an oil embargo--are virtually nil. In all probability, nuclear proliferation in Iran, or elsewhere, will not prove to be an issue where Western Europeans can collectively agree to use force. Ethically they are simply operating, as Robert Kagan has very politely pointed out, in a different realm. And as the Nixon Center's Geoffrey Kemp has remarked, "the Europeans have to play their part" for a realist foreign policy to be credible. However, the Bush administration is hoping to punt this problem down the road, at least until after the November elections. The Europeans will have at least one more chance to devise "imaginative diplomacy" to dismantle Iran's nuclear weapons program without threatening the use of force.

But the Europeans won't be the only ones working against the Americans who desperately want to find a "credible" diplomatic process for dealing with Iran's quest for nuclear arms. The Iranians are very unlikely to play the roles realists envision for them. Rafsanjani and Khamenei may well be "pragmatic" mullahs--I have certainly long argued that they are. But they have also been among the godfathers of Iranian terrorism. From Beirut to Buenos Aires to Paris to Berlin and to the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia, Rafsanjani and Khamenei put terrorism into the foreign policy lexicon of the Iranian clergy. When Iranian intelligence officials or their surrogates surveilled American diplomatic facilities and personnel around the world in the 1990s, it was on their orders. (Whatever these exercises were for, it is unlikely they were innocent in intent.)

These same gentlemen have, of course, always wanted to buy American. Conoco, ExxonMobil, Boeing, GE--it would be hard to find an American firm that Rafsanjani wouldn't welcome. It also beggars the imagination to believe that these two gentlemen don't control the fate of al Qaeda inside Iran. The Bush administration has chosen to play down the issue of al Qaeda in the Islamic Republic. The Pentagon and State Department remonstrated with the Iranians when they first realized that al Qaeda forces had fled into Iran after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. News leaks about worrisome intercepts surfaced. And then the subject disappeared until official leaks again surfaced in 2003 suggesting that al Qaeda was in Iran and had possibly plotted from there attacks into Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Republic again returned to the back burner.

This was a serious mistake. Regardless of whether al Qaeda members in Iran were operationally involved in terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, these individuals are among the most wanted men in American history. We have never had worse enemies, yet we did nothing when Iran prevaricated about whether they were in the country when we clearly knew they were. Remember, Rafsanjani and Khamenei are master chess players of power politics. If Americans don't rise in righteous indignation over the "detention" of possibly active al Qaeda members--and the key component of President Bush's Axis of Evil doctrine is that countries that harbor terrorists will be treated as terrorists--why shouldn't Rafsanjani and Khamenei, with their nuclear weapons, tempt America's wrath?

KHAMENEI and especially Rafsanjani have nurtured Iran's nuclear program from its infancy. More than anyone else, they are the will and mind behind this program. It is not unreasonable to conjecture that their very identity--who they are as leaders, clerics, and Muslims--is wrapped up in Iran's bomb program. And they are supposed to give it away to Americans, who don't threaten them over al Qaeda, and to Europeans, who keep offering the Iranians more time after the clergy has blatantly lied to them? If you were a "pragmatic" mullah who had beaten the shah, survived the American-aided legions of Saddam Hussein, and eaten alive your revolutionary colleagues-turned-enemies, would you be intimidated by such folks?

And the realists shouldn't count out the fallen clerical left in Iran. Neither the clerical left nor the vastly greater number of ordinary Iranians who are disgusted by the ruling clergy are likely to remain quiescent. They may not go into violent counterrevolution--the Iranians still remember the violence of the first revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, and many obviously hope that they can find some peaceful way to real democracy. But patience is not a well-known Iranian virtue. Sooner not later, the discontent will boil forth. Rafsanjani and Khamenei know that many Iranians have more backbone than Khatami. Iranian prisons are full of such men. The Special Clerical Court, where the regime discreetly intimidates dissident mullahs, remains a busy place. The left-wing clergy were right to believe that they were riding an unstoppable democratic wave in Iranian history. They were wrong to think that their erstwhile brethren, who cling more tightly to the notion that the nation will go to hell without an indomitable clerical vanguard, would simply roll over when confronted with devastating election results.

But the die is now cast. The anti-climactic nonelection on February 20 at least confirmed that. The clerical opposition that has more fire in its belly--and the numerous disciples of Grand Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri, Iran's premier dissident cleric, certainly appear to be made of sterner stuff than Khatami--won't make the same mistake twice. Neither will the students and other young Iranian men of the streets who've grown disgusted with the regime.

The ideas of constitutional government and democracy have been driving Iranian political thought for a hundred years. Rafsanjani, if not Khamenei, is sufficiently educated to know that he is a product of this movement. More protests are inevitable. They will undoubtedly be enough to make it politically unacceptable, if not morally distasteful, for even the most true-blue American realist to deal with such "an obnoxious and repressive regime."

The realist vision of Iranian politics and U.S.-Iranian relations has zero chance of providing a solution to the WMD conundrum. The Bush administration needs to hang tough and be guided by the golden rule of Iranian clerical politics: Do unto them before they have a chance to do unto you. Give the Europeans a chance--several chances--to prove themselves serious. Let the French ruin the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And then decide whether you want Rafsanjani and Khamenei to have the bomb. In the end, only democracy in Iran will finally solve the nuclear and terrorist problems. Ditto for the rest of the Middle East. Whether the Bush administration understands this come June is, of course, a different matter.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.