The Magazine

To Bomb, or Not to Bomb

That is the Iran question.

Apr 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 30 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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TO AVOID THINKING about preventive military strikes or a public avowal of failure against the clerics, the Bush administration may have one more "realist" moment, and attempt to bribe the clerical regime into giving up its uranium-enrichment capabilities. It does not appear that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, let alone the president, really believes that "carrots" could satisfy the mullahs' two-decade-old appetite for nukes. To believe in such "realism" when it comes to the clerical regime, you have to believe that economics trumps politics among the ruling elite. Yet modern Middle Eastern--and especially Iranian--history clearly shows that ideology has run roughshod over economic pragmatism.

Oil and natural gas aside--and in Iran, even counting oil and gas--the Muslim Middle East has been an economic basket case in great part because the region's political elites have been repeatedly enamored of toxic ideas: Marxism, socialism, communism, fascism, and now increasingly Islamism, but never Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, or even the illiberal state-driven capitalisms of East Asia. Economically oriented American and European "realists" usually cite Iran's chronic unemployment, especially among the young, as a driving catalyst for pragmatic change among the ruling elite. Yet it is distinctly odd, then, that Iran's last two presidents, Khatami and Ahmadinejad, have fairly ardently advocated socialist economics in their campaigns. The Islamic Republic's dirigiste, unproductive, and corrupt economy was in great part built by revolutionary mullahs, who are its largest political and economic beneficiaries. Freer and more open trade in Iran usually means someone I know--preferably someone I know in my family--gets rich. It does not mean political pragmatism, which is what Westerners, especially Americans, think it does.

As president in the 1990s, Rafsanjani was encouraging greater European investment in Iran and his version of a "dialogue of civilizations" at the same time he was authorizing hit squads to knife and gun-down feared or disliked Iranian expatriates in Europe. If the Europeans had responded with anger, sanctions, or paramilitary actions against the Iranians and their allies who were involved with these black operations, it's conceivable the clerics would have become more pragmatic. But Europeans who believed in "engagement"--the idea that negotiation and trade produce political moderation--always won the day, so no machtpolitik lesson was ever delivered to Tehran. European engagement with Iran during Khatami's presidency certainly didn't moderate Iran's internal politics; Khatami became weaker each day after his election, and those more hotly faithful to Khomeini's vision became stronger. One can argue there was a limited "Khatami effect" on Iran's foreign policy: The killing teams stopped sojourning in Europe. But the political killings continued inside Iran, gaining in frequency.

If Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's successor, Ali Khamenei--the two great, purely political clerics of the Islamic revolution--had ever been really desirous of altering American attitudes and attracting significant U.S. investment to Iran, they would have used their subsidies to the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas--all three clients of Tehran--to restrain terrorism against the Jewish state. Longstanding Iranian support for terrorism against Israel and Jews worldwide has been one of the principal obstacles to détente between the United States and the Islamic Republic. If the Iranians had behaved somewhat better in this regard, it would have gone a long way--especially under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who both were hoping at various times to see moderation among the mullahs--toward thawing U.S. trade with the Islamic Republic.

Yet the Iranians have never wavered in their support of anti-Israeli terrorists. Ideology has easily trumped commercial good sense, even when clerical Iran was at its most "liberal," when Khatami, Rafsanjani, and Khamenei regularly opined about how critical economic progress was for the health of the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, any honest review of Rafsanjani's and Khamenei's speeches and writings since 1979 would quickly reveal that both gentlemen hate the United States more than they hate Israel. Jews dominate America, of course: Rafsanjani, Khamenei, the ex-"Anonymous" CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, and the American academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the authors of "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," might find chatting together about "Jewish influence" pleasant and insightful. But in the mullahs' eyes, Israel's evil is subordinate to America's "world-devouring arrogance." We're not the "Great Satan" just because three million Jews live in America. And Rafsanjani's and Khamenei's views on this subject are the coin of the revolutionary clerical realm.