The Magazine

Countering Iran

How to deal with the clerics in Tehran.

May 19, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 34 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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What are we going to do about Iran? When Hillary Clinton surreally promised to obliterate the Islamic Republic if the mullahs nuked Israel, she at least recognized that a nuclear-armed clerical regime is a serious menace, and that successful diplomacy with Tehran without the threat of force is fantasy. How to handle Iran may well be the decisive foreign-policy question of the 2008 presidential campaign--especially if Tehran continues to exploit the vacuum left by the collapse of the Bush administration's Iran policy and the general listlessness of the U.S. presence in the Middle East outside of Iraq.

Tehran is on a roll. Its development of a nuclear weapon progresses. The European Union's attempts to cajole the mullahs to abandon uranium enrichment--the most demanding part of developing the bomb--has become ever-more plaintive; the Europeans promise incentives more than they threaten sanctions. Anxiety in Tehran about the possibility of an American military strike against the regime's nuclear facilities--produced by the president's and vice president's "saber-rattling" and helpfully amplified by French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner--almost vanished in December with the publication of the National Intelligence Estimate, which incongruously asserted that Iran had stopped its quest for a bomb in 2003.

Running with the gift from Langley, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad outflanked the more cautious and polished crowd led by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's second most powerful mullah. Rafsanjani, his sidekick Hassan Rohani, a former nuclear negotiator, and Ali Larijani, an intelligent, titanium-tough former Revolutionary Guards commander who, as Rohani's successor, played well with European diplomats, all appeared worried that Ahmadinejad's aggressiveness might actually provoke George W. Bush to attack another member of the axis of evil. After the NIE's release, all three men gave reluctant concession speeches, emphasizing Iran's victory over the West more than the success of Ahmadinejad's unflinching approach. In a triumphalist mood, Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader who has consistently backed Ahmadinejad, let loose a broadside against the United States in January 2008, referring to America as "Satan incarnate" and calling on Muslims worldwide to emulate the Islamic republic and not Westernized Muslims, who lead to national weakness and perdition.

Spurred by its nuclear success against the Europeans and Americans, the clerical regime is causing trouble on the West Bank and in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, the Persian Gulf, and perhaps most of all, Iraq. Israel may soon be embroiled in an ugly war with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist movement supported spiritually and militarily by Tehran. This could turn into a two-front confrontation, as Hezbollah, revolutionary Iran's most faithful offspring, is demonstrating its willingness to use force to become the dominant player in Lebanon. Rearmed massively by Tehran since the 2006 summer war against Israel, Hezbollah could again let the missiles fly against northern Israel, while Hamas attacks from Gaza.

Make no mistake about it, Iran is gaming for this kind of confrontation, which will be difficult and costly for Israel. Tehran loved the outpouring of Arab warmth for Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah in 2006, when even secular Arab moderates started openly to rethink whether they had to live with a Jewish state. Europeans and Americans, especially those of a "realist" persuasion who imagine that Iran's Islamic mission civilisatrice has played out, just don't appreciate how much the clerics still enjoy the adulation of anti-American Arabs, especially those who have dropped pan-Arabism and embraced "Islamic values."

The Iranian ruling elite, from the mild-mannered reform-minded Mohammad Khatami to the die-hard spiritual soldiers of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, like Ahmadinejad and Tehran's more bon-vivant mayor, Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf, has a vision of the Middle East that is free of America's power and the devilishly seductive pull of its culture. The Hamas-Hezbollah axis, if it holds, is a dream come true for Tehran: At last, Sunni and Shiite militants are working together to bleed Israel, America's colony and the anchor, as they see it, of American imperialism throughout the region. Hamas and Hezbollah allow Iran's rulers--and it is impossible to overstate the extent to which Rafsanjani and Khamenei hate Israel--to be frontline combatants against the Jewish state without incurring (so far) frontline risks of devastating retaliation.