The Magazine

The End of Nuclear Diplomacy

Iran to the West: Drop dead

Aug 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 45 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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It is now entirely reasonable to conjecture that Tehran will have nuclear-armed missiles before the United States is able to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. A year ago, the Bush administration, despite its rhetoric on the issue, had a rather uncoordinated and lackadaisical approach to advancing European missile defense. (The State Department and the Pentagon seemed to be representing two different countries.) Public diplomacy on the issue in Poland and the Czech Republic has been abysmal. The placement of interceptors in Poland may not happen because of differences that have arisen between Washington and Warsaw; putting these interceptors in Lithuania, which apparently has signaled its willingness to take them, may prove more difficult than many in Washington imagine; and the required radar base in the Czech Republic may not happen either, as the parliamentary vote in November on the deal signed this July is in danger of not passing. The Czech government needs 101 votes for the radar base to open; it has exactly 101 votes. Senator Obama has certainly not helped the cause of the Atlanticists in Prague who have put their political necks out with this unpopular issue (the Czechs' neutralist bent rivals that of the Swiss) by his refusal to back the radar installation. Support from Obama might prove crucial in maintaining left-wing Czech support for the radar sites. For a presidential candidate who spends so much time talking about the growing Iranian threat, his failure to back European missile defense--a position the Democratic party will eventually embrace since it will have nowhere else to go short of preemptive strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities--shows the strategically underdeveloped nature of the Obama political team. Trumping John McCain with a loud endorsement of missile defense is also not a bad domestic political maneuver.

Even with a functioning antiballistic missile system in place to stiffen European spines, the mullahs may well be able to split the alliance once they have nukes. The allure of Iranian oil and gas is just too great. With Tehran suggesting that the Europeans have nothing to fear so long as they distance themselves from the United States in the Middle East and in Afghanistan, an American containment strategy on Iran, which necessarily has to involve the Europeans if it's going to have any economic teeth, may well be stillborn.

Thoughtful Democrats have realized the havoc the Iranians could cause in the Middle East once they obtain nuclear weapons. But few Democrats--or Republicans, for that matter--have awakened to the potential for Iranian nuclear arms to destroy the very transatlantic ties that both Obama and McCain say need to be strengthened to confront the many problems before us. When he was president of Iran, Rafsanjani began a divide-and-conquer strategy toward the West, trying to bring in the Europeans for investment and trade, while confronting the United States and lethally attacking dissidents at home and abroad. This approach was especially important to the development of Iran's then entirely clandestine nuclear-weapons program, since Rafsanjani didn't want the West lining up against Iran at a time when the clerical regime needed to build up its program to a "break-out" potential. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad abandoned Rafsanjani's and his successor Mohammad Khatami's cautious and slow approach to developing nuclear weapons. For a time, this abrupt change caused concern in Tehran that the United States and Europe might actually deploy economy-crushing sanctions or, even worse, that the Bush administration might order a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities before the enrichment process had sufficiently advanced.

But the fear of George W. Bush has vanished. And we will now see whether Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have a correct understanding of Europe--whether it really still matters. Ironically, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad's confrontational strategy could prove more effective at dividing the Europeans from the Americans than did the wry smile of Rafsanjani or even the warm, soft handshakes of Mohammad Khatami.

Yet, the Europeans might still surprise themselves and us. Concern about the Islamic Republic's nuclear quest is palpable in Paris, London, and Berlin. Senior French diplomats who have been party to the EU-3 talks like to relate how Iran's European embassies are paying their bills with big wads of cash these days since they can no longer transfer the required monies through embargoed banks. The Europeans might still be able to unleash a tsunami of sanctions, sanctions that even the Italians could be shamed into joining. And it is possible that George W. Bush might again follow his better instincts and ramp up the bellicose language, suggesting that he will indeed strike before leaving office. It is even possible that Barack Obama could come to appreciate that his Iran policy has utterly collapsed, too. With Khamenei, loudly advertised machtpolitik is an indispensable inducement to a peaceful suspension of uranium enrichment. Perhaps the contemplation of his administration having to figure out a containment strategy against a nuclear-armed Iranian theocracy might convince the senator of the need now for a bit of eloquent bellicosity.

And John McCain, who has been curbing his more aggressive instincts for fear of sounding too warlike for an electorate spooked by Iraq, might again powerfully suggest that diplomacy without the threat of force has no chance against mullahs who view the Lebanese Hezbollah as their beloved children. The Bush administration can have as many "one-time meetings" as Secretary of State Rice wants with Iranian officials--there is nothing wrong with these encounters, or the discussion of an American-manned interests section in Tehran, so long as no one believes that they reveal latent moderation among Tehran's ruling elite. In the containment of the Soviet Union, the United States often made the Cold War quite warm. Apply the same logic: Bring back the aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf.

A betting man would, of course, go the other way. More likely, we will get to see whether an Obama or McCain administration has any idea of how to contain a nuclear-armed, oil-rich theocracy willing to deploy terrorism and guerrilla warfare to ensure that "justice" is brought to the Middle East and Afghanistan. This is assuming that the Israelis--increasingly desperate as they contemplate their future opposite nuclear-armed Muslim militants who see the Jewish state as an insult to God--don't strike first and change everyone's planning. Perhaps it is not too late to breathe new life and urgency into the critical need for a united Western front against Tehran.

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