Tehran Rising

by Ilan I. Berman

Rowman & Littlefield, 204 pp., $24.95

LIKE A MINUET IN WHICH the steps are known in advance by all the dancers, the seemingly endless talks of the Europe Three--Britain, France, and Germany--continue. Europe's goal: a promise (merely the latest) by Iran to forswear enrichment of uranium and, hence, nuclear weapons production. Iran's goals: buy time in order to continue its path toward becoming a nuclear power and, simultaneously, separate European policy from that of the United States.

So far, according to Ilan Berman, Iran is succeeding; the Europeans are buying its minuet steps, while the United States masks policy paralysis with occasional declarations of support for pro-democracy Iranian dissidents.

Tehran Rising sets forth the serious and imminent threat Iran poses in its own region and to the United States and its allies. The theocrats who control Iran are using billions of dollars of their oil wealth to develop a nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal, to fuel the Iraqi insurgency, and to develop a web of strategic alliances in the "post-Soviet space"--countries of the former Soviet Union in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The author contends that Iran's Islamist war against the United States began in 1979--well before 9/11--with the revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Not long after assuming power, Khomeini declared, "The governments of the world should know that Islam cannot be defeated. Islam will be victorious in all the countries of the world, and Islam and the teachings of the Koran will prevail all over the world." And he lost no time in organizing Iran's radical religious militias in this cause. The Pasdaran (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) was organized as a strike force, which, in turn, recruited and trained the Basij, a large, radical, "people's" militia whose mission was to maintain internal social order.

Lebanon was the first proving ground for Khomeini's strategy. It signed a military agreement with Syria, then bankrolled and organized Hezbollah in Lebanon. The latter proceeded to carry out attacks on Israel, bombings of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, and hostage-taking.

Khomeini died in 1989, but any hope that Iran's radicalism would be softened by his successors was short-lived. The new Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, "reaffirmed the centrality of 'exporting the revolution' in the post-Khomeini era," according to Berman. This pair was as good as its word, working with Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to establish terrorist cadres in Europe. In 1992, in Germany, Iranian and Lebanese radicals assassinated four Kurdish dissidents, and a German court tied this act to senior levels of the Iranian regime, including Khamenei and Rafsanjani.

Berman describes Iran's "informal accord" with al Qaeda, including its willingness to let its operatives transit from Afghanistan to Iraq, hospitality for Ayman al-Zawahiri, and "an intimate relationship" with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Bringing the threat closer to home, Berman quotes a May 2004 speech by a Pasdaran official named Hassan Abassi: "We have a strategy drawn up for the destruction of Anglo-Saxon civilization and for the uprooting of the Americans and the English." He claimed that there are 29 sites in the United States, and elsewhere in the West, that Iran has targeted, and "we have already spied on these sites and we know how we are going to attack them." To this should be added the recent pronouncements of Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on nuclear weapons and the destruction of Israel.

To make sure readers take all of this seriously, Berman devotes two detailed chapters to the development and implications of Iran's nuclear weapons program (with notes on chemical and biological weapons as well). He says that Iran's nuclear program is scattered over some two dozen sites, making military strikes--such as Israel's 1981 bombing of Iraq's lone nuclear facility--very difficult. He adds that Iran is well along the road to being able to produce enough highly enriched uranium to make 15 to 20 nuclear weapons a year.

The swift collapse of Saddam Hussein's armed forces demoralized Iran's mullahs and their military, the author contends. They decided that "the key to preempting U.S. strategy lies in the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction." Whether their actions were defensive or aggressive is largely beside the point, for the evidence points to an intention to develop nuclear arms capabilities prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In 2002 the European Union decided to revive a "critical dialogue" with Iran, which quickly turned into a discussion of Iran's nuclear intentions and, by 2004, an "accord" by Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program (an accord soon broken).

Most readers will come away convinced not only that the Iranian threat is real, but also that steps must be taken without delay to prevent its nuclear weapons program from reaching maturity. What are the steps? Berman offers a number of them, but several are likely to require more time than we have to blunt the Iranian WMD program.

First is the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), ostensibly supported by 60 nations including Russia. It would be used to share intelligence in order to curb supplies and technologies from reaching Iran. China, North Korea, and Russia have been Iran's principal arms suppliers. Berman cites the U.S.-British interception in 2003 of a ship filled with nuclear centrifuges bound for Libya as an example of "counterproliferation" success. Warming up to Russia could be another one, inasmuch as Iran works steadily to co-opt former Soviet republics, something the Russians don't like. Berman calls for strengthening ties with Caspian nations to bolster their ability to defend themselves. Funding and training the Kazakhstan navy is an example; reviving the Persian Gulf defense alliance would be another.

Probably the most promising element would be a determined effort to support the forces of democracy in Iran so they can gain enough strength to force regime change. Despite Iran's growing military strength, and its efforts to checkmate U.S. and Western interests, the mullahs are not ten feet tall. Half of Iran's population is below the poverty line, 20 percent are unemployed, and inflation is about 25 percent. Corruption in the government is widespread, as are prostitution and drug abuse.

Two-thirds of the population is under 30. Young Iranians have demonstrated, time and again, that they are pro-American. Berman says we must step up public diplomacy, making it part of a strategy to hasten regime change. That means more funding for broadcasting; more pro-democracy material (and less music) on Radio Farda; more materials of all kinds on democracy delivered to the young pro-democrats inside the country.

Not mentioned are "smart" sanctions aimed not at the population, but at the assets outside Iran of the mullahs and their military and civilian allies. Also not mentioned are the opportunities inherent in staffing our interests section in Tehran with professional diplomats, which Iran does with its counterpart in Washington. With approximately 60 diplomats (most of them intelligence-gatherers), the Iranians are very active in Washington.

"With the proper political will," concludes Berman, "Washington has the ability to contain, deter and delay Iran's nuclear ambitions and to empower a post-theocratic transformation within its borders." He has given us a succinct, well-documented case for working up that political will without further delay.

Peter Hannaford is senior counselor to the Committee on the Present Danger.

Next Page