The Magazine

Plan B for Iran

From the July 18, 2005 issue: Dealing with President Ahmadinejad.

Jul 18, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 41 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
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YOU CAN BE SURE, had Hashemi Rafsanjani been voted president in Iran's recent election, a chorus of pundits would have been calling for the administration to drop its hard line and "engage" Tehran. We witnessed this last time, when "moderate" Mohammad Khatami became president in 1997. Of course, the Europeans have done their share of engaging, before and after that election, and Iran hasn't changed much.

This time, CNN dubbed Rafsanjani a "moderate conservative supported by progressives"--making him sound like an Iranian Lincoln Chafee. During Rafsanjani's last stint as president (1989-1997), the Iranians were sponsoring suicide bombings, blowing up Jewish cultural centers, chanting "death to America," and rubbing out dissidents. In one case, a German court concluded that assassins, who had carried out a hit against oppositionists in the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin, had acted at the behest of Iranian intelligence, with an "official liquidation order" having been approved by President Rafsanjani himself. We'll never find out whether Rafsanjani had become in the meantime a kinder, gentler mullah. But no one doubts that a real, honest-to-God hard-liner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has now been elected as Iran's new president. This should concentrate the mind.

Ahmadinejad calls himself a fundamentalist. He was an officer of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, taught for years at the Revolutionary Guard's staff college, and has served as special emissary for the "Supreme Guide" on a number of domestic and foreign policy missions. He supported the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, of course, and by all accounts Ahmadinejad is a real-deal Islamist. He says he wants Iran to be a great "world power" capable of challenging the United States. So how should we respond?

The recent conversation about Iran has been dominated by one question: How do we keep the bomb out of the hands of the mullahs? And rightfully so: Imagine what a world with a nuclear Iran would look like. At a minimum it would mean an emboldened Tehran intimidating its neighbors, increasing its support for terrorism, revving up even more hate-mongering toward Israel, and attempting to undermine democracy in Iraq--not to mention dramatically increased oil prices. Even Joschka Fischer, Germany's dovish foreign minister, calls a nuclear Iran "the worst imaginable nightmare." If there is a chance to stop this scenario, the window may be closing very quickly. To go nuclear, "all Iranian engineers need," says Henry Sokolski, president of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, "is a bit more time--one to four years at the most."

Of late, the administration has been fond of the diplomatic track. Specifically, Washington has supported the European effort, led by Germany, France, and Great Britain, to persuade the regime that it should give up its ambition to acquire nuclear weapons. Mind you, this is after nearly two decades of the regime's cheat and retreat games. No serious person has ever believed that the "E.U. 3" would succeed. But then the administration has had its hands full with Iraq, Social Security reform, and a few other matters, including the president's sharp dip in popularity. Trying to slow the mullahs down, some have argued, has been the best available option. That was then.

By now it must be obvious that if the United States is serious about preventing the mullahs from getting the bomb, we have two choices: either preemption or regime change. By now it is also pretty clear that bombing would be difficult, which can only make one wonder why we have been so slow in giving serious support to the democracy movement in Iran. This regime has to go.

The moral case is compelling enough. While the New York Times charmed its readers recently with a front-page story on Iranian women playing golf at the Revolution Sports Complex in Tehran, the country's human rights record remains, in fact, dismal. The State Department's latest Country Reports on Human Rights Practices states that Iran continues to maintain facilities "notorious for the cruel and prolonged acts of torture inflicted upon political opponents of the Government." The French NGO Reporters Without Borders calls Iran the biggest prison for journalists in the entire region. Akbar Ganji, who some have begun to call the Iranian Vaclav Havel, is a journalist who has now entered his fourth week of a hunger strike inside Tehran's Evin prison. Ganji has written from prison two manifestos describing how ordinary Iranians can participate in civil disobedience against the country's ruling dictatorship. People have started to use soccer games as an occasion to show their discontent. At a game between Iran and Japan earlier this summer, a demonstration lasted all night, with paramilitary forces killing four people.