Dealing with Iran

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One subject George W. Bush seems sure to address in his State of the Union address Tuesday night is Iran. What should we do about a regime that seems bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and whose leader denies there was a Holocaust and promises to wipe out Israel? Can we live with such a regime? Answering with a no is Gerard Baker in the Times of London.

We must prepare for war with Iran, Baker says, even though it will have many ancillary bad effects. Chiming in with a similar conclusion is Jeffrey Bell in the Weekly Standard. He argues that not taking on Iran would undermine Bush's central strategy as enunciated in his 2002 State of the Union address and thereafter. But he notes, "If the Bush administration is developing a military option to deal with Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons–a form of pre-emption–it is doing so very quietly. On the pure military level, this is, of course, appropriate. If you had to pick one flaw in the superbly organized U.S. invasion of Iraq, as Jed Babbin recently pointed out, it would be the lack of an element of surprise." I presume that Central Command has developed war plans for Iran. But an all-out military attack over mountainous borders in a country with three times the population of Iraq seems at best a dicey proposition.

Recommending a different approach are Michael McFaul and Abbas Milani in the Washington Post. They argue for an attempt to stimulate public discussion and dissent from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran and for a regional security organization to include Iran. But I am told that important people in the administration believe that efforts to engage with so-called moderates in Iran have consistently been a mistake. The so-called moderates never delivered, in the 1979–81 hostage crisis, in the Iran-contra dealings, and with the supposedly moderate President Mohammad Khatami in the late 1990s.

Yet we do have reason to believe that the large mass of the Iranian people do not support the mullahs and Ahmadinejad, that indeed they look more favorably on the United States than do most other peoples in the Middle East. How do we engage with the Iranian people while frustrating the Iranian government's scheme to gain nuclear weapons? Not an easy question to answer. Michael Ledeen in National Review Online has addressed this issue many times; here is his latest. He concludes:

This situation is tailor-made for the Bush administration, if only it will support the Iranian people against the mullahs, and the Syrian people against the Assads. The Iranian people see the desperation of their rulers, and honest broadcasts into Iran will be welcome indeed. Support for the Ahwaz Arabs—provided we take care to stress that we have no interest in any separatist impulses, but seek to support all Iranians who wish to exercise their human rights—would also have considerable impact, as would support for the bus drivers' organization, recently savaged by the regime, which has thus far received moral support only from Teamsters President James P. Hoffa. Perhaps the Labor Department might say a few words about the suppression of workers' organizations in Iran? And, for those millions of Iranians who do not fear the consequences of seeking the truth, we should be providing the tools of modern communications: phones, servers, laptops, phone cards, and so forth.

Meanwhile, we must increase our support for freedom in Syria. There are several new political organizations calling for Syrian freedom. Predictably, most of the organizers live outside the shadow of Assad's thumb, but they have held recent meetings in Europe with a surprising number of Syrian citizens, they are beginning to broadcast into the country, and many entrails and tea leaves suggest far more support for democratic revolution than the cynical old guys at State and CIA had believed possible. The administration should embrace all such organizations — it is not for us to pick Bashar's successor, that is the kind of old-Europe tactics best left to the futile Cartesian scheming of the Quai d'Orsay—and press hard for pulling the military fangs of Hezbollah, the sooner the better.

You can be sure that, as Assad collapses, the reverberations will reach Baghdad and Tehran. The Iraqis will gain the security they desperately need in order to advance their brave democratic project. And the Iranians, turbaned and bare-headed alike, will see the hour of their own freedom draw ever closer.

It sure beats drawing up a list of bombing targets, doesn't it?

Robert Kagan takes a similar tack in the Sunday Washington Post. He's against a military strike and instead writes,

We need to start supporting liberal and democratic change for an Iranian population that we know seeks both. . . . The steps are obvious: Communicate directly to Iran's very westernized population, through radio, the Internet, and other media; organize international support for unions and human-rights and other civic groups, as well as religious groups that oppose the regime; provide covert support to those willing to use it; and impose sanctions, not so much to stop the nuclear program–since they probably won't–but to squeeze the business elite that supports the regime.

He adds, This doesn't mean giving up on diplomacy. A strategy aimed at changing the Iranian regime is entirely compatible with ongoing diplomatic efforts to slow Iran's weapons programs. It might even aid diplomacy, since Iran's leaders fear internal unrest more than external pressure. In the 1970s and '80s, the West pursued arms control while it supported dissidents and liberalization in the Soviet bloc. The one did not preclude the other.

Let's see what President Bush has to say.