Moscow's Mad Gamble
Russian President Vladimir Putin,in an interview several years ago, criticized America's decision to go to war against Iraq and told me, "The real threat is Iran." He was right. But Russia has become part of the problem, not the solution.
Iran today is the mother of Islamic terrorism. Tehran openly provides funding, training, and weapons to the world's worst terrorists, including Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and it has a cozy relationship with al Qaeda. It has given sanctuary to major al Qaeda terrorists, including senior military commander Saif al-Adel, three of Osama bin Laden's sons, and al Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith. It supports many of the barbaric terrorists in Iraq who are murdering innocent civilians in order to destroy Iraq's fragile hold on democracy. Through its 900-mile border with Iraq, Iran is flooding its neighbor with money and fighters. It is infiltrating troublemakers into Afghanistan, supporting terrorism against Turkey, sustaining Syria, and had a hand in the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia.
Iran today is in the grip of yet a new wave of extremists. Its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a revolutionary firebrand who has directly threatened the West. In his own words, "We are in the process of an historical war between the World of Arrogance [i.e., the West] and the Islamic world." His foreign policy ambition is an Islamic government for the whole world, under the leadership of the Mahdi, the absent imam of the Shiites--code language for the export of radical Islam. And he casts himself as Hitler reincarnated, calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map." Who can think that Iran poses no threat to world peace? History tells us that when madmen call for genocide, they usually mean it.
And Russia has made the threat more real. It sold the nuclear power plant at Bushehr to Iran and contracted to sell even more to bring cash into its nuclear industry. As one American diplomat put it, this business is a "giant hook in Russia's jaw." Russia provided critical assistance in the development of Iran's Shihab missile, which has an ever expanding delivery range and can carry a warhead designed for a nuclear charge.
"No return." Everyone knows that the Bushehr "energy" plant is essentially a cover for Iran to have a nuclear infrastructure with a community of physicists, technicians, chemists, scientists, and engineers who can create a military capability. This became clear when Iran was found to be secretly building a facility at Natanz, involving centrifuges that could bring about nuclear enrichment to produce weapons-grade material. The work was suspended for a period of time, but Iran has now removed the United Nations seals, and its nuclear team is once again hard at work. Within a very few years, in all likelihood, Iran will be able to launch nuclear missiles.
The Russians had to know that the work at Bushehr was not for peaceful purposes, as the Iranians claimed, yet it has gone on assisting Iran in its grotesque deceptions and patently false protestations. When I challenged Putin on his support for the Bushehr program, he responded, "Why shouldn't we sell it to the Iranians if the Germans, the British, and the French would be the alternative suppliers if we didn't do it?"
But they wouldn't--and didn't. The Europeans have sincerely, if naively, tried to stop the process of uranium enrichment because they know that when Iran learns to make enough uranium hexafluoride, it will finally be at the "point of no return," meaning it could prevent the possibility of outside intervention.
Equally revealing--and deeply disturbing--is the fact that Russia, under Putin, has encouraged Iran to tough it out with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The agency has only persuasive power, but Russia has refused to condemn Iran's nuclear work and resists American and European efforts to force the issue at the U.N. Security Council, which could impose economic sanctions.
Russia has even bolstered Iran's ability to resist military intervention by confirming a deal to sell TOR-M1 surface-to-air missiles, the most advanced system available, which uses launchers to shoot down multiple targets like missiles and planes.
Some argue that bringing pressure on Iran weakens the moderates there. What moderates? And just who's prepared to gamble on that kind of wishful thinking? Military action, such as bombing the Iranian plants with cruise missiles and strike aircraft, would be justified in the circumstances. But that is hugely difficult politically, and covert action is very difficult operationally.
Still, the risks may have to be taken because the alternative is so awful. There may now be a window of opportunity for effective preventive action, but this window is more likely to be measured in months than years.
We must urgently find a way to persuade Moscow to reinforce the civilized world rather than subvert it.
This story appears in the January 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.