Concern over the Iranian nuclear-weapons program is growing, as well it should. As United Press International's Eli Lake has recently reported, even Mohamed El-Baradei of the international nuclear-watchdog organization is concerned, and the CIA has reportedly reduced its estimate of how long it will take before Iran has the bomb, from four-or-five years to only two.
It's hard to get accurate information on such matters -- the United States has typically been surprised at the speed with which countries develop nuclear weapons, and just a few years ago the Clinton folks were astonished at an Indian nuclear test -- but there are many straws in the wind. Just a few months ago, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze held a press conference in which he announced that his country's leading nuclear experts were in Iran, working on the mullahs' bomb. And last year the American government was informed of many details of the Iranian program, including a then-secret heavy-water project in Arak. This operation had been hidden by a Tehran company called Masbah Energy, located on a side street just off the main drag -- Vali Assra, formerly Pahlavi Avenue.
The United States was told that the chief engineers of the Arak project had come from the former Soviet Union: Vladimir Mirny of Ukraine, Aleksy Volev of Russia, and a third expert with the catchy name of Andrei Kalachnikov.
Within the past two months, leaders of Iran's Revolutionary Guards were informed by the country's National Security Council that the country would soon have nuclear weapons, and there are some well-informed people who tell me that the regime is hoping to be able to test a device by the end of the summer.
Whatever the accuracy of these various estimates and assessments, there is no doubt that the leaders of Iran's shaky mullahcracy view nuclear weapons as an insurance policy, both against American action and against their own alienated masses. Supreme Leader Khamenei and his henchman, former president Rafsanjani, have spoken openly about their desire to join the nuclear club. Rafsanjani even went so far as to announce that the minute Iran had the bomb, it would be dropped on Israel, regardless of the consequences. Even if all Iranians were killed in the war, he said, it would be a good deal for Islam: Half the world's Jews would be wiped out, but only a small fraction of the planet's Muslims would perish.
Perhaps such words are sheer bravado, perhaps not. But the regime is convinced by the North Korean "model" that nuclear weapons are a reliable shield against American power, and that view is shared by many strategic analysts.
I wonder if it is true. If we are convinced that democratic countries -- with or without nuclear weapons -- are far less likely to threaten us than tyrannies are, it may well be that a tyranny with nuclear weapons is a more urgent target than one with only conventional weapons. Perhaps a nuclear Iran requires our attention more than a conventional Iran.
Needless to say -- or maybe not; my calls for political support for democracy have been systematically distorted by slanderous critics into advocacy of all-out military assault -- this urgency does not translate into a military campaign. We certainly believe that nuclear deterrence works, as it did throughout the Cold War, and as it has, at least thus far, in the India/Pakistan confrontation. Those of us advocating support for the democratic opposition in Iran have insisted that no military power need be used against the mullahcracy. We should do the same for the Iranians as we did for the Philippinos against Marcos, the Yugoslavs against Milosevic, and the Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles against the Soviet empire.
Nuclear weapons may protect the mullahs against an invasion, but they will not protect the Islamic Republic against their own people, which is the greatest threat to their tyrannical rule. Paradoxically, the more we believe that Iran is on the verge of a nuclear breakthrough, the more we should be inclined to act in accordance with U.S. President George Bush's oft-repeated -- most recently last week in South Carolina -- message that the United States supports the Iranian people's desire to be free.
To be sure, many of the finest Iran-watchers, including the great Bernard Lewis, believe that any future Iranian government, even a democratic one, is likely to continue the nuclear program. That may be true, although we should remember that once South Africa became a democracy it abandoned nuclear weapons. But even if it is true, a democratic Iran will not be inclined to commit hara-kiri by launching a nuclear first strike against Israel, nor will it likely brandish its bombs against the United States.
The Iranian people have shown themselves to be the most pro-American population in the Muslim world, but the Iranian regime is arguably the most anti-American on Earth. Let's support the people, and help them bag the regime.
Faster, please. Much faster.
Michael Ledeen is the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen and Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.