What are we going to do about Iran? When Hillary Clinton
surreally promised to obliterate the Islamic Republic if the mullahs nuked Israel, she at least recognized that a
nuclear-armed clerical regime is a serious menace, and that successful
diplomacy with Tehran
without the threat of force is fantasy. How to handle Iran may well be the decisive foreign-policy
question of the 2008 presidential campaign--especially if Tehran
continues to exploit the vacuum left by the collapse of the Bush
administration's Iran policy
and the general listlessness of the U.S.
presence in the Middle East outside of Iraq.
Tehran is on
a roll. Its development of a nuclear weapon progresses. The European Union's
attempts to cajole the mullahs to abandon uranium enrichment--the most
demanding part of developing the bomb--has become ever-more plaintive; the
Europeans promise incentives more than they threaten sanctions. Anxiety in
Tehran about the possibility of an American military strike against the
regime's nuclear facilities--produced by the president's and vice president's
"saber-rattling" and helpfully amplified by French president Nicolas
Sarkozy and his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner--almost vanished in December
with the publication of the National Intelligence Estimate, which incongruously
asserted that Iran had stopped its quest for a bomb in 2003.
Running with the gift from Langley, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad outflanked
the more cautious and polished crowd led by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's second
most powerful mullah. Rafsanjani, his sidekick Hassan Rohani, a former nuclear
negotiator, and Ali Larijani, an intelligent, titanium-tough former
Revolutionary Guards commander who, as Rohani's successor, played well with
European diplomats, all appeared worried that Ahmadinejad's aggressiveness
might actually provoke George W. Bush to attack another member of the axis of
evil. After the NIE's release, all three men gave reluctant concession
speeches, emphasizing Iran's
victory over the West more than the success of Ahmadinejad's unflinching
approach. In a triumphalist mood, Ali Khamenei, Iran's
supreme leader who has consistently backed Ahmadinejad, let loose a broadside
against the United States in
January 2008, referring to America
as "Satan incarnate" and calling on Muslims worldwide to emulate the
Islamic republic and not Westernized Muslims, who lead to national weakness and
Spurred by its nuclear success against the Europeans and Americans, the
clerical regime is causing trouble on the West Bank and in Gaza,
Lebanon, Syria, the Persian Gulf, and perhaps most of
Israel may soon be embroiled
in an ugly war with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist movement
supported spiritually and militarily by Tehran.
This could turn into a two-front confrontation, as Hezbollah, revolutionary Iran's most faithful offspring, is demonstrating
its willingness to use force to become the dominant player in Lebanon.
Rearmed massively by Tehran since the 2006
summer war against Israel,
Hezbollah could again let the missiles fly against northern Israel, while Hamas attacks from Gaza.
Make no mistake about it, Iran
is gaming for this kind of confrontation, which will be difficult and costly
the outpouring of Arab warmth for Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah in 2006,
when even secular Arab moderates started openly to rethink whether they had to
live with a Jewish state. Europeans and Americans, especially those of a
"realist" persuasion who imagine that Iran's Islamic mission
civilisatrice has played out, just don't appreciate how much the clerics
still enjoy the adulation of anti-American Arabs, especially those who have
dropped pan-Arabism and embraced "Islamic values."
The Iranian ruling elite, from the mild-mannered
reform-minded Mohammad Khatami to the die-hard spiritual soldiers of the
1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, like Ahmadinejad and Tehran's more bon-vivant mayor, Mohammad
Baqir Qalibaf, has a vision of the Middle East that is free of America's power
and the devilishly seductive pull of its culture. The Hamas-Hezbollah axis, if
it holds, is a dream come true for Tehran: At
last, Sunni and Shiite militants are working together to bleed Israel, America's colony and the anchor, as
they see it, of American imperialism throughout the region. Hamas and Hezbollah
allow Iran's rulers--and it
is impossible to overstate the extent to which Rafsanjani and Khamenei hate Israel--to be
frontline combatants against the Jewish state without incurring (so far)
frontline risks of devastating retaliation.
The only real brake on Iranian complicity with Hezbollah and Hamas has been
the fear that their aggression against Israel, if seen by Americans and
Israelis as Tehran-directed, could increase the odds of a U.S. or Israeli
military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities before the regime enriches
sufficient uranium for a nuclear arsenal.
This nuclear concern is probably behind the North Korean-Syrian nuclear
cooperation, which took a possibly lethal hit when the Israeli air force in
September 2007 destroyed a breeder reactor under construction at Dayr az-Zawr
in eastern Syria.
Although it is possible that cash-strapped Syria
on its own undertook to develop nuclear weapons, it is more likely that Iran supported
this enterprise as a back-up to its own atom-bomb program. Israel's preemptive strike is a setback for Tehran, but its echo inside Iran appears to be limited, since
neither the Israelis nor the Americans used it rhetorically to show what could
happen to the mullahs' nuclear project.
Most important, Iran has
pushed hard in Iraq,
giving aid and military training to militant Shiites, whose targets have
included Sunnis, Americans, and other Shiites. The mullahs and their
Revolutionary Guards corps have become a small expeditionary force in Iraq and have
clearly shown that they aren't peace-loving Persian uncles trying to bring
stability and prosperity to their Shiite Arab nephews.
President Bush's surge caught the Iranians off-guard and turned what had
been a winning situation for Iran
in Iraq--multiple Shiite
parties dependent upon Iranian aid and good will in a savage battle against
Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda--into a potentially huge defeat for Tehran. Barring a strike
by President Bush against Iran's
nuclear sites before January 2009, Iraq
is the only arena where the administration is capable of moving effectively
The Iranians have seriously overplayed their hand along the Tigris and Euphrates. In their love of the Hezbollah model, they
have helped to build up Moktada al-Sadr, the scion of Iraq's most
revered clerical family, who became a Shiite
street hero for his defense of the Shia against Sunni
insurgents and al Qaeda. Sadr's followers include the only Shiites willing and
able to kill Americans--another hugely attractive factor to the leadership in Tehran, since wounding America
is as indispensable to the ruling elite's sense of purpose as raining Katyushas
down on Israelis.
Yet Sadr's men are a hypercharged mix of Arabism and Islamism; as a rule,
they are not terribly fond of Persians. They were inevitably going to clash
with the followers of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic
Iraqi Council (SIIC), a group founded in Tehran
and which has maintained deep ties to many in Iran's religious establishment. The
Sadrs and Hakims dislike each other. In the streets of Qom, Iran's
most prestigious seat of clerical education, the representatives of the Sadr
and Hakim families often throw shoes at each other. (Among clerics that is very
should have known that it couldn't back both the Sadrists and the SIIC.
Although conscious of the fleeting loyalty of Iraqi Shiites who once took
refuge in Iran from the wrath of Saddam Hussein and are now blessed with
ever-larger Iraqi oil revenues, Tehran probably didn't anticipate how quickly
Shiite sentiment in Iraq could change. The Iranians didn't see the rapid rise
of the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has become the most
popular ayatollah in Iran as
well as the most powerful cleric in Iraq. Iranian and Iraqi clerical
ties are old, complicated, intensely personal, and often quite
affectionate--all of which now plays powerfully against the Iranian ruling
elite's cynical politics in Mesopotamia.
It is a very good bet that Sistani and other prominent Iraqi clerics have
remonstrated vociferously with their Iranian interlocutors in Qom against Iranian-fed violence among Iraqi
Shiites. We can see the Iranian side of this in former president Mohammad
Khatami's accusing Khamenei virtually by name of spilling Shiite blood in Iraq and turning Iran's Islamic revolutionary
message into a call for violence and upheaval beyond its borders. Khatami's
recent speech at Gilan
University is an
astonishing sermon from a man not known for boldness.
In the time remaining to it, the Bush administration should do all it can to
reinforce this Shiite dissent and outrage. The surge aside, it is the most
effective vehicle for checking Iran
and stabilizing Iraqi politics. The U.S.
government should broadcast as loudly as possible any and all information
complicity in the death of Iraqi Shiites. If the United
States can again arrest members of the Revolutionary
Guards Corps inside Iraq,
it should do so, interrogate them rigorously, and make the information public.
The tide may have turned for good against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia,
with potentially huge ramifications for hearts and minds throughout the Sunni
Arab world. The clerics in Tehran
could be dealt out of the inner circles of Iraqi Shia politics. With continued
progress in Iraq, the next
administration would be in a position to turn its full attention to thwarting Iran elsewhere
in the region--and to preventing the mullahs from acquiring nuclear weapons.