In confronting Iran's nuclear program, it seems President Bush has taken a lesson from the 26th president Theodore Roosevelt, who believed in speaking softly while carrying a big stick. The current president must be commended for his approach to Iran -- working in concert with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. It makes sense to pressure the Iranian regime and force the leadership to choose between a peaceful resolution together with the international community or face global isolation and punitive measures.
Despite the recent developments, I agree with many experts who remain skeptical of the repeated promises of Iran's rulers that their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Regrettably, the pending nuclear talks are not the panacea for peace that many believe. To treat the Iranian threat as based solely on its potential nuclear capabilities is narrow-sighted.
Successive U.S. administrations have identified a number of threats posed by Iran's unstable and provocative regime. In Iraq, Iran has been active in trying to undermine the democratically elected government by supporting insurgents and terrorist activity. Reports in the press indicate Iran has provided weapons, training and other material assistance to Shi'ite Islamist militias. Many believe Tehran-backed terrorists are behind much of the carnage that sweeps Iraq every day killing scores of innocent Iraqis.
Iran's ties to terrorism are not limited to Iraq. The State Department annually lists Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism and in 2006 found "Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism." The State Department's country report on terrorism claims Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Ministry of Intelligence and Security were directly involved in planning and supporting terrorist acts. Moreover, the report accuses Iran of exhorting various groups, especially Palestinian terrorist groups and Lebanese Hezbollah, to use terrorism in pursuit of their goals. Just this April, at a conference in Tehran with Palestinian militant leaders, Iran pledged $50 million to the Hamas-led government to help counter aid reductions from the United States and Europe.
But the most alarming threat posed by Tehran is not its mischief-making in Iraq or in the Middle East, but the ideology which drives the regime to pursue these policies. The Islamic Republic derives from the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 religious revolution and is driven by ideological considerations in addition to political self-interest. This is the only plausible explanation for the conduct and statements of Iran's recently elected president. According to press reports, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims to have received visions from God, denies the Holocaust occurred, and promotes exporting the principles of the Iranian revolution. His ideological predilections make me question whether Mr. Ahmadinejad could be deterred from using nuclear weapons as a result of realpolitik diplomacy or a conventional sanctions regime.
The conundrum remains, therefore, what options do U.S. policymakers possess? Let me be clear: Stemming Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons should be at the highest of our national security priorities. A nuclear Iran would give cover for the regime to pursue military activity in the Middle East, only increase its direct support of terrorist organizations, likely supply its nuclear capabilities to proxies and terrorists, and could become a nuclear arms proliferator, like the A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan.
President Bush and our allies are not powerless in the face of Iranian thuggery and grandstanding. Though financial sanctions may not be sufficient to solve the problem, they will alarm economically literate Iranians who understand what their country will lose if it becomes an outlaw economy unable seek investment from abroad. And while Mr. Ahmadinejad likes to talk tough, the prospect of exclusion from worldwide financial markets -- by force of a Security Council resolution -- is no small thing.
But our response to Iran's nuclear program must not be monolithic; our diplomatic efforts must be conducted in concert with other measures. The Bush administration's push for developing a containment strategy with Iran's Gulf neighbors -- aimed at military cooperation and developing a missile defense system across the region is a welcome first step. It is important to remember that no other nation in the Middle East will easily accept a nuclear-armed Iran. Iran's Sunni Muslim neighbors would worry if the Shia state had the bomb. We, along with our allies, must encourage as many countries as possible to sign up to this strategy.
History teaches us we must remain skeptical and vigilant. There is considerable and mounting evidence available to convince us Iran can not be trusted. We must not be blinded by the prospect of nuclear talks with Iran. Talks will only be effective if used in concert with measures such as support of Iranian moderates, threats of stringent economic sanctions, and a shoring up of allies -- both regionally and globally to potentially isolate the regime.
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