On Iran, the U.S. Needs Handshakes and an Iron Fist
by Mortimer B. Zuckerman
Islamic Republic Acronym
The hope was that President Obama could be a bridge to the Arab and Muslim world.
The United States, abandoning the "axis of evil" rhetoric, would extend a hand of goodwill, and the ideologues and dictators would be induced to unclench their fists.
In particular, the argument went, civilized dialogue with Iran was more likely if we chose to treat its external conduct separately from its internal character. Such an approach, not threatening the Islamic republic's claim, would give us a better chance of restraining its nuclear ambitions and its support for terrorism.
Obama did his bit to press the reset button with grace and eloquence.
He apologized for America and its past conduct in the region; he avowed respect for the Iranian government; he was the most restrained of the Western leaders when the ayatollahs violently suppressed protests by millions of Iranians over a flawed election.
And what was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's response?
Ridicule in sermons and speeches and the assertion that Obama's agents had been behind the protests. Raising the level of insult, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demanded that Obama apologize for his later, sharper critique: Obama said he was "appalled" by the violence, but he said this only after days of denunciation from Republicans and after both houses of Congress condemned Iran's crackdown.
We are still waiting for Iran to unclench its fists
As commentator Robert Kaplan put it in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, this Iranian struggle is "now as central to our foreign policy as that for democracy in Eastern Europe in the 1980s." Why? Because Iran is the critical fulcrum in an unstable region.
A radical Iranian leader can incite the mob; an Iranian reformer could energize the emerging bourgeoisie to expand the rule of law and move toward true democracy.
The upheaval in Iran has been an impressive and moving demonstration of how millions of Iranians feel. But it has greatly diminished the chances that the Iranian leadership will bend on the issues that count for us, especially the pursuit of nuclear weapons. If anything, the uprising has intensified a shift to an ideological military dictatorship, committed to its version of revolutionary Islam that neither needs nor wants an accommodation with the West.
The violence we have seen should dispel any illusions that this regime is capable of internal evolution toward moderation. As one commentator put it, "The real question is not whether or not to go to war against Iran but how to end the war that Iran has been waging against the U.S. for three decades."
The rigidity and thuggery inflicted by Iran on its own people are a mirror image of its approach to outsiders. And it is more than ever clear that this emanates from the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
In fact, we can now see two Irans: one that supports the determination of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to transform the republic into an emirate in the service of the Islamic cause, another that yearns to be an ordinary nation under the rule of law.
We can hope that the sight of millions of protesters might, in the longer term, have some effect on the internal dynamics.
In the meantime, what should our policy be?
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair put it well: "Engaging with Iran is entirely sensible. . . . The Iranian government should not be able to claim that we have refused the opportunity for constructive dialogue. . . . The purpose of such engagement should, however, be clear. It is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, but it is more than that. It is to put a stop to the Iranian regime's policy of destabilization and the support of terrorism."
We still will have to contend with President Ahmadinejad, who declares the country's nuclear ambition is a "closed file," settled beyond discussion. Here is a man who is against the United States, against Europe, against the Arabs, including the Egyptians and the Saudis, against the reformists at home, against homosexuals, against liberalizing the economy, against the Chinese, against Israel, against the historical record of the Holocaust (even as he promises to inflict a new one on Israel), a man who literally believes that a halo began to appear around his head after his United Nations speech several years ago. He is an apt personification of a regime that has lost its legitimacy and chooses to see America as its main enemy.
Just like his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Khamenei believes in a Mideast free of U.S. influence.
He sees an American culture that appeals to the young as a threat to authority of the ayatollahs -- 70 percent of the Iranian population is under the age of 30.
Even people who didn't vote for Obama hoped that he could make diplomacy work.
But gentle persuasion is never going to sway people like Khamenei. It takes two to tango, and the world's rogues have other priorities. What they saw in Obama's desire for engagement was that he was essentially giving up on transforming these regimes or even holding them accountable for their transgressions.
Iran's rulers believe they have the power, the money, and the organs of state arrayed on their side. They see no need to be open to outsiders; they have not the slightest inclination to unclench their fists. Obama's agenda of engagement with Iran will have to be put on hold, or else we risk increasing Iranian legitimacy, embarrassing the United States, diminishing our credibility, and undermining the confidence of our regional allies in American leadership.
Ayatollah Khamenei, whose authority enforces the radical Islamic nature of Iran's leadership, has done us all a favor by revealing what kind of government his country will have as long as he is around. Iran will clearly continue to be the most active state-sponsor of terrorism, meddling malevolently around the world. It will continue to support and fund Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups, Hezbollah, Iraqi-based militants, Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, and radicals in the Sudan, as well as radical Islamists and anti-American allies and surrogates all through the Middle East and, indeed, even beyond. Iran's destructive involvement in the Middle East is the biggest impediment to reigniting the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The danger is clear and present: If a covert convoy of Iranian missiles had not been bombed by Israel but had ended up in Gaza, Hamas could have put virtually all of Israel within accurate range of lethal missiles, making an all-out regional war unavoidable.
The Iranian dream is of a bloc of Muslim states led by a nuclear Iran to challenge America's power, the Sunni Arab states, and, of course, Israel's existence. The nightmare of the Arab world is a grand plan, concocted by the Iranians, to penetrate Arab countries and spread networks of sleeper cells to carry out terrorist attacks and assassinations and provoke violent clashes between the street demonstrators and local security forces--all with the idea of destabilizing Sunni Arab countries. Witness the discovery of a Hezbollah terrorist cell in Egypt. Saudi Arabia fears Iran will challenge it as the regional leader. Egyptian officials say that Qatar has fallen into Iran's trap, with al Jazeera becoming a mouthpiece for the Iranians. The Palestinian cause is already subject to a hostile takeover bid by Iran and its clients, a testimony to the weakness of Arab rulers in other states. Jordan's King Abdullah has also warned of Iran's plan to extend the tentacles of terrorism to Lebanon, to seize critical points of power in Iraq, and to use Sudan as a base for sending thousands of terrorists into Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As for Israel, the aim is to put it between Hezbollah's hammer to the north and Hamas's anvil to the south.
The consequences of an Iranian nuclear arsenal would be catastrophic
It would enable Tehran to spread the Islamic revolution without pressing a button, since the threat of a nuclear weapon is an incredible force multiplier, even a game changer. Who will stop a nuclear Iran from swallowing or dominating its energy-rich neighbors?
And that is only for starters. Iran also aims to get into a position where it can control the lifeblood of the industrialized world. Ahmadinejad, along with Syrian President Bashar Assad, recently declared in Damascus that the time of the West is over and that a new world order is emerging.
The mostly Sunni Arab regimes confronted by an Iranian Shiite domination will feel compelled to seek their own nuclear insurance, creating a Middle East nuclear arms race and ending, as a pratical matter, the credibility of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. If Iran is allowed to continue on its nuclear course, the Saudis will conclude America cannot stop Tehran. They are already concerned that extending a hand to Iran will entrench Iran as a Middle East power while failing to end its nuclear program.
Of course, diplomacy and persuasion, sticks and carrots, should be tried to enforce Security Council resolutions -- but in earnest.
Only very strong actions have any chance. A limit to Iran's gasoline imports, for instance, would hit a nerve. Nothing less, in short, than the kind of sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1991, with catchall provisions on commerce and diplomatic relations. But the Russians and the Chinese have already recognized Ahmadinejad's re-election, so the prospects are not bright.
Similarly, North Korea now finds it possible to stand up to the United States. After years of talks and American concessions, Pyongyang has announced it will pursue whatever nuclear program Kim Jong Il wants. The United States rallied the U.N. to pass sanctions against it, but those were no tougher than the ones issued in 2006, which failed, even as North Koreans roam the planet, mainly the Middle East, to offer their wares to the highest bidders and are the biggest suppliers of nuclear and missile technology to Iran. Hollow declarations and soft sanctions will simply not prevent rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea from pursuing what they believe to be their interests or their ideology.
The danger is that Obama's foreign policy direction puts him on the path to becoming Jimmy Carter 2.0
Carter took office with similar illusions about the Soviet Union, promising to cure our "inordinate fear of communism." He asked America to put aside its concern with traditional issues of war and peace in favor of the "new global issues of justice, equity, and human rights." He asserted that we had betrayed our principles in the course of the Cold War. The Soviet answer to that brave, new world was the invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979, a single event that Carter described as teaching him more about the Soviet Union than any other event since he'd been president. This from the same president who refused to supply tear gas to the shah of Iran to help him control the crowds that ultimately overthrew him. We do not need Carter's naivet? back in the White House.
While America must not neglect, as Obama suggests, soft power, it must not forget that there are hard and cynical leaders in places like Tehran.
As one Egyptian leader put it to me in a play on Obama's approach, "You need to deal with them with a clenched fist and not with a handshake."
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(c) 2009 U.S. News & World Report