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Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Nuclear Iran

Iran has increasingly become the center of attention in the Middle East. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s weekly calls for the destruction of Israel and Iran’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons have made Tehran the center of international condemnation. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) voted to refer Iran to the UN Security Council earlier this month, and from Washington to Brussels, world leaders are proclaiming that a nuclear Iran is not acceptable.

Unfortunately, all of this posturing by the West is a sham. We are not going to do anything to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and what’s more, the ayatollahs know this. For all of his wonderful successes, President Bush does not have an Iran policy. We have deferred ours to the Europeans, and when it comes to meaningful action, the Europeans are an absolute joke.

For starters, diplomacy will never work with the Iranians because nothing will assuage them from acquiring nuclear weapons. In the Sunni dominated Middle East, Iranians stand proudly as the world’s largest Shiite Muslim country. They view themselves as the rightful disciples of Muhammad— the true defenders of the faith and all of their fellow Shiites across the Middle East. Adding to their religious status is their ethnic status as Persians—not Arabs—and as Persians, they are the heirs to the great empires of Cyrus and Xerxes. These two aspects give them an inflated sense of geo-political importance, and consequently, they see it as their birthright to be among the first rate world powers…and to be a first rate world power, they need nuclear weapons.

They will never bargain away what they see as their birthright, and therefore all of the European diplomacy in the hopes that Iran will strike a Grand Bargain—where they give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons and their support of terrorism in exchange for guarantees of security and economic benefits— will never come to fruition. Any negotiation at this point will only legitimize the Iranian government and win concessions for the mullahs while compromising our own standing with the Iranian people.

What the Europeans and President Bush are ignoring is that the Iranian people are the most pro-U.S. population in the entire region. The single most important fact about Iran is that 70% of the population is under 30 years of age. These young people are disillusioned with the clerical regime that their parents created, and major democratic networks exist within and outside of the country. Like the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s the clock is ticking for the old regime in Iran. The pressing question is which will happen first: Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, or a democratic revolution?

Unfortunately, Iran is much closer to acquiring those weapons than seeing any sort of regime change. As adamant as everyone is that Iran cannot be allowed to produce nuclear weapons, at the end of the day, the world will be willing to live with a nuclear Iran—if for no reason other than they are not willing to do what is necessary to stop the Persians.

One option is sanctions, but Europe’s oil economy depends upon Iranian petrol, and consequently France and Germany would veto any sanction that affected Iranian oil exports. A widely talked about scenario is a strike resembling the 1981 Israeli destruction of an Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak. Several problems with this option make it unwieldy. For starters, in 1981, Israel had only one target to destroy. We would need to destroy over a dozen such Iranian facilities, and secret refineries that we do not know about likely exist as well. Such a strike would be a setback, but it would not seriously deter Iran.

The sad truth is that we know very little about the Iranian nuclear program. We would never be sure if we fully eliminated everything that we needed to, and the Iranians would just come back even more resolute to acquire nuclear weapons so that they could be part of the world elite.

Surgical strikes, sanctions, or even a full blockade of the Straight of Hormuz would in the end, do little to stop Iranian nuclear development. With this in mind, we should cease worrying about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and instead worry about the type of regime that ultimately controls them.

If a nuclear Iran resembled a nuclear India, for instance, the prospect would not be so terrible. As a modern, democratic state, Iran would be a responsible world member. If however, the current Iranian regime acquires nuclear weapons, the situation would indeed become terrifying. The ayatollahs would believe that they could strike at American interests at home and abroad with impunity, as we would be held hostage by Iranian nuclear weapons and hence not be able to respond.

What then is our course? As Ronald Reagan once asked, “Must civilization perish in a hail of fiery atoms? Must freedom wither in a quiet, deadening accommodation with totalitarian evil?” As unpleasant as it is, the only solution is full scale regime change. A military campaign in Iran would be long and hard, but it is the only way to keep the world’s most dangerous weapons out of the hands of men like Mr. Ahmadinejad.

We might even get lucky. The young and pro-Western citizenry might even rise up and battle the ayatollahs along side of us. Unfortunately, however, there will not be a revolution in Iran unless we make one. Student uprisings were brutally crushed in the late 1990’s, and Iranians will not be willing to rise up once more unless their oppressors are gone for good.

We clearly have our hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan, and cannot afford to invade Iran while we are still tied up in Iraq. We must finish the job in Iraq, but we must also keep one eye on Tehran and use whatever secondary methods available to buy critical time until we are capable of launching a massive invasion.

Unfortunately, the West does not look like it will be willing to resort to this final measure and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. And so when Iran does acquire them, in perhaps the next year or two, the world will sit back, resigned to accept Mr. Ahmadinejad’s control of nuclear weapons, because it was not willing to do what was necessary to stop him. Just like that, it will be Munich, 1938 all over again, and the world will truly have learned nothing.