Bombing Iran may buy time until democrats win

Posted in Iran | 02-May-06 | Author: Joshua Muravchik| Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

Iran's hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The confrontation between Iran and the United States over Iran's nuclear program is likely to end with American air strikes against Tehran's nuclear facilities. There is little room for doubt that Iran, despite pro forma denials, is working to develop nuclear weapons and not just nuclear energy. Of course, many people in the Middle East are skeptical when it comes to American claims about this because of Iraq. But the answer to this is that while the U.S. was grievously wrong about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Washington did not lie. After all, it was the U.S. that announced that no WMDs had been found in Iraq. If we were lying, we could have claimed otherwise or even planted things in Iraq once we occupied it.

In the case of Iran, there are several strong reasons to believe that its nuclear program is intended for the production of weapons: First, after its hand was forced by revelations provided by an opposition group, the Iranian government confessed that it had filed false reports to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for 18 years. Second, Iran still refuses to give the IAEA complete cooperation. Third, Iran has stonewalled long, patient European efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis as well as Russia's compromise proposal to enrich nuclear fuel for Iran. Fourth, some of Iran's acknowledged activities have no technological purpose except for building weapons. Fifth, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad alluded to other Iranian nuclear programs in a recent speech. And sixth, Iran was involved in the nuclear weapons proliferation activities of the Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

The U.S. views Iranian nuclear weapons as especially threatening. Iran is an unusually barbaric regime. It has organized death squads to murder its own dissidents at home. It has sent "hit" teams to murder dissidents abroad. It is the single-most active government in the world in funding, supporting and organizing terrorist activity.

Moreover, it is uniquely virulent. Repeatedly, Ahmadinejad has called for the destruction of Israel. He has also called for the destruction of the U.S. Less attention was paid to this, probably because people thought it less likely to be acted upon. But the Iranian regime has sponsored the murder of Americans where it can. Also, "death to America" is the official slogan of that regime, painted on walls and chanted at Friday prayers.

For these reasons, U.S. President George W. Bush and members of his administration have said they will not tolerate a nuclear armed Iran. Is this inconsistent, since the U.S. does tolerate nuclear weapons in the hands of other states? Only slightly. Washington has tried to discourage nuclear proliferation everywhere and has been instrumental in persuading several states to abandon their weapons programs. Others the U.S. has not been able to stop. But there is no other regime on earth whose conduct so traduces the norms of civilized behavior.

The U.S., as everyone knows, finds itself in a great mess in Iraq, where it has made many mistakes and is thinly stretched. For that reason it will be reluctant to undertake military action in Iran.

Should Washington go down that route, the U.S. will surely pay a heavy price. By this I do not mean the various ways in which Iran will try to strike back at the U.S. in Iraq or Afghanistan or on American soil. I mean an attack will intensify anti-American feelings that are already far too high in the Middle East and elsewhere. It may also strengthen the Iranian regime. We know that the regime's undemocratic rule is quite unpopular in Iran, but people may rally around it if the U.S. bombs their country.

For all these reasons, Washington has taken a low-key approach, backing the Europeans and even the Russians, hoping that their diplomatic initiatives will work. So far, they have not worked, and their sponsors have undermined themselves. When Javier Solana, the senior European Union foreign policy official, declares that the military option against Iran is absolutely "off the table," he is telling Tehran that it need not negotiate in good faith. And when Moscow refuses to support stern sanctions in the Security Council, it is making it more likely that Tehran will continue to brush aside Russia's proposal.

In the end, if Tehran continues its obdurate refusal to back down from its drive for nuclear weapons, I believe the U.S. will act on its own. There is zero possibility of an Iraq-style invasion. But the U.S. could conduct a bombing campaign that would destroy much of Iran's nuclear facilities. It would not have to destroy it all to set back by years Iran's acquisition of nuclear weaponry. Perhaps that would buy enough time for the Iranian people to take their country back from their despotic rulers.

Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.

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