Coming Soon: Nuclear Theocrats?
How to Head Off the Imam Bomb

Let us state the obvious: The new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a godsend. The Americans, the Europeans, and even the Russians are now treating clerical Iran's 20-year quest to develop nuclear weapons more seriously. Ahmadinejad's inflamed rhetoric against America, Israel, and the Jews, which is in keeping with the style and substance of the president's former comrades in the praetorian Revolutionary Guard Corps, combined with the clerical regime's decision to restart uranium enrichment, has returned some sense of urgency to efforts to thwart Tehran.

Whatever their merits, the EU-3 negotiations with Tehran--which began in 2003 after an Iranian opposition group publicly broadcast information about Tehran's clandestine nuclear-research program--diminished American attention to Iran's wannabe nuclear theocrats. What had been rapidly becoming a white-hot topic cooled, which was an objective of an administration taxed severely by Iraq and fearful of another row with the Western Europeans. Washington seriously wanted the Europeans to become more supportive in Mesopotamia; they were becoming more engaged on the ground in Afghanistan. We needed the French, Germans, and Brits to "own" our Iran policy, which would, so the sincere proponents of this policy argued, form a united Western front against the Islamic Republic. Ownership would produce responsibility--something the commercially driven Europeans had rarely shown toward the clerical regime, which in the 1980s and 1990s had directly or through its Lebanese proxies frequently assassinated Iranian dissidents in Europe and even occasionally blown up the natives (the Paris bombings of 1986) without European governments' making much of a fuss. With the Europeans in the lead, nonpetroleum sanctions that might actually have a bite in Tehran would become possible.

The State Department diplomats who devised this strategy probably knew in their hearts that they were seeing possibilities in the Europeans that did not exist. Foreign-service officers working France, Germany, and NATO in 2003 and 2004 knew the depth of the anti-Americanism in Berlin and the cynicism about a nuclear Iran in Paris. But nobody wanted to replace hope with reality, which would lead one to the inexorable conclusion that preventive military strikes were the only way of significantly delaying or derailing Tehran's nuclear program. It's a very good bet that the U.S. officials now running America's Iran policy would rather see the clerics go nuclear than deal with the world the day after Washington begins bombing Iran's atomic-weapons and ballistic-missile facilities.

The unexpected election this past June of President Ahmadinejad, whom the Europeans didn't see coming (neither did the State Department or the Central Intelligence Agency), annihilated the essential cosmetics of the EU-3 dialogue with Iran. On the issue of Israel and the iniquity of the Jews, or in his hatred of the United States and its "imperialistic, anti-Islamic, morally destructive culture," Ahmadinejad is, of course, on the same page as Iran's two preeminent mullahs, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the cleric who really got the Islamic Republic's nuclear program rolling in 1989-90, and the country's leader, Ali Khamenei. Anyone who has ever read and remembered Rafsanjani's and Khamenei's speeches since 1979 knows well that both clerics--but especially Khamenei--would have had warm and loquacious evenings with Austrian anti-Semites of yesteryear.

Where Ahmadinejad differs with his two colleagues and with Iran's former "reformist" president Mohammad Khatami (who also can sound like a faithful child of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini when talking about Zion, the Jews, and the destructiveness of American civilization) is that he never really practices taqqiyah, the very Iranian-Shiite art of dissimulation, which historically grew from the trials and tribulations that Shiites have endured in the much larger, often unkind Sunni Muslim world. Khamenei, Khatami, and Rafsanjani, all raised in a prerevolutionary culture accentuated by clerical training, seem to have a much easier time lying. They can shamelessly weave, dodge, and prevaricate. They can in their (usually small) inconsistencies give you hope. (Rafsanjani, the most refined and intelligent of the three, wins the award for being the boldest liar.) In Iran, the very Anglo-American understanding of "truth and consequences," where mendacity leads to pain, is reversed: Honesty, especially with strangers, is likely to cause trouble.

Ahmadinejad, a child of the Iran-Iraq war's volunteer force of die-hard believers, the Basij, and the more elite but no less determined Revolutionary Guards Corps, who have become a state within a state as the Islamic Republic has aged, has very little of the old-school mendacity. In my experience, Revolutionary Guards actually don't like to lie. Their raison d'être is at odds with the historical weakness and fear that underlie taqqiyah or, as it is also often known in Persian, ketman. Unvarnished, unsophisticated, hardened, and usually embittered by one of the most merciless wars of the twentieth century, and contemptuous of sinful, colorful, traditional culture, they are often men of sincere faith. They are pure as only men who've been scorched by war can be. They often cannot hear, let alone analyze, the outside world.

Even if Ahmadinejad understands, as Rafsanjani does, the tactical advantages of trying to drag out negotiations with the Europeans--stall and try to advance as much as possible all aspects of the nuclear-weapons program not under seal by United Nations inspectors--he must find the whole process morally revolting. These are men whom Western secularists, especially spiritually inert "realists," barely understand. Western foreign-policy experts hunt for rational calculations and geostrategic designs where what is staring them in the face is faith, defining, for warriors like Ahmadinejad, both right and wrong and the decisive contours of politics and strategic maps. Westerners firmly believe that corruption, omnipresent in Iran, means a loss of religious virtue and zeal. In fact, in clerical Iran there is relatively little friction between violent faith and graft.

For the Europeans, Ahmadinejad has made it difficult--certainly unseemly--to offer Tehran more carrots to halt its fuel-cycle research. That had been the European approach since France, Germany, and Great Britain became engaged in dissuading the clerical regime from developing the capacity to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium. Trade deals, World Bank loans, membership in the World Trade Organization, a bit of sympathetic anti-American rhetoric from the French and Germans, and other incentives were meant to stimulate in Tehran rational self-interest. The Europeans, particularly those with a large, active commercial presence in Iran, had been assuring the Americans this was in ascendance. It is by no means clear whether the EU-3 ever really thought their approach could slow down, let alone halt, the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. (In 2003, the French and the Germans were at least as concerned about diplomatically neutralizing George W. Bush's perceived bellicosity towards one more axis of evil.) But the Europeans certainly wanted to try to bribe the clerical regime, and they wanted the Americans to be prepared to offer some lucrative and strategically appealing "grand bargain."

This "realist," incentive-fond sentiment has been powerfully present in Foggy Bottom, which now dominates foreign policy--particularly Iran policy--in the Bush administration. Truth be told, the important voices at the State Department on Iran, which comprise now and then the Near East Bureau diplomats but especially the Europeanists riding high under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, would have preferred to adopt a strategy geared more toward carrots than sticks. Engagement is a reflex at State: If diplomacy is seen essentially as a substitute for, not an intimately intertwined complement to, the threat and use of force, this disposition is unavoidable.

Past experience ought to countervail, but it does not. Each time the United States has tried to engage revolutionary Iran--Zbigniew Brzezinski's mission to Algeria in 1979, Robert McFarlane's Iran-contra trip to Tehran in 1986, and President Bill Clinton's and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's forgive-the-West apologias to Iranian president Mohammad Khatami in 2000--the effort has been either a disaster (Brzezinski and McFarlane) or an embarrassing flop (Clinton-Albright). This Bush administration tried in December 2003, as did the administration of Bush père in June 1990, to reach out to Tehran after terrible earthquakes. Both times, during periods of relative political moderation in the Islamic Republic, American aid was rejected.

Yet it's not hard to find State Department and CIA officials who still believe that the "reformers," "clerical leftists," and "conservative pragmatists" (labeling the Iranian elite is a tricky, protean affair) would possibly cut a deal with the United States if they didn't have to contend with the "hardliners" in their midst. (The fact that the Islamic Republic probably made its most profound clandestine nuclear strides during the presidency of the "clerical leftist reformer" Mohammad Khatami and the overlordship of the "conservative pragmatists" Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei doesn't seem to get in the way of this reasoning.) A variation of this theme runs through the often-heard queries from scholars, journalists, and U.S. and European officials about whether Iran's current president really has much influence over Iran's nuclear program. In other words, Can't we please go back to the attitude we had under Khatami, Rafsanjani, and Khamenei, when we could more easily deceive ourselves about the enormous nuclear progress the Iranians were making?

Though the administration, with the State Department in the lead, is probably going to make a valiant attempt to moderate our response to clerical Iran's decision to remove the United Nations seals on its enrichment facility at Natanz--the CIA did say, after all, in August 2005, that we might have as much as 10 years before Iran goes nuclear--we might well be at the defining moment: Will we really try to confront the mullahs' quest for nukes? The odds are decent that the Iranians, who are now controlling the calendar, will force our hand. It is quite possible the clerical regime has chosen to confront the EU-3, the United States, and the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency now because all that is lacking in its weapons program is to complete the fuel cycle--Iran has the missiles and reliable, Pakistani-tested weapons designs. Khamenei and Rafsanjani, let alone Ahmadinejad, are simply no longer willing to delay the program that they have nourished since the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Either we are going to have a serious policy incorporating but going beyond the European approach, where we put down trip-wires that will signal loudly that we are failing, or we will descend into a surreal process of tepid, ineffective sanctions, orchestrated through the U.N. Security Council or, given a Russian or Chinese veto, through a U.S.-EU-3 alliance (assuming the Europeans can bring themselves to implement the most minimal sanctions that would not affect their trade balance or the new-age Kantian hope that it's never too late to have more negotiations). Either the Bush administration makes a serious attempt at democracy promotion inside Iran--which has the most advanced democratic culture struggling against tyranny anywhere in the Middle East--or it runs the serious risk of having its "transformational diplomacy" agenda, which the upper reaches of the State Department, not to mention the president of the United States, seem to believe in sincerely, implode from an overdose of hypocrisy.

Even the most successful foreign policies will have a wide range of pretty glaring contradictions. However, there are limits. It is one thing for the Bush administration to downplay or ignore democracy in Pakistan, a front-line state against al Qaeda's surviving leadership, or in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich little land along the Caspian Sea, or in Libya, an underpopulated, undeveloped country that has had little luck since the fall of Carthage. It's something else entirely to do so in Egypt, still the lodestone in the Arab world, or in clerical Iran, the most powerful and nefarious state in the Middle East, which happens to have also the most pro-American Muslim population in the region. Sustained insincerity toward either will desiccate the democratic spirit within the American government, especially within the State Department, where those officials who truly want to support the expansion of democracy among Muslims fight a constant campaign against the Near East Bureau's professionals, who oppose changing the status quo in the region. Needless to say, the positive ramifications of one of the Muslim world's two dictatorial, missionary Islamist states (Saudia Arabia is the other) collapsing into a democracy would be enormous.

A more serious American-European approach to clerical Iran's quest for nuclear weapons would cast the administration more conspicuously as the bad cop. The entire EU-3 approach to Tehran, more thoughtful European diplomats will tell you, is premised on Washington's playing the imperfectly restrained cowboy: The Iranians need to know that over the horizon waits George W. Bush, the mad bomber. More often, senior American officials, and especially the president, need to remind Iran's ruling clergy, connoisseurs of machtpolitik--and the Europeans who are ever ready to appease them--that the United States is quite capable of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and simultaneously, if need be, launching airstrikes against the clerics' nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile facilities. The Iranians and the Europeans both thought the Americans were capable of such actions in 2003; the president and the vice president are surely capable, since many abroad view them as fundamentally unstable, of sending the signal that if the will exists, the United States will find the means. The objective is not to sound crudely bellicose, but to underscore that American patience is finite. The president used just the right language in his recent comments that the Islamic Republic's uranium enrichment program is "intolerable" and a "grave threat." Senior administration officials, and American ambassadors in the Middle East, should use such words more often, especially when any member of the ruling elite in Iran starts to thump his chest, envisioning Armageddon for Jews or anyone else.

The Bush administration should insist on adding benchmarks, with consequences, to the EU-3 and United Nations approaches. The administration has worked up a whole series of possible nonpetroleum sanction measures against Iran. The French, who are usually intellectually serious even when they are politically and strategically cynical and frivolous, have done likewise. Paris has concluded that Tehran, even with oil over $60 a barrel, may be more sensitive to sanctions pain than it realizes. The State Department should have already pushed aggressively, starting in Paris, to get the French, Germans, and British to agree to small-scale sanction trip-wires that would operate independently and in advance of any referral to the Security Council.

For example, the gradual revocation of visas to Iranian students on government stipends studying the hard sciences in EU-3 countries and the cancellation of all science-related exchange programs would have been a good place to begin, especially since such actions in the past have been discussed in Europe in response to earlier Iranian sins. It is entirely possible, if not probable, that the Europeans would have refused, but such efforts would have at least set the stage for where we will likely soon be: either a defeat in the Security Council on implementing even the weakest of sanctions or a token victory which is actually a defeat, that is, a temporary sanctions regime that has no bite and no clear timetable for a rapid escalation to more serious measures.

If the Europeans are unwilling to use any big, highly visible sticks unilaterally--for the French and Germans this would mean halting major industrial projects in Iran--then it's simply impossible for the West to generate an intimidating image. One hears often that senior State Department officials envisage isolating Iran as the West once isolated South Africa. It's an odd comparison since South Africa's economy was more diversified and globalized--thus more subject to pain--than Iran's oil-based economy operating in a market where small dips in supply can cause significant spikes in price. And the ruling whites in South Africa were Western and among themselves democratic, and thus much more subject to the ethical and spiritual pressure from being ostracized by the rest of Western civilization. The ruling elite in Iran suffers no similar angst. Distaste for white racism is vastly more galvanizing in Western Europe than fear of Iranian nukes. In Europe's postwar ethics, the sanctions against South Africa were a chic expression of soft power, any serious sanctions against Iran a crude Americanesque expression of hard power against a third-world country.

Ideally, what the United States needs is to replicate the economy-crushing sanctions the West threw at Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh after he nationalized British petroleum in Iran in 1951. There are many reasons why Mossadegh fell to a very lamely executed and inexpensive coup in 1953, but among the most important was the effective oil embargo, which helped turn a popular prime minister into an unpopular one in less than a year. Such an embargo is unlikely today, when all in the West fear the possible economic shock from higher energy costs. But if there is such a thing as a non-oil-related intimidating sanction against the Islamic Republic--and there might possibly be, depending on how much the ruling Iranian elite fears that the country's precarious economic state could be significantly hurt by European sanctions--the doom and gloom need to be convincing from the start. Dribbling out little sanctions--the likely product of three years of US-EU-3 cooperation--won't do it.

Indeed, that approach would surely embolden the clerical regime, at home and abroad. We would have shown ourselves, to the Iranians and everyone else in the Middle East, to be, once again, paper tigers. Contrary to the usual commentary, it is American weakness on the Iranian nuclear question, not firm resolve, that is likely to embolden the mullahs in Iraq, Lebanon, the West Bank, and elsewhere. If you're the mullahs, which seems more like a propitious signal from God: a functioning Iranian nuke, acquired against the will of the Great Satan, or a barrage of American bombs and missiles destroying the atomic core of clerical prestige and awe?

Using the EU-3-United Nations approach against Iran wasn't a bad idea in 2003--so long as the Bush administration doesn't now get addicted to the process, an occupational hazard of allowing foreign-service officers to take the lead in developing policy. It should be said that Nicholas Burns, the lead official on Iran policy, appears to be the only senior official with the energy and desire to keep dealing with this ugly issue, which is going to hit this administration like a freight train. Right or wrong in his decisions, he seems to be operating in a policy vacuum. The administration needs a resolute and farsighted policy that will break from this diplomatic process--assuming the Iranians don't do it for us--when further dithering becomes clearly counterproductive. In other words, when we become weaker, not stronger, in the eyes of the clerics. We are just about there.

Eventually, assuming the State Department's European strategy falls apart because the Europeans will not play, we will have to make up our minds whether nukes in the hands of Khamenei, Rafsanjani, and Ahmadinejad are "intolerable" or not. If so, then we will have to prepare to bomb. (The other good thing about the EU-3 process with Iran is that it is actually rhetorically and morally preparing the arguments and language for a preventive military strike, if we must go in that direction. The astute European participants in this process know this, which provokes both considerable anxiety and, in some, relief.)

And sooner, not later, we need to decide whether we are serious about promoting democracy in Iran, whether we will continue to hold democracy-promotion hostage to these quite possibly never ending discussions. (The administration may try to deny that it has done so, but when the government steers NGOs and think tanks away from developing dissident-support programs for Iranians, suggesting that money is more likely to be forthcoming for dissident-support in Syria, then the administration is in sync, if not full agreement, with many Western Europeans, who see democracy advocacy in Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East, as a synonym for unwanted regime change.) In fact, we were never going to lose the EU-3 approach because of greater American support for dissidents and democracy in Iran. The State Department didn't need to preempt itself in preparation for a "grand bargain" that astute minds at State and in the White House knew was never going to happen. It is worthwhile to recall the commentary of Ken Pollack, who was one of the promoters of U.S.-Iranian détente in the Clinton administration's National Security Council:

I felt that we had come very close to making a major breakthrough with Iran that if only we had done a few things differently. . . . We might have been able to make it happen. Over the years, however, I have come to the conclusion that I was wrong in this assessment. . . . Iran was ruled by a regime in which the lion's share of power--and everything that really mattered--was in the hands of people who were not ready or interested in improving ties with the United States.

No one seriously believes the Iranian regime is better now.

So is there any reason Condoleezza Rice, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Burns, the NSC boss on the Middle East Elliott Abrams, and the public diplomacy czarina Karen Hughes can't regularly give speeches defending dissidents in Iran--let's name them--and the institutions of free speech? The Persian service of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty has been completely neutered. Is there a reason--other than the "grand bargain"--the United States doesn't have a surrogate radio service for a country President Bush calls one of the gravest threats we face in the world? Don't we want RFE-RL to develop an in-country network of sources (yes, it's dangerous) that can tell the Iranian people things the regime will not allow into the Iranian press? If the Iranian people deserve to live in freedom, and President Bush and Secretary of State Rice have both said that they do, why can't we fund and develop radio and television programs that continually reveal the ugly, corrupt, and violent side of clerical rule?

The regime in Tehran constantly tells us what it fears most: clerical dissent. Why can't American officials give speeches defending religious freedom in Iran? Ali Khamenei's Achilles' heel is that he is a politicized, pathetic religious "scholar" ruling over a theocratic state where accomplished clerics, who don't believe at all in the political rule of religious jurisconsults, are silenced. This is the issue between Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq, and the school of Najaf behind him, and the clerical regime in Iran. The Clerical Court in Tehran is often a busy place because there have been a lot of refractory mullahs who think the regime is ruining the clergy and Islam. Hammer the point. Understandably, internal clerical politics may be a hard thing for nonspecialist senior officials to wrap a policy around. But it is critical to play on this if we intend to bring real pressure.

Remember: It's not what we think that is crucial. Our objective is to generate internal debate, which inevitably happens when the United States government decides to focus its attention inside Iran. Iranian society is quite open to the power of the American bully pulpit. Iranians may not have a very good idea at all about what is going on in Afghanistan, but they follow the United States. Given our advantages and their weakness, the overt side of American diplomacy is astonishingly weak.

And is there any reason American covert action against clerical Iran essentially doesn't exist? According to intelligence officials, Langley has a little under 200 officers on its operational Iran desk and around 40 analysts working full-time on the Islamic Republic. What in the world are they doing? According to CIA officers in the Near East Division, the agency had more Iranian assets 20 years ago than it does today, and it used far fewer officers. (And I can say from firsthand experience, the Iran operational units then were bloated.) The CIA is, without a doubt, the most overstuffed national-security bureaucracy in Washington. Somebody in the White House and Congress really ought to take CIA director Porter Goss aside and do a bang-for-the-buck audit of what Langley is doing against Iran. According to one CIA case officer in the Near East Division, there's not even a presidential covert-action finding "that would allow us to sh--in the country." The agency will never again become okay at covert action unless it tries. CA work is like a muscle. With exercise, it gains definition, endurance, and strength.

Since overt American activity and meaningful political NGO work inside Iran are excruciatingly difficult--the regime is likely to imprison or kill those who take any U.S. aid, directly or indirectly--pro-democracy covert-action programs are really the only means to confront the clerics inside Iran. Just using Cold War parallels from the Soviet Union, or past activities in Iran, there is a long laundry list of things we could be doing. Is there any ethical or strategic reason Iranians who want clandestine U.S. support for pro-democratic activities deserve it less than did Poles in the 1980s? Why don't we let Iranians themselves judge whether they want to work clandestinely with the United States? It is for them, not us, to decide whether helping dissidents stay afloat and organize unions is worthwhile. If serious Iranians don't want to do these things, then such efforts will go nowhere. Covert action is a means of encouraging voluntary activity where the proof is always in the pudding.

Such clandestine action is unlikely to be a panacea for the current nuclear problem, but it would at least move the United States from the status quo, which certainly isn't advancing the democratic cause inside the Islamic Republic. What do we have to lose that we haven't lost already? Rebuilding CIA capacity won't be quick--odds are good the Iranians will get the bomb first. We should have restarted this undertaking in the Clinton administration when it became clear to the deaf, dumb, and blind that Khatami was not going to challenge the clerical order. The sooner we start this process, the more alternatives we will have to aid Iranians who are trying to build the institutions undergirding a civil, democratic society.

Remember: Ahmadinejad is heaven sent. Unfortunately, things in Iran are probably going to have to get a lot worse before they can get better. He and his supporters may ruin the economy and galvanize a much broader and braver base of internal opposition to the regime. He may add jet fuel to internal clerical dissent and open up lethal fissures in the ruling elite. No doubt, he will do all that he can to convulse and purify his society. Will we be ready to handle the challenge and the opportunity?

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at AEI.

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