January 25, 2006
Military Strikes and a Democratic Future for IranBy James Lewis
The Khomeinist regime in Iran is finally baring its teeth to the world, in the public appearances of the little fanatic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran's nuclear build—up has been going on for two decades, and the regime is now openly laughing at diplomatic efforts by the Europeans to make it stand down its nuclear development. In addition to a dozen smuggled Ukrainian cruise missiles, the regime is now in possession of some 25 North Korean missiles with a 2,500 km range. Paris is well within range of Tehran's WMDs, as Jacques Chirac acknowledged last week when he told Iran that terror attacks in France could lead to a nuclear response.
The paradox is that the regime is most vigorously hated by its own people, who have suffered the most. The most attractive outcome, therefore, would be a Iranian Glastnost — a quiet overthrow of the mullocracy by its own figurative children, the people of Iran, especially the educated urban dwellers. The USSR crumbled when the children of the elite stopped believing. The children of the mullahs, most of them, have long ago stopped believing. Yet they are now being governed by a creature of the Basij and the Revolutionary Guard, who proclaims himself as a true believer in a Shiite Armageddon.
Ahmadinejad is not Gorbachev, but rather Stalin or Hitler. A peaceful revolt will not work by itself, but it can be a crucial ingredient.
Iranian Glastnost will therefore not happen without external military actions to render the regime visibly impotent before its people. When the US and UK invaded Saddam's Iraq, his army crumbled in the face of a brilliant ground and air assault. The Kurds had in fact already rebelled after the Gulf War a decade before, and created their own autonomous region. A decade of US air attacks, combined with famously leaky sanctions, rendered Saddam's military demoralized and unable to resist coherently.
Unbeknownst to us, Saddam was bluffing, putting up a creaky but intimidating front, terrorizing his own people, and hyping his goal of getting WMDs and missiles enough to fool the CIA and every other western intelligence agency.
Saddam's real plan was to fall back on the insurgency we see today. But today the insurgency is on its last legs, led by Sunni Baathists who can hope for no mercy from the new Iraq, and by al Qaeda terrorists rejected by even the Baathist terror—brothers, and prepared for martyrdom. Zarqawi, it was just reported, sleeps with a bomb belt, so as to blow himself up if he is caught. He may get his chance very soon.
The conventional story peddled by the antique media is that US action in Iraq is a failure. On the contrary, by historical standards it is an extraordinary success, as successful as the liberation of Europe in World War Two. The Iraq action therefore provides many useful lessons for a policy to isolate, contain, and undermine the Tehran regime.
Lesson One: It is essential to encourage revolution and division in Iran, with military strikes against the regime's most dangerous assets.
One way to do that is to bomb only nuclear and missile facilities, most obviously the enrichment facilities now being built up in Natanz and Isfahan. If the civilian population is untouched, the Iranian people, who have many sources of news through the internet and satellite television (including Farsi—language broadcasts from a Los Angeles—based station run by Iranian refugees), will learn to understand who is their real enemy. The domestic opponents of the regime will rejoice.
No doubt the Ahmadinejad regime will continue to disperse its WMD capabilities, but as it does so, it also must lose some control. When Saddam told one of his nuclear scientists to bury centrifuge parts in his garden, that equipment was rendered useless for the time being. Saddam's WMD capacity could have been reconstituted any time the pressure came off his regime, so that the threat was only slowed, not stopped. But an aggressive US policy against Saddam actually worked much better than was generally thought at the time.
The foremost aim of military strikes against nuclear and missile facilities would be to buy time. That is what US air strikes did against Saddam, over a decade after the Gulf War. They wore down his power, often in subtle ways, but very effectively. And they gave hope to his sworn enemies — the Shiites, Marsh Arabs, Kurds, expatriate Iraqis and reform—minded elements among the Sunnis.
Lesson Two: The Tehran regime should be put on notice that proxy terror attacks will evoke a direct response aimed at its centers of power and ideology.
Jacques Chirac did so effectively last week, by warning that state—sponsored terror attacks could evoke a nuclear response — from France. That was the right thing to say. The political aim of nuclear weapons is not necessarily to "wipe out Israel," which Ahmadinejad must know would unleash the end of his regime by massive counterstrikes. Rather, the immediate aim is to shield Tehran from retaliation when it stirs up terrorist proxies to attack Israel.
The most successful Israeli strategy has always been to find the right "return address," and make the sponsors of violence pay a stiff personal price. A major aim of Tehran's nuclear policy is to make the regime invulnerable to any large—scale attack, allowing it to stir up terrorist proxy assaults at will. A major strategic aim of US policy should therefore be to prevent nuclear capability in Tehran's hands, so that it must play the proxy strategy with constant concern for its own survival.
Ahmadinejad's ideological roots are among the most radical mullahs in Qom, who cannot therefore be left off a target list. Iran is dangerous not just because it will soon have nukes, but because it has the ideological will to use them. That ideology, which may be a minority view among the mullahs themselves, could be attacked directly, if necessary without leaving American fingerprints. The recent plane crash that killed the top commander of the Iranian military may be a case in point.
Liberal commentators say that any military action against Iran would unify the people in support of the regime. But one lesson of war is that the event is less important than the public interpretation of the event. If local military strikes on the Natanz enrichment facilities are interpreted to mean that Ahmadinejad is helpless, he will begin to lose control. If they are interpreted as a blow against Iran's national pride, he may gain adherents.
It is therefore essential to spread the message that the goal of any strikes is to empower the people of Iran, even as the Iraqis have been empowered by the overthrow of Saddam.
Since a foolish and politicized US Democratic Party and its sympathizers in the media and government will leak any propaganda effort at CIA or State, the agency best qualified to do this would be the Pentagon Special Ops Command.
During the Iraq invasion the German government under Herr Schroeder helped the US with intelligence, while screaming at us in public. Under Socialist President Mitterand, French intelligence helped the US against the USSR. The French gave Israel vital information needed to bomb Saddam's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, though they had helped build it themselves.
As fear of the Tehran regime spreads, more hidden allies will appear. The threat is serious enough for us to consider the enemy of our enemy our friend, just as we did in supporting Stalin against Hitler.
Iranian expatriates are by far our best resource in persuading the people of the true aims of US and allied policy: Iranian democracy. But even countries like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will find it in their interest to promote revolt among Sunni tribes in Iran. None of these "allies" will trust others with their most vital secrets. But they might agree on weakening this fanatical and deadly regime, whether by splitting the mullahs themselves, or by encouraging tribal rebellions.
As Reuel Marc Gerecht wrote in the Weekly Standard,
Perhaps Sistani owes us a favor or two for bringing his Shiite followers to power in Iraq. Perhaps he would like to control the Iranian clerics, rather than vice versa. This game can be played both ways.
There is a widespread belief that the upper grades of the CIA are useless, devoting more of their efforts to undermining the war on terror than on supporting it. The same may be true in the State Department and even the Pentagon. The administration has apparently responded by isolating useless segments of the bureaucracy, carrying out its real policies by means of smaller groups within those agencies, like the new Special Ops Command. An aggressive policy against the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons will have to rely on trustworthy US government assets.
The key therefore is to isolate the regime, showing it to by helpless against pinpoint military assaults on its most dangerous assets, while at the same time signalling the Iranian people that the West stands for their freedom.
A democratic Iran is a much safer Iran. But as Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." It is a sad necessity, never to be chosen lightly. But we can get Jefferson's message out to the Iranian people, because they already know it from their own experience.
James Lewis is a frequent contributor.