Iran Is Worse Than Iraq — But U.S. Lacks Plan

Posted June 13, 2003 at 12:21pm

Iran is a more menacing adversary than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq ever was, yet the Bush administration seems to have no clear strategy for dealing with it. Nor is the Iran problem much discussed among Democratic presidential aspirants. [IMGCAP(1)]

Run by repressive and virulently anti-American Islamic clerics, the Iranian regime sponsors terrorists who have killed hundreds of Americans. And it has a robust nuclear program that’s estimated to give it a bomb arsenal by 2006.

President Bush named Iran part of the “axis of evil” in 2002, but administration policy for dealing with the threat seems to be caught up in familiar combat between Pentagon hawks and State Department diplomatists.

State has wanted to “engage” the Iranian regime in hopes of inducing its moderate elements to slow down or end its nuclear program and halt aid to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.

Bush has rejected an “engagement” strategy, allowing only intermittent quiet contacts that are currently broken off because of suspicions that Iran assisted the al Qaeda terrorists responsible for lethal bombings in Saudi Arabia last month.

Exactly what the Pentagon wants to do about Iran is unclear, but some outside hawks recommend covert action to destabilize the regime, which is hated by its citizenry, and others say that the United States should get ready to bomb Iran’s nuclear plants.

There’s no evidence that the administration has opted for those aggressive choices, either.

According to Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “U.S. policy thus far has been to delay developments in the [nuclear] program in the hope that the hardliners will lose control before Iran gets the bomb.”

Another expert told me that “hope is not a strategy,” and Clawson said, “It looks to me like they’ll get nukes before there’s a regime change.”

Iran actually has multiple nuclear programs, overt and covert, apparently stimulated — among other things — by the example of Iraq’s defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which might not have occurred if Israel had not destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant in 1981.

In February, during the run-up to the latest Iraq war, Iran’s supposedly moderate president, Muhammad Khatami, announced that Iran was developing facilities to produce and process its own nuclear fuel.

It was a way of saying that, even if the United States destroyed or delayed the Bushear nuclear plant being built by Russia, expected to be completed late this year, Iran had other means of becoming a nuclear power.

The spectacle of Hussein’s quick and crushing defeat by the United States this year, coupled with Bush’s listing Iran as an “axis” target, can only have inspired Iran to hasten development of its nuclear deterrent.

Russia is insisting that, when the Bushear plant goes on line, it will remove the spent fuel and not allow it to be fabricated into bomb material. If fuel is diverted, though, nonproliferation expert Henry Sokolski estimates that Iran could have an arsenal of 50 to 75 bombs by 2006.

In addition, however, Iran is also mining its own uranium and is building both a heavy water nuclear reactor of its own and a sophisticated uranium enrichment plant that Sokolski estimates could help produce two to six bombs a year by 2006.

International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have reported that Iran is in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but it remains to be seen whether the IAEA board will recommend action by the United Nations Security Council, as the Bush administration hopes.

In the meantime, according to Iran expert Geoffrey Kemp, “Iran provides by far the largest financial and military support to Hezbollah, estimated at more than $100 million annually.”

Based in Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon, Hezbollah was responsible for bombing the U.S. embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983 and for forcing Israel to give up its occupation of southern Lebanon.

Iran is blamed for the 1996 bombing of the U.S. Air Force’s Khobar Towers residence in Saudi Arabia and, according to former Senate Intelligence Chairman Bob Graham (D-Fla.), Hezbollah maintains sleeper cells in the United States.

Graham hasn’t said what he’d do about Iran, but he has called for issuing an ultimatum to Syria: Shut down Hezbollah camps in Lebanon or the United States will do it militarily.

Iran’s Achilles’ heel seems to be domestic unrest. After a quarter-century of life under rigid, repressive Islamic rule, Iran’s citizenry has voted overwhelmingly for reform but has gotten precious little of it.

Right-wing mullahs control Iran’s foreign policy, military and security apparatus. They close down newspapers, jail dissidents and send police and pro-regime militias to shut down demonstrations such as those currently roiling college campuses.

Kemp, a former Reagan administration official now at the Nixon Center, argues in a forthcoming article in The National Interest magazine for trying to negotiate a “grand deal” with moderates in the Iranian government to stop its nuclear weapons program in return for a lifting of economic sanctions.

Clawson said, “I’m all for a deal if you can get one, but I’d also keep the pressure on for human rights and democratic reform, as we did with the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.”

That analogy has also been cited by Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who has spoken — in no great detail and alone among Democratic presidential prospects — of fostering “regime change” in Iran.

Iran policy is a rich subject for Democratic debate, especially since the Bush administration seems to lack a plan of action.