The rise to power of Islamic hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran has spelled precarious danger for the West. An Islamic fundamentalist who is determined to continue Iran's nuclear ambitions, Ahmadinejad has brought the inevitable confrontation between Iran and the U.S. to a head. To discuss the coming showdown, Frontpage has assembled a distinguished panel. Our guests today are:
Dr. Patrick Clawson, the Deputy Director at the The Washington Institute for Near East Policy;
Kenneth Timmerman, a best-selling investigative reporter and the author of the new book Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran. Visit his website at KenTimmerman.com;
Dr. Daniel Pipes, (www.DanielPipes.org) columnist, director of the Middle East Forum and author of Miniatures (Transaction Publishers);
Dr. Walid Phares, a Professor of Middle East Studies and Senior Fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
FP: Patrick Clawson, Kenneth Timmerman, Walid Phares and Daniel Pipes, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.
Mr. Timmerman, let's begin with you. The Iranian regime has nuclear weapons capability and is now being led by arguably the worst person we could have imagined. Tell us the situation that now faces us, the showdown that is coming and what we are going to have to do about it.
Timmerman: Actually, I think the selection of Ahmadinejad by the ruling clerics has hidden benefits for the United States. This is a man who prides himself on being the "street sweeper" of the Supreme Leader. He began his career as an executioner inside Evin Prison, where tens of thousands of political prisoners have been murdered. Then he went to work for the Revolutionary Guards "Jerusalem Force" (Sepah-e Qods), whose main job has been to murder Iranian dissidents overseas and to provide support to international terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.
This is not a man who deals in nuance. He will be incapable of dealing with what I believe will be mounting popular discontent following a fake election that was widely boycotted by the Iranian people.
The intentions of the ruling clerics are very clear: to push forward with their nuclear program, and to whip the people behind them by focusing their attention on real and imagined foreign threats. The challenge to us, here in the United States, is to find ways of aiding the Iranian people in their struggle against the clerics, without giving the appearance that we are interfering in Iran's domestic affairs.
FP: So Mr. Clawson, is there a hidden benefit for the U.S. in terms of Ahmadinejad's rise to power? Will he be incapable of dealing with the mounting popular discontent? What does "incapability" mean in this context? And what can we do to help the Iranian people against their tyrants?
Clawson: Ahmadinezhad's simple-minded populism will not solve Iran's problems. He blames price-gouging merchants for inflation, and he is hostile to the foreign investment needed to create jobs. His policies are old-fashioned "Third Worldism," that is, socialism-light. While many lower-class Iranians are attracted by these policies, they are terrible for the economic growth those people want so badly. So Ahmadinezhad is likely to have a honeymoon – after all, he is sincere and honest, unlike the old revolutionaries who ooze sleaze – but then to leave people disappointed, especially since many in his camp (though not he) are personally corrupt. That same trajectory of steadily declining popularity is what happened to his two predecessors, Khatami and Rafsanjani.
Meanwhile, Ahmadinezhad is unlikely to have much of a say on the foreign and defense issues which the United States cares about. Until now, those matters have been in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and that is likely to remain the case.
The one silver lining in this dark election cloud is the greater clarity about the true nature of the Islamic Republic – which is neither true to Islam nor a republic. A Washington Post editorial pointed out, "The elimination of political liberals should make it easier for Western governments to explicitly side with Iran's demoralized but still substantial pro-democracy forces." The challenge for the Bush administration is to propose ways to carry out this sensible suggestion.
FP: Dr. Pipes, what are some legitimate and shrewd ways for the U.S. to side with and help pro-democracy forces in Iran? Do we even have time for this in the context of the nuclear weapons threat?
Pipes: I agree that there are benefits to having an enemy that openly bares its teeth. For Westerners, it clarifies the hostility of the regime much more than if it subtly spun webs of deceit. Within Iran, that the leadership is intent on turning back the clock to the 1980s, rather than its evolving with society, also has advantages because it further alienates the body politic. The apparent fraud of Ahmadinejad's election then doubles these benefits.
How best can the U.S. government help? President Bush's anti-regime and pro-populace stand is both principled and far-sighted. It eventually will reap rewards. Note that this policy contrasts not only with the Europeans' but with that of the Clinton administration, which ignominiously pleaded for improved state-to-state relations.
As for the nuclear weapons threat: I don't know the timetable, but Tehran appears to be approaching the critical moment when it undertakes tests. Washington should be very consistent and credible about its unwillingness to accept such weapons in the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I am reasonably optimistic that doing so will deter the regime from moving forward.
FP: And what if the Bush administration fails to convince the Mullahs from moving forward? Dr. Phares, is there a chance the U.S. might have to strike Iran soon?
Phares: Before striking Iran's military power, there are multiple matters to address first, so that future strategic actions by the US won't be confronted by anti-Americanism and a wide alliance of Jihadists in the region. We need to learn from the Afghanistan and Iraq ongoing experiences since 2001, but also from the Lebanese and Sudanese developments.
Regime change can be endorsed by world opinion as in Afghanistan but can be opposed fiercely, including by our close allies, as in Saddam's case. On the other hand, popular resources can be mobilized greatly, as in Beirut 2005, but as in Sudan, uprisings can be significantly bloody. Therefore we need to address the following:
1) What is the Iranian plan? What does Ahmadinejad want to achieve in the immediate future? What are his plans not only regarding Iran's military build-up, but also Hizbollah capabilities and Syria's delivery systems?
2) What are the resources, plans and strengths of the Iranian opposition? How far will they go and are they united?
3) What would be the reactions, not only of Tehran's potential allies in the region, but also of US allies? We need to have an accurate analysis of who would do what when, if we decide to move to provoke change.
Are the US and Khumainist Iran on a collision course? I have little doubt in my mind that they are. Are Ahmadinejad and the new generation of his own country on a collision course too? All evidence indicates so. Will the radicals in the region align themselves with Ahmadinejad against the US? Most likely they will. The road map to what is ahead is on the table. Now we need to factor the answers into a new US strategy. Striking or not, now or later, will depend on the strategy.
FP: Fair enough, but when does all this talk and figuring things out end? We have a regime that a large amount of evidence suggests is giving sanctuary to bin Laden. We have a regime that, any second now, might have a capability to launch a WMD attack or to give WMDs to a bin Laden or to an al Zarqawi. How legitimate is a U.S. military strike sooner than later? And if we strike, what are the benefits and what are the costs? Mr. Timmerman?
Timmerman: As in Iraq, a military strike against Iran is what happens when all other options have been exhausted. With Iraq, we had 12 years of defiance of a relatively strict regime of sanctions set up by 17 UN Security Council resolutions. So far, Iran's equally egregious defiance of the IAEA inspection process has not been referred to the UNSC. In my book, that is the very first step the U.S. must take. And it is a step which John Bolton and others in the administration have been arguing we must take for some time.
Next, we must find ways of empowering the pro-democracy forces inside Iran. Seventy percent of Iran's population is under the age of thirty. There is tremendous dissatisfaction among young Iranians with the clerics and the Rev. Guards generation, represented by Ahmadinejad, that has come to power. The U.S. should identify and support groups inside Iran who are dedicated to driving a wedge between the regime and the people of Iran. We should support those groups financially, through private, non-governmental foundations such as the National Endowment for Democracy and others.
Obviously, the Pentagon should be doing its job and make contingency plans should the regime in Tehran decide to step up the timetable. If the U.S. has hard evidence that Iran is sending money to insurgents into Iraq, for instance, we should find appropriate targets – such as Revolutionary Guards headquarters or operational centers – and take them out. But we should never lose sight of the real problem, which is the regime, and the ultimate goal, which is to replace this regime with a secular government more representative of the Iranian people.
FP: Mr. Clawson?
Clawson: Whether one is pessimistic or optimistic about the prospects for regime change, whether one is pessimistic or optimistic about the chances for a diplomatic deal about the nuclear program, whether one thinks in the end military action will be needed or one thinks military action would be too costly for the limited benefits it brings -- no matter how one comes down on those matters, the same set of policies makes sense:
* Emphasize that our quarrel is with the regime and that we support the Iranian people. Increasing broadcasting -- radio and TV, VoA and Radio Farda, etc. -- is cheap and effective. Statements supporting Iranian dissidents (such as last Wednesday's statement in support of Akhbar Ganji, a brave jailed journalist) are a good way to show that the U.S. is paying attention, plus they are the morally right thing to do. If we are more active in support of Iranian democrats, then we are more credible when we say that the nuclear program is designed to prolong the mullah's regime, not to protect Iran -- and the more we can neutralize nationalist support for the nuclear program, the less we will have to worry that strong action we take against the program may generate a nationalist backlash.
* Strongly support the European-led effort to end Iranian enrichment and reprocessing. If we are supportive, the Europeans are more likely to stick to a tough stance in order to keep us on board. The more the U.S. and Europeans present a common front, the more likely Iran is to cave, in order to avoid being isolated. And the more we support the European effort, the more likely that when/if it fails, the Europeans blame Iran - which makes it easier for us to take punitive action.
* Implement policies to deter and contain Iran, such as increased military presence around Iran, joint military exercises with other concerned countries to protect vital assets Iran might hit (such as shipping in the Straits of Hormuz), and declaratory statements about being prepared to use force to stop Iran. These actions might persuade Iran that its nuclear program comes at too high a price and so must be frozen. If Iran instead decides to be defiant, then these deterrent and containment policies put us in a better position to use force.
FP: And let us suppose force will be used. Dr. Pipes, could you paint a possible scenario?
A fast military victory like in Iraq – and then a terrorist war which sees foreign jihadists flocking to Iran? What is different about Iran than Iraq and what different circumstances will provide a different foundation for different outcomes? I think that the Iranian people will truly be very welcoming of American troops, no?
Pipes: Should the U.S. government use force, it must not call the campaign "Operation Iranian Freedom" or anything that reiterates the Iraqi war effort. The goal in using force in Iran is to abort the nuclear program there, not to change the regime nor bring democracy. There are several reasons for Washington to keep its ambitions thus limited:
- U.S. forces should, in principle, go into battle primarily to forward American interests, not to help other peoples.
- Iran is a politically evolving in the right direction and is best off making its own sovereign decisions, with minimal American interference.
- With troops already fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with enlistments down, the last thing the Pentagon needs is another ground theater.
I recommend the use mainly of air power – that there be the fewest number of U.S. boots on the ground, to be welcomed or not.
FP: Dr. Phares?
Phares: First let me express my view on US military interventions. True that priority should go to direct defense of the homeland, of US interests abroad and when allies are attacked. But beyond that, I do endorse the use of US resources, including military, even when the three parameters aren't directly involved.
From the Iraq intervention, I can mainly see the rescue of the Iraqi people from oppression and genocide rather than an intervention to eradicate an "imminent and direct threat," which could have developed, but at the time of the intervention, it wasn't at the level warranting an all-out invasion. In the Iraq case, I would have supported a campaign to remove Saddam, even if no WMDs were identified.
Military intervention to rescue a mass of endangered people, is warranted in my eyes. We've done so in Yugoslavia twice in the 1990s: in Bosnia and Kosovo. There were no WMDs, no connections to al Qaida, and besides, Milosevic wasn't planning a confrontation with US troops, ships or interests in the Mediterranean. Yet we bombed, deployed and enabled the Muslims to survive and the Serbs to execute a regime change. We did so in Haiti as well, out of Human Rights concerns. Actually, we didn't do enough in the 1990s, when southern Sudan was ethnically-cleansed and when Lebanon was brutally occupied by the Baathists. So, in my view, the use of US military power to help endangered populations not only is permissible, but is a duty.
With regards Iran, the situation is bi-dimensional. US intervention has two parameters to consider. The most imminent issue is indeed monitoring the Iranian non-conventional build up. The question is when and at what stage do we act unilaterally? However, it is not that simple, for the US is not a single player here and I don't mean the Europeans, but the Iranians themselves. With Ahmadinijad in power, the Mullahs are moving to the counter offensive in the region. There is a regional context to any American confrontation with Tehran. I cannot imagine any sort of military move against the regime -if indeed the nuclear red lines are crossed- with Syria's regime in the back, and more importantly with Hizbollah's global reach. Our analysts, experts and planners must take Iranian-controlled Terrorism (Hizbollah) and to a certain extent the radical intelligence services in Damascus when they contemplate maps for strikes or other surgical operations on Iranian mainland.
For if US airpower bombs any target inside Iran, Hizbollah will bomb US cities with all their hidden power. So, in short, the long arm of the Iranian regime -the terrorist networks- must be dealt with either before, or during a potential campaign. But, if one observes the state of affairs of Hizbollah today in Lebanon, you'd conclude that its policies are all guided towards aborting all US policies. They know the confrontation is coming, and are preparing for it, ahead of time.
The other dimension of US intervention in Iran, is as it was discussed by our colleagues on the panel, on behalf of Iran's civil society. But it is only when the level of oppression is wide, bloody and visible worldwide, that Washington can mobilize worldwide efforts in that direction. Hence, the reasonable policy is to offer full fledge support to the democracy movement in Iran. Not a symbolic posture with symbolic logistics, but an all-out campaign to enable the opposition forces to face off with the regime. The President, the Europeans and other nations world-wide must act swiftly and dramatically in their support of the "struggle of the Iranian people." Short of strategic moves, they will be offering the Iranian masses to their bullies, and we will have to wait for another generation. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, Ahmadinijad's installation in power is the equivalent of "sealing off the fortress" before drama erupts. In conclusion, I believe historic opportunities are ripe for US revolutionary action in the region, but the window is not that wide, before it shuts down again.
FP: Mr. Timmerman, a rejoinder to what has been said? And in this last round, let us assume that President Bush names you his right-hand man on Iran policy tomorrow. What are the first few things you suggest to him to do immediately?
Timmerman: Both Patrick Clawson and Walid Phares present well-argued policies that complement what I said above about taking Iran's case to the UN Security Council and extending massive aid to the pro-democracy movement inside Iran.
It is absolutely clear that the United States has a strategic interest in promoting democracy in Iran. Such actions, which I believe do not require military force – at least, for now – serve our national interest, since a secular, representative government in Iran would have little interest in playing nuclear roulette, as the clerics are doing today.
The reasons are simple. Iran's nuclear program is expensive, and the Iranian people have many other needs and problems that need solving first. The nuclear program exposes Iran to attack. It reinforces Iran's reputation as an international pariah. It restricts Iran's ability to freely import advanced technologies for profitable industries such as software and telecommunications. International sanctions on Iran, caused in part by its nuclear weapons development, are also hindering efforts by Iran to modernize its ageing oil infrastructure. Furthermore, only Iran's religious fanatics have any interest whatsoever it targeting Israel – rhetorically, or materially. Israel is far from Iran, and poses no threat to a free, democratic Iran and most Iranians know this.
I have long called this program "non-proliferation through democratization," or "non-proliferation through regime change." I think it's the only viable policy option we currently have.
FP: Mr. Clawson?
Clawson: If at the end of the day, the choice comes down to accepting that Iran has nuclear weapons or using force to disrupt Iran's nuclear program, there would be strong arguments to made for the use of force. In particular, there is a grave risk that an Iranian nuclear program could ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and could lead other mid-size powers around the world (such as Taiwan or Brazil) to reconsider their nuclear options. To be sure, the use of force could not permanently prevent Iran from proceeding with its nuclear program, but the use of force could delay Iran's nuclear program by some years.
If it comes to use of force, an invasion of Iran would be inadvisable -- while the Iranian military would quickly collapse and U.S. forces would sweep into Tehran, there would remain a dedicated minority determined to resist, and they could create an insurgency larger in scale and deadlier in kind than what we see in Iraq. Much better would be to start with covert operations, which are less of an open confrontation than are air strikes - and therefore run less risk of provoking a nationalist backlash or leading to Iranian retaliation. Nuclear facilities involve very complex equipment: accidents are known to happen (remember Three Mile Island or Chernobyl). If there were to be a series of crippling accidents at Iranian nuclear facilities, that would set back the Iranian program.
FP: Mr. Clawson, tell us a bit about what these covert operations would entail.
Clawson: The aim of the covert operations would be to knock out of commission key elements in Iran's nuclear program. There are many points at which the program could be attacked. For instance, the centrifuges in which uranium is enriched are washing-machine size devices with a tub spinning at tens of thousands of revolutions per minute. If the device is not working just right, it can fail catastrophically, destroying not only itself but the other centrifuges near it (ideally, 164 centrifuges are physically connected one to another with pipes). There are many ways that the centrifuges could go wrong, from high tech approaches such as a computer virus in the controlling software to low tech approaches like small explosive charges. The best kinds of covert operations are those which would leave the Iranians unsure if the problem was in fact an industrial accident or whether there had been sabotage.
FP: Fair enough. Ok, Dr. Pipes, feel free to make a rejoinder to the comments that have been made by the others. Overall, then, are covert operations to be pursued before air strikes if it comes down to it?
Pipes: If the U.S. government disposes of covert forces capable of taking out the Iranian nuclear infrastructure and thereby postponing the day of reckoning, that is a highly desirable alternative to deploying air power. I do not know if such forces exist or not; if not, then we are back to the air-power-scenario, with its many drawbacks.
Still, given the stakes at hand and the enormous danger – not only of the leadership in Tehran getting its hands on this weapons of mass destruction but (as Patrick noted) its opening the door to a new global arms race – Washington must make known, repeatedly, convincingly, and unambiguously, its unwillingness to accept Iranian nuclear weapons.
Time is growing short; however achieved, the Islamic Republic of Iran must be prevented from taking this fateful step.
FP: Dr. Phares, last word goes to you.
Phares: First and foremost, the United States and its allies in the War on Terror must devise a joint plan to remove the rise of a nuclear threat under Khumainist hands. Separately, but not necessarily independently, a US-led strategy to deny Tehran's regime the completion and the deployment of nuclear weapons must be put forward, in parallel with another strategy to assist the Iranian people in its resistance against the Jihadi mullahs.
The military anti-nuclear strategy has to be operational regardless of the width and depth of the international alliance. The clock of this first strategy must tick on US national security time, with whichever democracies willing to join. Air strikes and special ops could be the core of this equation to take out Khamanei's forthcoming bombs and missiles. The schedule must be based on intelligence and military assessment. I don't believe the Iranian regime will surrender an ideological will to build its nuclear military power. Hence, even if diplomatic tracks are developing, the core policy should be a preemptive, sweeping dismantlement of the ongoing build up. Timing should be determined by a combined intelligence-military assessment, and decided by the higher echelons of US and allies leadership.
However the other track, i.e. the assistance of the democratic movement in Iran has to be constant, open and sustained. Washington should adopt a clear and official policy of pro-Democracy drive towards Tehran. Congress is contemplating an Iran legislation, which should the basis for US diplomacy. Obviously, it will be more difficult to build a wide coalition to isolate the regime. Iran's position in the Muslim world is not Saddam's. But the Iranian opposition is real, organized and determined to move forward. Iran has a rising democracy to its East, Afghanistan, a struggling democracy to its West, Iraq. It also has a diaspora willing to lead the popular movement. Hence, the US must devise a strategy to free the Iranian people but as a partner with its democracy movement. The youth, women, and liberal forces inside the country must receive open and direct political support from the US and the appropriate coalition worldwide.
Two ingredients to be careful about: 1) Coordinate the two strategies intelligently and 2) keep an intelligent eye on Hizbollah's moves, Iran's advanced terrorist system aimed at the free world.
FP: Patrick Clawson, Kenneth Timmerman and Daniel Pipes, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.
Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's managing editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Soviet Studies. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz's new book Left Illusions. He is also the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of the new book The Hate America Left and the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev's Soviet Union (McGill-Queens University Press, 2002) and 15 Tips on How to be a Good Leftist. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.