A commenter on this blog recently asked (in effect), “if you’re so smart, what would you do about Iran?” How would it be different and better than what the Obama administration is trying to do? I’ll try to answer.
First, let’s look at what Iran is doing and how that affects the US.
Iran has several goals. One is to replace the US-Saudi alliance, which presently dominates the politics and economy of the region. Until recently, the effect of this alliance has been to keep the price of oil low, which has benefited the Saudis with their modern American-built oil infrastructure and hurt Iran with its relatively high cost of production. The US has also acted to keep the reactionary regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia in power, in opposition to radical Islamic opposition.
Although cheap oil has been a great benefit (at least in the short-term — it may not be so in the long term) to the US, Saudi policies in other areas, such as the support for radical Islamists throughout the world (anywhere but Saudi Arabia) has been bad for the US, and 9/11 is an example of how this has played out.
The Reagan and two Bush administrations, very close to oil companies and Saudi Arabia, worked to strengthen this alliance by opposing traditional enemies of the Saudis such as Iran and (more recently) Saddam’s Iraq. Indeed, the US armed and supported Iraq in its 12-year war with Iran, thus weakening two Saudi competitors at once. When Saddam overreached, invading Kuwait and threatening Saudi Arabia, the US slapped him down.
But the second Bush administration made a serious mistake by trying to take direct control of Iraq. Once the repressive lid of Saddam’s regime was lifted, Iran was able to take advantage of the pent-up desire of the Iraqi Shiites to strike back at the minority Sunnis that had treated them cruelly under Saddam. And Sunni Islamists — both unrepentant Baathists and radicals of the al-Qaeda variety — began to fight the Shiites and US troops.
This made Iranian leaders happier than pigs in mud. The price of oil went sky-high, making it possible for Iran to profit greatly and thereby fund its unclear program. And with the US tied down in Iraq, Iran was free to pursue its parallel goal of exporting its revolutionary brand of Shiite Islam, in particular by means of Hezbollah in Lebanon. And it has been spectacularly effective, with Hezbollah now probably the most powerful single political force in Lebanon.
Iran has also made Syria a strong ally, by supplying it with huge quantities of weapons. And Syria has been happy to help destabilize the situation in Iraq by allowing foreign fighters and weapons to cross its border. Syria has also become the corridor for Iranian arms going to Hezbollah in Lebanon in defiance of UN Resolution 1701.
Which brings us to Israel. Iran sees Israel as an American base, an obstacle to its further advance. For that reason Iran has built up huge missile forces in Syria and in the hands of Hezbollah, tens of thousands of rockets, some with chemical or biological warheads. And for that reason Iran has armed and funded Hamas, even though Hamas is a Sunni organization, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Iran has made this alliance of convenience for one reason, which is to try to crush Israel between Hamas and Hezbollah. Indeed, Ahmadinejad has often said that it is the Palestinians, not Iran, who will destroy Israel.
The Obama administration appears to have seen that the Saudi-centered policy was not optimal, and seems to be trying to balance it by approaching Iran. The administration seems to be planning to replace the single center with a dual focus, a focus on both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Unfortunately, it’s too late. The balance of power in the region has already tipped in favor of Iran, thanks to our misadventure in Iraq. The Iranian nuclear program cannot be stopped by diplomatic means. Hezbollah cannot be easily dislodged. The US will be lucky to get out of Iraq without further disasters, and most likely the future of Iraq will be as an Iranian satellite. Iran will be in the driver’s seat in its relationship with the US, and the concessions will flow all one way. Why should they give us anything?
But support for Iran means support for an nuclear-armed Iranian Middle East. I suggest that if you thought the cold war with the Soviet Union was scary, the anti-Western ideology of radical Islam — and the Shiite version of the Iranian Mullahs is radical — is much scarier. The weak Saudi and Egyptian regimes are not likely to prevail in such a place, and certainly not against a nuclear Iran.
US policy today must be aimed at freezing the Iranian advance.
The ‘realists’ in our foreign-policy establishment argue basically “there are way more Muslims than Jews in the Mideast and they have the oil. So make nice to them.” And this means ‘reduce support for Israel’. If there is one thing both the Saudis and Iranians can agree on, it’s that Israel should be eliminated.
But I suggest that they have it backwards: maybe the only way for the US to keep any leverage at all in the region is to throw its weight behind the only truly pro-Western power in it: Israel.
This means that the US must fully support the actions needed to crush Hamas and Hezbollah (at least as military powers). Instead of encouraging Fatah and Hamas to think that their ‘resistance’ will ultimately succeed in throwing the Jews out of ‘their’ land, the US should explain that only by abjuring terrorism will they ever have a chance to realize their national aspirations — that there will not be a Palestinian state unless it is not hostile to Israel. One step in this direction would be to affirm Lieberman’s interpretation of the Roadmap and Annapolis.
This also means that the US should do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from achieving deliverable nuclear weapons. That won’t be easy, but one step that it could take would be to remove the embargo on the sale of equipment to Israel — such as tanker aircraft — which could be used to strike Iranian facilities.
A credible Israeli deterrent might not have to be actually used in order to prevent Iran from completing its weapons project. On the other hand, by publicly taking steps to prevent Israel from attacking Iran, the US is encouraging Iran to continue its weapons development.
In short, I am suggesting that the US replace its Saudi-centered policy not with a dual-centered one or even an Iranian-centered one, but rather an Israel-centered one. If the Arabs (Palestinians and others) and Iranians can come to understand that the real American bottom line is a strong Israel, then perhaps they will recalibrate their goals to finally, 61 years after 1948, understand that Israel is not temporary. The ambiguity of present American policy does the opposite, encouraging the most radical elements.
Exactly the same argument applies to nuclear weapons. Just as the Palestinians are allowed to maintain the hope that they will someday get Haifa, Acco, etc. back, weak US policy allows the Iranians to believe that they will get nuclear weapons. But this, too, must be part of a firm American bottom line: Iran will not be allowed to posses them.
This will not be easy, and we are already some distance down the wrong road. But here’s a thought experiment: suppose Israel had been successful in the Second Lebanese War of 2006, suppose she had been allowed to destroy Hamas as a military force in Operation Cast Lead, and suppose that everyone knew that Israel had the ability to bomb Iranian nuclear plants without US interference.
Would Obama have an easier or harder time negotiating with Iran today?