Taking Aim at Iran

September 19th, 2007  

Topic: Taking Aim at Iran

Washington's think tanks and talking heads are abuzz about the prospects for war

Thomas Omestad

It remains unclear whether the louder buzz on Iran portends a decisive change in policy. But the up tempo has been widely noticed. "There seems," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, "a deliberate and concerted effort to bring the military option back to center stage."

To proponents of a harder line, the growing preoccupation with the Islamic Republic is a natural reaction to policies that are not working. As diplomacy plods along, Iran is continuing to assemble close to 3,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges as well as learning how to overcome the difficulties of producing fuel for nuclear reactors and, many suspect, nuclear bombs. Meanwhile, as the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, asserted on Capitol Hill last week, Iran is fighting a "proxy war" in Iraq by aiding Shiite extremists and providing weapons that are killing American troops.

To those opposed to military moves, the buzz sounds all too familiar. They hear an echo of the administration-inspired media churning preceding the March 2003 Iraq invasion, replete with many of the same personalities and groups active in that drama. This month, the man leading United Nations efforts to monitor Iran's nuclear programs, Mohamed ElBaradei, warned about the pounding of "war drums from those who are basically saying, 'The solution is to bomb Iran.'" ElBaradei added, "We do not see...a clear and present danger that requires that you go beyond diplomacy."
No change, for now. So far, there has been no breakthrough on either of the two distinct diplomatic tracks: U.N. Security Council sanctions aimed at suspending Iran's nuclear programs, and bilateral U.S.-Iranian talks used to press Iran to stop its support for militias and other destabilizing actions in Iraq. Still, the administration publicly hews to the Security Council approach, coupling financial and political pressures now with the prospect of negotiations and incentives if Tehran stops making nuclear fuel. "We don't believe we've exhausted the diplomatic options," Nicholas Burns, a leading player on the issue who is the under secretary of state for political affairs, tells U.S. News. "Diplomacy is the best way to resolve this problem."

But the Security Council's unwillingness to pass a third, more biting sanctions resolution on Iran after months of U.S. lobbying has been a disappointment, policymakers acknowledge. As diplomacy plays out inconclusively, says another official, "there is an intensifying debate" about next steps. Future moves are likely to include a tighter financial squeeze on Iran organized outside of the United Nations and, eventually, presidential consideration of airstrikes. Says the official, "If the Iranians choose to push this all the way, they will reduce our alternatives."
President Bush's rhetoric on Iran has been heard by critics as trying to prepare the American public for military action. His address late last month to the American Legion convention drew comparisons to Vice President Dick Cheney's pre-Iraq war verbal blast against Saddam Hussein before the Veterans of Foreign Wars five years ago. Bush warned of a future Iran threatening a "nuclear holocaust," adding, "We will confront this danger before it is too late." He went on to cite increasing attacks by Iranian-supplied munitions in Iraq and vowed that Tehran "cannot escape responsibility...[for its] murderous activities."

Many analysts sensed something new in the president's warnings. "The administration is signaling that things could change," says James Phillips, a Middle East specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Iran is on a collision course with the United States." Yet, insists one senior official, Bush was not foreshadowing a departure from diplomacy. The upshot: "We're on the same road."

Push for action. Finding a different road—a more assertive one—is the thrust of numerous conservative commentaries and conferences. The get-tough advocacy, however, ranges widely in its prescriptions: harsher sanctions done with like-minded allies, embargoes, blockades, covert action, and airstrikes. Some favor targeting terrorist training camps and munitions plants in Iran, others the nuclear sites—or both.
Some of the advocacy takes heart from administration moves to ratchet up pressure. But, paradoxically, much of it emanates from those worried that the administration and its successor may not act. "I do fear that there will be reasons given to wait and not do anything," says Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Danielle Pletka, a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, talks of "losing hope" for a coherent policy that addresses the threat. "There's a growing concern," she says, "that as the Iranians step up, we're stepping back."

Much of the recent pressure for action is being driven by the Iranian connection to insurgent violence in Iraq. "The Iranians are at war with the United States in Iraq," says Kimberly Kagan, who is president of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. And some say that a military response is overdue. "For too long, we have sent the message to Iran that they can kill Americans with impunity," says May. "I would favor eliminating those sanctuaries."

Last week, amid the commemorations of September 11 and Capitol Hill testimony on Iraq, others worked to turn the policy spotlight on Iran as well. The American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank infused with veterans of the Bush foreign policy team, held a book-launch forum for one of its own. Resident scholar Michael Ledeen, author of The Iranian Time Bomb: The Mullah Zealots' Quest for Destruction, summarized his thesis succinctly: "You can't make a deal with this regime.... They want us to die. They want to destroy us." Washington should support a popular revolution to unseat the mullahs and use limited strikes in "legitimate self-defense" against terrorist training camps and roadside-bomb factories in Iran, Ledeen said in an earlier interview. He opposes a general assault on nuclear infrastructure as too risky.

Elsewhere in Washington, the Iran Policy Committee, a group including former military officers and policymakers, rolled out its own book and set of speakers. The basic message: Countering Iran is the key to stabilizing Iraq and blunting Islamic extremism. "You've got to attack the enemy logistics bases" including in Iran, said one member of the group, retired Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely. " Yet we fight this war [constrained by] borders—not too smart."

The week also saw the publication of neoconservative thinker Norman Podhoretz's book World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, which pegs the Islamic Republic as perhaps its most dangerous fount. In a Commentary article this June, Podhoretz cited Nazi Germany as the policy precedent applicable to Iran. "The plain and brutal truth is that if Iran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of military force—any more than there was an alternative to force if Hitler was to be stopped in 1938," he wrote.

War games. The Heritage Foundation website features a page on Iran's "rising threat," and the influential think tank recently released a report on its war-game simulation of the impact on oil supply and prices if Iran choked off shipping at the Strait of Hormuz and prompted attacks on oil facilities in Iraq. The study concluded that the policy moves recommended by the team of former officials and analysts "eliminated virtually all of the negative outcomes from the blockade."

Like most analysts, Heritage's Phillips calls strikes on Iran a last resortthat, if necessary, should take place before Iran attains a nuclear capability. And if strikes are ordered because of Iran's Iraq activities, he adds, they ought to go after the nuclear sites as well. "In for a penny, out for a pound," he says.

Over at aei, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton urges a policy of promoting regime change, clandestinely. Still, he says, strikes on nuclear sites might have to come first, because regime change "may take longer than we have."

The conservative ferment over Iran policy is sowing worry among those opposed to another war. When McClatchy newspapers reported last month that Cheney had proposed airstrikes on extremist training camps in Iran, those jitters grew. Cheney's office had no comment on the report other than to say that he supports the president's policies.

Speculation that Bush may be doing more than trying to rattle Iran's government was fueled by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Shortly after meeting with Bush at Kennebunkport, Maine, last month, Sarkozy hinted at military action when he said that the current approach is the only way to avoid a "catastrophic" choice: "an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran."
Critics argue, though, that the administration has never been serious about diplomacy with Iran. Now, they see a predictable failure being used to set the stage for bolder action. "There's a singular determination to see Iran's hand everywhere," charges Vali Nasr, a Tufts University Mideast expert. "The administration has given direction to this chatter."
Whether or not that is correct, the chatter in the waning days of summer has given Iranians—and Americans—a lot to think about.

US News & World Report

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