More Policy Ideas on Iran and Syria
Mar 15, 2007 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
March 15, 2007
Number 03/07 #06
Today’s Update features three pieces looking at different aspects of current Western policy toward Syria and Iran, in the wake of the regional meeting on Iraq that occurred on the weekend.
First up, CIA analyst turned thinktanker Reuel Marc Gerecht has a long and comprehensive piece on Iranian politics and foreign policy. He destroys the illusion that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the still powerful former President Rafsanjani are moderates, in contrast to President Ahmadinejad and his supporters, and will show flexibility and moderation if only engaged properly. He argues that, given the actual belief systems of people like Rafsanjani and Khamenei, only diplomacy backed by the threat of force has any chance of succeeding. For this long but important piece, CLICK HERE.
Next up, Michael Ledeen, a scholar who, like Reuel Marc Gerecht, is currently at the American Enterprise Institute, says the Iraq war effectively placed the US and the West in a regional struggle with Iran and the Syrians. He says the only feasible strategy is that pursued during the Cold War against the Soviet Union, a Helsinki strategy of encouraging long-term non-violent regime change in Iran. For his discussion of how he believes this can be done, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Seth Wikas, a Syria specialist from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Syria is looking increasingly isolated in the region, that its relationship with Iran is under pressure, and that the Baghdad summit and the upcoming Riyadh Arab League summit are likely to highlight this fact. He argues that the Syrian regime, given its vulnerability on the issue of the UN tribunal into the murder of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri, is no longer the controller of Hezbollah, but at best a partner, and Damascus’ estrangement from Saudi Arabia also makes them vulnerable. For this full analysis of Syria’s prospects, CLICK HERE.
By Reuel Marc Gerecht
The Weekly Standard
Publication Date: March 19, 2007
Posted: Monday, March 12, 2007
If the Reagan administration had learned in 1987 that the clerical regime in Tehran was doing what it is doing today, would Washington have approved of preventive strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities? If Reagan and company had seen Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rapidly constructing uranium-enrichment centrifuges in underground facilities, pushing doggedly ahead on heavy-water research and a plutonium-making nuclear reactor, and spending profusely on the development of long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles that are effective weapons only if topped with WMD warheads, would more of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment have urged our European allies to support severe sanctions to dissuade the mullahs from developing the bomb? Would leading members of the Democratic party, who then controlled the House and the Senate, have been sympathetic to a military response to the mullahs’ nuclear ambitions, or would they have argued for another round of engagement, quickly forgetting their disparagement of the White House’s and the CIA’s 1985 search for bribable “moderates” in a terrorist-supporting state with American blood on its hands?
Even with the Cold War fear of Soviet reactions, Reagan might well have ordered a strike by the United States–probably with the encouragement of his secretary of state, George Shultz, the most farsighted official ever about the dangers of terrorism, and a man not averse to using force in international affairs. The odds are good that many Democrats in Congress would have applauded any aggressive decision–with or without accompanying protests about neglect of the War Powers Act and Congress’s monopoly on declarations of war. The Western Europeans might have expressed their dismay at American cowboyism, although the criticism might have been short-lived since the clerical regime then was regularly unleashing terrorism in Europe. Twenty years ago the Western Europeans had not so fully entered their post-Kantian world where soft power always trumps hard. Also, the French and the Germans were massively invested in Iraq, then at war with Iran. The Soviets, of course, would have been furious, their distaste for American unilateralism checked somewhat by their concern for Saddam Hussein. The U.S. ambassador at the United Nations, Vernon Walters, would no doubt have had to live through a public excoriation of Reagan’s America as a lawless, aggressive, third-world-thumping rogue state.
Things are obviously different now, primarily because the Islamic Republic has changed. One could see the changes beginning in the 1980s, as the wreckage of the Iran-Iraq war was slowly dissolving the violent love affair that young Iranian Shiite males had had with God and the charismatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But back then it was too early to tell how losing the war would play out on the clerical elite.
Some senior U.S. government officials actually believe that Khamenei and his kind would be willing to restore relations with the United States. Such a restoration would be an end to the revolution as we have known it. For the mullahs and for God, this would be an unbearable defeat.
For those who believe in “diplomacy first, diplomacy only” for dealing with the mullahs’ quest for nuclear weaponry, the perceived changes in the Islamic Republic are what make the dovish case compelling. Khomeini with a nuke, even more than Saddam with atomic weapons, would have been just too unsettling for us to have reposed our confidence in the theory of deterrence. But in 2007, Ali Khamenei, the clerical leader of Iran, his president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the most politically adept mullah of the revolution, seem somehow less threatening, allowing many to accept what would have been unacceptable 20 years ago. Together, they just don’t have the right mix of charisma, white-hot faith, unpredictable power, and history to make us, and Iranians, tremble the way we all did with the Imam. If Ahmadinejad were the sole ruler of Iran, then American and Israeli fighter-bombers probably would have already annihilated the principal nuclear sites–even with American soldiers in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tied to the other two men, and to the disputatious clerical elite below them, Ahmadinejad just isn’t perceived by many (outside of Israel) as a sufficient threat.
Is this perception correct? Has the clerical regime sufficiently moderated to quell the worst fears? Are the “realists” right when they suggest that we can negotiate with the mullahs–at least more intelligently and successfully than we did in 1979, 1985, and 1999-2000, when President Bill Clinton and his secretary of state Madeleine Albright downplayed Iranian responsibility for the deaths of 19 American servicemen and the wounding of 372 others at Khobar Towers in the hope of reaching out to moderates within the regime? Or is such an opening conceivable, a real possibility for pragmatists willing to offer the right incentives to the clerical elite?
The CIA and the State Department absolutely didn’t foresee the short-lived “Tehran spring” of Mohammad Khatami, a clerical reformist who rose to the presidency in May 1997. Perhaps the U.S. government is again blind and doesn’t see the possibility of a “grand bargain” with a regime that understands the revolution is over and now just wants to be recognized as a regional great power. Nixon’s detente with the Soviet Union looks rather thin in its achievements when compared with Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical and occasionally covert policy of armed confrontation. But the Islamic Republic and the Soviet Union are not the same country. Perhaps there might be a successful détente with the mullahs, a modus vivendi that would neutralize the menace of their nuclear weapons, their terrorism, and their dubious dealings with the Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, Iraq’s militant Shiites, and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.
Let us look at the religious dimension of this problem, and then at its more mundane aspects. Are the clerical elite and their praetorians–the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the thuggish Basij, and the killers of the Ministry of Intelligence–still running a revolutionary enterprise within which they see themselves as the ideological vanguard of the nation and Islam? Yes, absolutely. To a striking degree, the ruling elite has maintained its sense of religious mission, while the Iranian people, especially the young who don’t remember the charisma of Khomeini, have gone cold. That the Iranian people remain faithful Shiite Muslims is beyond doubt. A majority may even remain vaguely faithful to the Islamic revolution and still believe that clerics as a class, no matter how despised for their postrevolutionary greed and despotic manners, retain a special, didactic place between God and man. But for the vast majority of Iranians, an Islamic missionary spirit is no longer happily married to the national identity.
For the ruling mullahs and their supporters, just the opposite appears true. The clerics still seem quite determined to see themselves as the elite of Islam, faithful inheritors of Khomeini’s most sacred legacy–political power. Yahya Rahim Safavi, the head of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the radical clergy’s indispensable guarantors of the religious order, who in great part shaped the manhood and ethics of Ahmadinejad, put it well when he said: “The geographic heart of the Islamic world is in Mecca and Medina. But, the political heart of the Islamic world is in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] is the flag-bearer of the front of the Islamic awakening and the fronts of the awakening of third-world nations.”
This is a basic point, often not seen by Western “realist” commentators on foreign affairs: The seizing of power by Khomeini and his clerical minions was a sacred act, proof that God isn’t dead. The maintenance of clerical power in Iran is a sacred mission: It is what separates the revolutionaries from the detested traditional clergy, who wanted to hold government to high ethical standards but also to keep their distance from the corrupting institutions and exercise of power.
For the revolutionary clergy, and its loyal minions like Ahmadinejad, power is Allah. In clerical eyes, the new mullahs, led by Khomeini, drove the revolution. They–not the people, who often were unreliable servants of God against the shah and counterrevolutionaries–are the engine of progress. Khamenei and the ruling clerical elite will always thwart the exercise of meaningful democracy in Iran, in part because the people, repeatedly, have shown themselves unfaithful to the religious revolution. Iranians, whose capacity for ferocious religious zeal is undermined constantly by a desire for happy lethargy and little sins, cannot be trusted.
The superiority of theocracy over democracy derives not only from the clergy’s greater knowledge of the Holy Law and its special, frequently charismatic role in Iranian history (Khomeini was not the first magnetic mullah in modern times), but also from the Iranian people’s craving for satellite dishes and morally debased Western programming. This is one reason the early revolutionary reflex to label all Iranians and foreigners who opposed any aspect of clerical rule “criminals against God” or “enemies of Islam” came back with vigor in the late 1990s, when reformist pressure, partly unleashed by the presidential election of 1997, threatened the regime. The Iranian reform movement in the 1990s was, among other things, a self-conscious embrace of the Western conception of civil society. As weak as the reform movement actually was, it was enough to provoke Safavi to warn that the Guards Corps would “rip the tongues” out of reformers who threatened the Islamic Republic’s God-ordained order.
During Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005), leading clerical dissidents like Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s former favorite, and his disciple, Abdullah Nuri, the former interior minister who’d become a provocative newspaper editor, were corralled; Nuri, a faithful child of Khomeini who became the boldest clerical dissident, was arrested in 1999 and mentally ruined in prison. It’s worthwhile to note that one of Nuri’s most egregious sins, which he committed during his nationally televised trial (the last time the regime would be so stupid as to give a dissident a national platform), was to mock on religious grounds the regime’s refusal to restore relations with the United States. Was God’s Islamic revolution so weak, Nuri implied, that it could not sustain the reopening of an American embassy in downtown Tehran?
It is astonishing that some Western analysts of Iran, and some senior U.S. government officials, actually believe that Khamenei and his kind–and there are many influential mullahs who are even more perfervid in the belief that America is diabolical–would be willing to restore relations with the United States. Such a restoration would be, as Nuri correctly implied, an end to the revolution as we have known it. For the mullahs and for God, this would be an unbearable defeat. Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and Rafsanjani have no intention of letting this happen.
Although they can be obstreperous, and are politically becoming a force to be reckoned with, the Guards Corps, like Iran’s much-feared intelligence service, has been loyal to the clerical regime. There is simply no information anywhere–not even fifth-hand recycled gossip–that suggests the Guards, or as they are known in Persian, the Pasdaran, are amenable to the idea of restored relations with the United States. Just the opposite. Read Pasdaran publications and the speeches (or outbursts) of senior members of the Corps, and the revolution still seems hot and under siege. It’s doubtful there is a single mullah in Iran who would dare tell the Pasdaran to abandon its continuing occupation of the U.S. embassy and stand to attention before a raised American flag.
The guardians of the revolution–among whom one counts first Khamenei and Rafsanjani–struck hard against Iranian liberals as well as dissident clerics during Khatami’s presidency. These attacks confirm the unchanging religious nature of the regime. Liberals, though they posed no organized threat to the status quo, were regularly murdered, often brazenly. In religious terms, they were seen as a cross between atheists and apostates who openly admired and emulated Western ways. One has to be enormously careful analyzing the commentary of the intrepid and fearless dissident journalist Akbar Ganji, but his suggestion that Rafsanjani had a controlling hand in the organized crackdown in the last four years of Khatami’s presidency should be treated seriously. Rafsanjani, the great revolutionary pragmatist, who has probably done more than any other mullah to ensure clerical dominion, needed to ensure the Islamic Republic’s balance, which was being unsettled by men and women who wanted to transform the country into something like a democracy. This is why more Iranian dissidents were murdered abroad during Rafsanjani’s first three years as president (1989-92) than during the previous ten years under Khomeini.
Many Western observers of Rafsanjani have viewed his attention to more effective administration and his family business empire as evidence that he is a pragmatist who really wants to build a two-way bridge between Iran and the West, but especially between Tehran and Washington. For many Western observers, the cleric who has probably done more than any other to ensure the resources for Iran’s nuclear-weapons program was supposed to be the mullah who was going to halt the program–if he’d only defeated Ahmadinejad for the presidency in 2005.
For some Westerners, Rafsanjani and his allies are still the dreamed-of Trojan Horse that would bring more capitalism to Iran and guarantee its admission–if only the United States would allow it–to the World Trade Organization. Rafsanjani would thus become the Iranian Gorbachev, putting the Islamic Republic on an economic slippery slope to greater freedom and responsible international behavior. (Many Western and Iranian observers once embraced Khatami as the Iranian Gorbachev, but Khamenei’s greater power and Khatami’s political ineptitude, spinelessness, and faithfulness to the country’s institutions and elite collapsed this illusion pretty quickly.)
Rafsanjani is the indispensable mullah for those who envision the Islamic Republic as a normal, ambitious regional power. These hopeful souls are untroubled by Rafsanjani’s voluminous writings where he shows himself, just like Khamenei, to be deeply impregnated with the idea of an Islam-destroying, globe-trotting, American tyranny that has its roots in the Jewish capitalist domination of the United States. For the optimistic, Rafsanjani is corrupt and power-hungry (undoubtedly true), and he is therefore not a soldier of God (undoubtedly false). It is as if Henry Plantagenet, because he was a worldly man with enormous ambition, good business sense, an unrivaled appetite for women, and a brood of independent and sometimes decadent children, could not also have been seriously committed to advancing Christendom’s great counterattack against Islam, the Crusades. If Rafsanjani had been a statesman, and not a dedicated revolutionary cleric, he would have tried a bit harder to integrate Iran peacefully into the world; he wouldn’t have killed so many of his own people, at home and abroad, or aligned his nation with the Middle East’s worst terrorist groups, or clandestinely advanced a nuclear-weapons program, or crushed his former comrades who actually wanted to reform the Islamic Republic. Simply put, Rafsanjani is a modern revolutionary cleric-cum-warrior, serving the cause of Iran and Islam against those forces, preeminently the United States, that are antithetical to his conception of progress.
And let us return to the World Trade Organization, perhaps the favorite hobbyhorse for those who think the Islamic Republic can be tamed economically. Whether or not the WTO can be a soft-power engine of democratic regime change, Khamenei and Rafsanjani, who both backed Iran’s admission to the organization in 1996, don’t view it as likely to convulse what they consider holy–at least not before the clerical regime develops nuclear weapons. It’s worth noting that Iran formally made its application to the WTO in July 1996; the clerical regime, with Khamenei and Rafsanjani firmly in command, bombed the Americans at Khobar Towers three weeks earlier. If there is a contradiction between terrorism and trade, it is one that escapes Iran’s clerical vanguard.
Eager to attack the Bush administration, many “realists” and liberals rallied around the “missed opportunity” of a “semi-official” Iranian letter delivered to the United States by Switzerland’s ambassador to Iran, Tim Guldimann, in 2003. The letter, never made public, supposedly details how the Islamic Republic was ready to settle all of its differences with the United States–including terrorism, nuclear weapons, and aid to nefarious organizations–if only the Bush administration would listen. No one was so rude as to point out that it was an open secret in the European diplomatic community in Tehran that Ambassador Guldimann was the primary drafter of this correspondence and that he, “a leftist child of 1968,” as one European ambassador who served with Guldimann in Tehran told me, “liked the Iranians as much as he disliked the Americans.” The “realists” avoid at all cost references to Iran’s pre-9/11 dealings with al Qaeda (see page 240 in the 9/11 Commission report), which make Iran at least complicit in facilitating al Qaeda’s terrorist operations against the United States. When it comes to Iran today, when we look at the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan, then consider the gut-wrenching option of striking militarily the clerical regime’s nuclear facilities, many of us play games with ourselves.
The common and optimistic view that the clerical regime is capable of flexibility is now lethally playing out in our discussions of Iranian operations in Iraq. Without a doubt, the Bush administration could have been more organized in presenting its case against Tehran, particularly with regard to the delivery of explosive devices that have killed Americans. But this isn’t rocket science. Principal questions: Is the Iranian-manufactured weaponry found in Iraq available in sufficient quantities in the global arms bazaar? Is there any evidence that groups that have used this weaponry against American soldiers in Iraq have imported other sophisticated weaponry from outside Iraq? Do we have strong evidence of arms shipments from Iran over a protracted period of time?
If the answers to these questions are “no,” “no,” and “yes,” then the case is closed. The idea that the Revolutionary Guards Corps or the Iranian intelligence ministry–both of which have proven themselves overseas to be faithful and lethal servants of the clerical regime–is delivering weaponry to groups in Iraq without the approval of Iran’s leadership just isn’t believable. This is not how these two institutions work. Over twenty years we have certainly gleaned sufficient information about the hierarchy, rules, and personnel of the Pasdaran and Iran’s intelligence service to know that they are not rogue warriors. The clerical regime, following in the footsteps of the shah, likes bureaucracy. Its national security council isn’t a social club. When it comes to killing people abroad, the Guards and intelligence operatives do what Ali Khamenei tells them to do. The idea that the Qods Force, the nasty elite of the Pasdaran, is delivering materiel to Iraq without Khamenei’s approval makes the clerical regime sound like a banana republic–casual about the security services essential to its survival. There is a reason Khamenei has an ever-expanding private office overseeing both the Pasdaran and the intelligence ministry: When so inclined, he runs them.
The real question for the Bush administration is, When did it learn about these arms shipments? President Bush decided to take a harder line against the Iranians in Iraq in September 2006. Did the administration know earlier that the Iranians were delivering lethal supplies to anti-American Iraqi groups? If so, the administration ought to be scorched not for its bellicosity, but for its timidity. (The same question might be asked about al Qaeda camps in northern Pakistan. Is the administration sure of this information? Do we know where they are? If so, then have we informed the Pakistanis that if they don’t deal with this problem promptly, we will, through a continuous bombing campaign?)
It’s damning if an administration that has defined itself by its vigorous, preventive approach to terrorist groups and state-sponsors of terrorism has reverted to a Clintonian policy of caution where American lives are at stake, doing nothing or too little too late. One must hope that we have conveyed to the Swiss, who look after our interests in Tehran, or to Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who knows the Iranian ruling elite well, that America can make life very difficult for Iran, in Iraq and elsewhere, unless these shipments stop.
It’s likely that Iran will get itself into serious trouble in Iraq. The temptation to meddle–to try to spread radical thinking in Iraq and create organizations the ruling clergy is comfortable working with, along the lines of Hezbollah–is very great. Like Lebanon, and unlike the rest of the Sunni Arab world, Iraq has a clergy that it may be possible to coopt. The Iraqi clergy could conceivably, if properly formed, fed, and intimidated, see the world more or less as the Iranian revolutionary mullahs do. Clerical Iran in Iraq has a chance. It’s not a big chance, given the Arab-Persian and intra-Shiite historical baggage, but it’s more of a chance than the regime has had elsewhere since 1982, when Hezbollah started to consume the Lebanese Shiite community.
The odds are that Tehran’s mullahs are going to try to pick a winner in Iraq. If the Iranians can “take” Mesopotamia, then they will finally have a substantial opening to the Arab world. Religiously and geopolitically, they will have their day. Iran’s ruling elite and their Iraqi friends, along with their Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian allies, will then define the anti-American/anti-Israeli rejectionist camp. They could conceivably cause enormous problems for the Jordanians, assuming the Hashemite regime survives the Sunni exodus from Iraq. Ditto for the Saudis and Egyptians. This picture is complicated by the Sunni-Shiite bloodletting in Mesopotamia. But it’s foreordained that Tehran would respond by being even more anti-American and, among Muslims, even more ecumenically radical. (Khamenei has always been much more careful to avoid uniquely Shiite allusions in his calls for Islamic solidarity against the United States and the West than was Khomeini.)
Confronted with dissatisfaction and dissent at home, Iran’s ruling clergy will, the odds are good, go abroad to seek victories and fulfill their undimmed mission to be God’s true vanguard in the Muslim world. The American presence in Iraq impedes this task because it gives Iraqi Shiites a non-Iranian option, particularly in the face of the Sunni insurgency and holy war against the Shia.
If the United States can develop a successful counterinsurgency against Iraq’s Sunnis, Iraq’s Shiite clergy may grow more independent and open in its internal debates about proper governance and its own role in an Iraqi democracy. Friendly and dependent Iraqi groups like SCIRI may fairly quickly become difficult for Tehran. Right now, SCIRI has no firm idea of what it is. It has had no test of its democratic commitment. It doesn’t really know what its relationship will be with Iraq’s moderate senior clergy in Najaf. This process of discovery for SCIRI, and for other Shiites in Iraq, may come with speed if the Sunni violence can be checked. This could go badly for Tehran. In any case, the Iranians will do what they can to prevent the success of moderate Shiites next door.
We may well be on a collision course with Iran in Mesopotamia. But what the clerical regime and many Western observers have been slow to appreciate is that Iraq raises the odds that Washington (and Jerusalem) will view Iranian actions in Iraq as inseparable from the nuclear question. If American and European sanctions don’t make the clerical regime give up its atomic ambitions–and especially if the Iranians gain the upper hand in Iraq–Iraq may well become the factor that tilts the Americans or Israelis toward preventive military strikes against Tehran’s nuclear installations.
What should be clear, however, is that a clerical Iran sensing victory in Iraq–victory defined by the withdrawal of U.S. forces–would have no incentive to negotiate on its nuclear-weapons program. The United States should not fear talking to Iran–we have done so repeatedly since 1979. But in the past, we have almost always done so poorly. It’s hard to imagine U.S. diplomats being any more successful today, unless the Bush administration underscores its willingness to use force against the mullahs (the exact opposite of the approach many senior officials in the Pentagon and State Department have so far used). If we do this, the clerical regime will certainly respect us more. And unless they respect us–unless they fear us–diplomacy will have no chance. This is Middle Eastern Politics 101. If we don’t know this rule–if we unlearn it because of Iraq–the clerical regime will again painfully educate us about what “constructive engagement” means for men who still believe they are the cutting edge of a new Islamic civilization.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at American Enterprise Institute.
By Michael A. Ledeen
Parliamentary Brief (March 2007)
Publication Date: March 9, 2007
Of the many errors committed by Western governments and their intelligence services in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, none was so grave as a fundamental error of strategic vision: the failure to recognize we would automatically be involved in a regional war, not simply a battle against the regime of Saddam Hussein. We imagined that Afghanistan was secure and that we could deal with Iraq all by itself. Then, at our convenience, we could move on against the other terror-masters in Damascus and Tehran. But that conceit has been shattered. Everyone knows that the terror war against Iraq and our coalition forces there is actively supported by Syria and Iran, with the mullahs in the first rank. There will never be decent security in Iraq or Afghanistan so long as the mullahs and the Assads rule in Tehran and Damascus. Sooner or later, we will have to confront them, whatever we may wish.
That decision was made by our enemies, not by us. Iran has long been at war with the West, above all against the United States. The Ayatollah Khomeini branded the U.S. “The Great Satan” in 1979, and Iranians and Iranian proxies have been killing Americans and American friends and allies ever since, from Lebanon to Iraq, from Afghanistan to Somalia, from Gaza and the West Bank to Argentina (which has recently issued indictments and arrest warrants against several top officials of the Islamic Republic). In recent days we have seen evidence of Iran-made explosive weapons deployed against coalition soldiers in Iraq, received confessions from officials of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps–including the operational chief of the Quds Force, whose job it is to kill Iran’s enemies abroad, and who reports directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei–and seen the evidence of high-powered Austrian rifles sold to Iran, now showing up in the hands of Iraqi terrorists.
Meanwhile, the EU, confident that sweet reasonableness would produce a step along the road to peace with Iran, where cowboyish unilateralism had failed, has now confessed the failure of its diplomatic enterprise, informing the 25 members that Iran will indeed have atomic bombs. A recent memo to the EU’s “foreign minister,” Javier Solana, admitted that negotiations and sanctions will not stop the Iranian nuclear project. Nor will such measures stop the Iranians from arming, training, guiding and funding terrorists on a global scale, which should have provoked a vigorous Western response long since. We should have started with the successful “Helsinki” policies of the Cold War, when support for human rights in the Soviet Empire eventually eroded the communist tyranny. Instead, we have usually been silent in the face of vicious repression, torture, and a tempo of executions of political opponents that makes Iran the world’s number two (after China) in the application of the death penalty.
The Iranians and their proxies are doing their utmost to sabotage hopes for peace in the entire region. This would seem to require effective action from the West, but instead, the noisiest sector of Western public opinion is frightened that the United States might actually act against Iran. Despite innumerable assurances from every imaginable quarter in Washington, the noisemakers assure us that the Americans are planning to invade Iran (or at a minimum bomb the Iranian nuclear sites), just as they invaded Iraq.
So far as I can tell, there is no truth to the alarms. Indeed, it would be fairer to condemn the Bush Administration for excessive timorousness with regard to Iran. Until a few weeks ago, our troops were under orders not to kill Iranians in Iraq, and if by accident an Iranian were arrested, he was released almost immediately. Now our soldiers are permitted to strike back against their killers, and Iranians without proper diplomatic credentials are held for interrogation. It’s little enough. Too little, in fact.
The proper strategy toward Iran is non-violent regime change, of the sort that was accomplished to the ruin of the Soviet Empire. Military attack against Iran would be a mistake, indeed it would constitute a tragic admission of the utter failure of the United States and her allies to conceive and conduct a serious Iran policy over the course of nearly three decades. Political support for the tens of millions of Iranians who detest their tyrannical leaders is both morally obligatory and strategically sound. Perhaps ten per cent of Soviet citizens were willing to openly challenge the Kremlin; the Iranian regime’s own public opinion polling shows that upwards of 70 percent of Iranians want greater freedom and better relations with the United States, and hardly a day goes by without strikes, demonstrations, and the occasional armed attack against the mullahcracy. Political support would include serious broadcasting into Iran, money for workers (as America and Western Europe did for Portugal in the 1970s and Poland In the 1980s) to enable them to go on strike in the oil fields, the textile factories, and the trucks and vans on the country’s highways, and provision of modern communications equipment (servers, laptops, cell and satellite phones, etc.) to pro-democracy groups, of which there are scores.
Support for revolution in Iran should have been undertaken before the military assault against Saddam. I argued in 2002-2003, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians were demonstrating in the streets of the big cities, that a successful non-violent regime change in Iran would have enabled us to topple Saddam with a minimum of armed violence, and perhaps with none at all.
A rational strategy for regime change in Iran is more urgently required today than four years ago. But we cannot even begin to debate it so long as the issue is limited to Iraq alone, and the Bush Administration is blamed in advance for something it does not want to do. It, and every other Western government, should be blamed for their failure to see the war in its regional context, and to support the Iranian people all along. Perhaps it is yet possible for us to liberate Iran, and eliminate the Middle East’s most threatening regime, without military action.
Michael A. Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at AEI.
By Seth Wikas
March 9, 2007
In the coming weeks, Syria will participate in two important regional conferences. On March 10, it will join Iraq’s other neighbors and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council in Baghdad. On March 28-29, it will participate in the Arab League summit in Riyadh. Syria’s detractors continue to criticize Damascus for failing to seal the border with Iraq and for meddling in Lebanese internal affairs in violation of UN Security Resolution 1701. Of equal importance is the downturn in Syria’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Last week’s Saudi-Iranian summit has Damascus worried about its role in Lebanon and the possibility of an international tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, a crime for which Syria is widely believed to be responsible. Will the upcoming conferences give Syria a chance to improve its regional standing, or will its isolation continue?
The Baghdad Conference
The March 10 meeting in Baghdad is aimed at curbing violence and promoting reconstruction and national reconciliation within Iraq. Syrian leaders are greeting the conference with cautious optimism and as a partial step toward diplomacy. They want to see full adoption of the Iraq Study Group (a.k.a. Baker-Hamilton) report’s recommendation of direct American dialogue with Syria and Iran. Meanwhile, Washington appears committed to its policy of isolating the two nations, and President Bush has stated that the Baghdad conference will be a test of Syria and Iran’s readiness to reduce sectarian violence in Iraq. Washington is not blind to the results of the Iraq war, however — Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Ellen Sauerbrey is currently awaiting a visa to travel to Damascus, where she has been authorized to discuss only the status of Iraqi refugees in Syria. On the Syrian side, the editor-in-chief of the government daily al-Baath, Ilyas Murad, stated the need for Washington to admit its failure in Iraq at the conference, and also wondered how the United States could refuse to talk to other conference participants.
One constructive step Damascus has recently taken is to allow Iraqi refugees to renew their three-month residency permits. Yet official Iraqi sources point to Syria’s continued role in undermining stability in Iraq. Last week, Iraq’s UN ambassador, Hamid al-Bayati, called on Syria to control its border, as it is the entry point for most foreign fighters. He dismissed Syria’s claims that it cannot adequately patrol its border until it receives the necessary surveillance equipment.
Saudi Arabia and the Arab Summit
Syria’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been strained at best since Syrian president Bashar al-Asad’s August 15, 2006, speech in which he railed against Arab leaders who did not support Hizballah in the war against Israel — notably Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. Asad described such leaders as “half men.” The deterioration in their relations has been compounded by Syria’s suspected involvement in the killing of Hariri, a Saudi citizen, and by Syria’s implication of Saudi Arabia in the September 2006 attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus. In December, Syrian vice president Farouk al-Shara attributed the strain to personal reasons: “We Arabs become angry and calm down quickly.” In Saudi eyes, his statement trivialized the depth of the problems between the two states.
Most recently, the relationship suffered a flare-up after a caustic op-ed appeared in the Saudi-owned London daily al-Sharq al-Awsat. Although the newspaper consistently reflects the Saudi position on issues, and is notoriously anti-Syrian, Abdul Rahman al-Rashid’s March 4 article pushed the envelope. A former editor of the paper, he outlined Saudi grievances — including Asad’s August speech and Syrian attempts to bring down the Lebanese government — and claimed Syria had lost nearly everything in the Middle East as a result of its leadership’s inexperience and miscalculations. He added that Syria was even risking its alliance with Iran and predicted the upcoming Arab Summit could not save Syria from a dark future.
For its part, Damascus has sought to project a very different image. According to Syrian sources, Saudi King Abdullah sent Asad a personal invitation to the Arab Summit via an emissary in February. Asad assured the emissary that he would attend and conveyed his personal respect for the king and the importance of the Saudi-Syrian relationship. The summit will include separate bilateral talks between Abdullah and Asad. In the wake of the invitation, the Syrian media has shown a noticeably more positive tone toward Saudi Arabia.
The media messages on both sides are important in light of recent talks between Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad and King Abdullah. Saudi Arabia is seeking Iranian support for the Hariri tribunal, and this worries Syria. It is unclear whether Tehran and Riyadh can find a solution to the Lebanese political crisis, and what pressure — if any — will be put on Syria to discontinue its interference in Lebanese affairs.
Syria’s Relationship with Iran
The Syrian-Iranian relationship is under a great deal of pressure. Former Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad skillfully developed and nurtured alliances with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, helping to make Syria a key regional player. The alliance with Tehran worked well when Damascus saw Iran as an ally in the struggle against its old nemesis, Iraq, and as a source of inexpensive oil. In turn, Iran viewed Syria as a base for exporting the Islamic Revolution to Lebanese Shiites via Hizballah. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia benefited from the protection that both nations provided from Iraq. Bashar al-Asad, however, has turned Syria into a political liability for its allies and neighbors. He has angered the Saudis by meddling in Lebanese political affairs — notably in the assassination of Hariri — and has turned his country from a partner into a client of Iran. Asad has also voiced his open support and respect for Hizballah — something his father never did — and Damascus has lost the power it once had over the group. The result is that Syria’s fortunes in Lebanon are now dependent on Hizballah’s success, making Hizballah a partner, not a dependent.
In sum, Syria’s new position in relation to both Iran and Hizballah has weakened its political clout. Asad also fears that the recent Iranian-Saudi summit yielded Tehran’s assent to the international tribunal on Hariri, which would further debilitate the Syrian regime. Neither the Saudis nor the Iranians want to see Asad fall, but an international tribunal and a settling of the Lebanese political crisis (to Syria’s disadvantage) would strip Damascus of many of its political cards.
The upcoming Baghdad conference and Arab Summit highlight the various challenges facing Syria. Given its record, Syria is unlikely to play a constructive role in Iraq — but this does not interest Damascus. Instead, its primary goals are to block the international tribunal on the Hariri assassination and ensure that Hizballah gains more power in the Lebanese parliament. Even if it achieves its objectives, however, Damascus has badly damaged its relations with allies and regional neighbors, and these will take time to heal. Internationally, Syria is hoping to bypass continued U.S. opposition to direct diplomacy by strengthening its military and economic ties with Russia. Regionally, neither of the upcoming meetings are likely to reduce Syria’s isolation, improve its image, or change its leadership’s demonstrated inability to balance competing political interests.
Seth Wikas is a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on Syria’s domestic politics and foreign policy.