The Common Good
November-December 2003

Next Stop, Iran?

by Aistair Millar | November-December 2003

Don't these people ever learn?

Is Iran next? Hasn't George Bush got enough to worry about in Iraq? Costs are escalating, troops are dying. Iraqi civilians are still deprived of their most basic needs, and the U.N. is relegated to the sidelines. Senior military officials and experts from both parties are increasingly vocal in their criticism of the administration. According to Ronald Reagan's secretary of the Navy, the invasion and occupation of Iraq "is one of the most ill-advised and reckless actions that the U.S. government has ever taken."

Nonetheless, hawks in the Bush administration are undaunted. They have waited for years to execute their strategy to "secure the realm" and reshape the Middle East. For them Iraq is just the first act.

Echoing charges that were used to justify the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has openly said he supports a policy of regime change in Tehran, saying that Iran is harboring al Qaeda members and developing nuclear weapons. At the same time the administration is limiting its diplomatic options by shutting down its back-channel communication with senior Iranian officials. U.S. officials are reported to have met on May 27 to discuss possible efforts to overthrow the government in Tehran.

America has had enough trouble building international political, financial, and military support for the war on—and occupation of—Iraq. A campaign against Iran will further isolate America. Even the U.K. government—which supports engagement with Iranian reformers and whose public is still extremely skeptical of claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction sufficient to justify war—has said they will not support a U.S.-led campaign against Iran.

The conservative magazine The Weekly Standard has opined that we must now "take the fight to Iran." The Project for the New American Century, which boasts its affiliation with many key administration officials, wrote an open letter to Bush just after 9-11. The letter strongly urged the president to pursue a "war on terror," invade Afghanistan, alienate Yasir Arafat, attack Iraq, and target Iran. While it does not seem politically, militarily, or economically feasible now, Tehran is still on the to-do list and may well be next if Bush is re-elected.

This sends the worst possible message to Iranians and will ruin the prospects for internal reform. Pro-reformists in Iran have been clear that if the Americans are belligerent, it will help the conservatives to rally the Iranian people behind them. It may encourage Iran to learn from the Iraqi regime's fate and take a cue from North Korea: Your only option for survival is to build a bomb as soon as you can. As David Albright, a former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said in September: "You can end up driving Iran into a corner and causing it to embark on a crash nuclear program out of fear."

THERE IS NO doubt that uncertainties about Iran's nuclear program are a cause for concern. Iran is not being fully transparent about all of its nuclear activities and has not complied with previous IAEA requests to freeze its uranium enrichment program. The IAEA has just passed a unanimous resolution calling on Iran to provide a "full declaration" of its nuclear program, to open all nuclear sites for inspection, and to agree to environmental testing in advance of an IAEA meeting scheduled for November. There is a real danger that Iran could decide to drop out of a dialogue with the multilateral atomic agency and respond negatively to pressure generated by neocons from the United States.

To prevent that from happening, U.S. policy should take a more nuanced approach with Iran. America must reduce risks and ensure that several key objectives are met. U.S. policy must prevent weapons proliferation, increase cooperation in the campaign against terrorism, and encourage Iran's evolution toward a more democratic society. Iran is presently caught in an internal tug-of-war between a pro-reform, democratically elected government and a conservative, anti-American clergy that wields significant political power. The United States should design its policies in ways that strengthen the hand of reform constituencies and take a regional approach toward the disarmament of weapons of mass destruction across the Middle East.

Steps toward engagement should be taken and linked to reciprocal gestures of cooperation from Iran, such as acceptance of the IAEA resolution and concrete steps toward implementation of U.N. counterterrorism mandates. Over the past 20 years, incentives have been used to successfully encourage other emergent and existing nuclear weapons powers to forswear the bomb, making the world a much safer place. Increased dialogue and cooperation with Iran will increase understanding on both sides and create a basis for a gradual improvement in political relations and enhanced security on both sides. We don't have to look far to see how the option of regime change by force is working.

Alistair Millar is vice president and director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Fourth Freedom Forum, an independent research organization that works on global security issues.

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