TEHRAN RISING: A BRIEFING
By Ilan Berman
Iran's nuclear endeavor started under the Shah and inherited by the leaders of the Khomeini government, whose mentality is cause for acute concern. The Iranians see themselves having a choice, to become like North Korea, which possesses nuclear weapons and thus stands out of the reach of the U.S.A., or to end up like Iraq, invaded and with a new government. Not surprisingly, they see nuclear weapons as a tool to deter Washington, rather than cause an attack.
But Iran's nuclear capability is not Americans' only concern. The regime has long ranked high as a sponsor of terrorism. Its expanding Hezbollah's reach has led, for example, to the sending of 12,000 artillery pieces and short-range rockets that the Shi'ite militia in Lebanon now possesses for use against Israel. Tehran is also helping Hezbollah expand in Africa. American officials say Hezbollah's capabilities equal or exceed those of al-Qa'ida.
It once was thought that Shi'ites and Sunnis would not cooperate, because of theological differences, but it is now clear that the Iranians and al-Qa'ida have found common cause. At least 10 percent of al-Qa'ida's communications go through Iran, as at least some authorities there are aware. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born terrorist, won safe haven in Iran, and his insurgency operations are now taking place in its Kurdish regions.
Tehran has also meddled in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli official sources state that Hezbollah has directed over 50 separate Palestinian terrorist cells in 2004, a sevenfold increase from 2002. Hezbollah (and Iran) are filling a political vacuum in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The Iranian leadership perceives U.S. actions, such as the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, as a threat, and has been interfering in Iraq to avoid the democratization in that country, as a way to stave off the same prospect in Iran itself. It has been increasing its activity in the post-Soviet states to co-opt countries that could be useful to the U.S.A. Tehran signed a bilateral security agreement with the Syrian government that said neither country would host troops that would be hostile to the other. In addition, Iran has increased its naval presence in the Caspian Sea, which is a substantial energy hub. Co-opting the countries in the region would have negative consequences on the energy market.
The U.S. government tried negotiations with Tehran through the European Union, but without success – not surprisingly, given their incompatible goals. Bush said he would not tolerate a nuclear Iran, but some of his European counterparts approved of Iran having some level of nuclear capability.
Nor will the United Nations Security Council control Iran, for two permanent members (Russia and China) are important providers of knowledge and technology to Iran. Although the Russians, with population centers in close proximity to Iran, might wake up to the dangers of proliferation, the Chinese are another matter. Beijing has succeeded in signing deals with Iran in the past year that basically offer Tehran a UN Security Council veto in return for energy resources.
Deploy defenses to protect countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait from Iranian ballistic missiles. The Iraqis have, in particular, cited Iran's capabilities as a threat. This would blunt Iranian influence in the region.
Counter proliferation, for which the Bush administration's Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) has been extremely important toward that goal. (PSI is a series of bilateral arrangements between more than 60 countries that allow for mutual alteration of international law to permit intelligence sharing, hot pursuit into international waters, and other matters, in situations when weapons of mass destruction are involved.) PSI has managed to curtail as much as two-thirds of North Korea's missile trading over the last two years. Washington should think of bringing PSI to the Persian Gulf and nearby regions to contain technology flowing in and out of Iran
These steps can delay Iran's nuclear capabilities, but not stop them. It is, therefore, important to focus on who will be ruling in Tehran. Iranians are dissatisfied with their government now, and the country is worse off or at least just as bad now as in 1977. Half of Iranians live under Iran's poverty line, the unemployment rate is about 20 percent and rising, and the drug-use rate is 5 times higher than that of the U.S.A.
The U.S. government needs to look at Iran's opposition groups and empower journalists to report on domestic situations. It says it supports Iran's move to constitutional democracy, but it does not show that. Washington needs to clarify its message to Iranians. The opposition needs to know it has solid American support, and will have that support for the long run.
There will be a nuclear Iran in 5 or 10 years. Whose hands do we want the weapons in?
Islamism & Jihadism -- The Threat of Radical Islam
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Ilan Berman is Vice President for Policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C. An expert on security issues in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia, he has consulted for the CIA and the Pentagon and is a frequent guest on radio and television. His writings have appeared in The National Interest, the International Herald Tribune, Financial Times, and the Middle East Quarterly. He is Adjunct Professor at the National Defense University and Editor of the Journal of International Security Affairs.
The foregoing article by Ilan Berman was originally published as a "MEF Wire" and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum.
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