Concerning the commentary by Messrs. Carpenter, Cordesman, and Luttwak, its not really necessary to respond in length to the first two gentlemen, since Mr. Carpenter isn’t really writing about the Islamic Republic—he’s writing about the United States and what might be called the libertarian conception of American foreign policy and especially the projection of American power. And Mr. Cordesman paints an extremely dark (and accurate) image of the clerical regime, and then says we shouldn’t really consider military strikes to derail the mullahs’ quest for a nuke. (I would agree with Mr. Cordesman that we have a diplomatic process underway that we should allow to play out—and we will not have to wait in all probability all that long for it to exhaust itself—before we choose any military option.) There is an internal contradiction in Mr. Cordesman’s piece that Mr. Luttwak alluded to, and I don’t think I need to add anything more.
I don’t think it’s unfair to Mr. Carpenter to suggest that one could imagine virtually any country as the subject of his commentary and the essentials of his critique wouldn’t vary much. For example, Mr. Carpenter gives no discussion of the internal clerical dynamics or Iran’s revolutionary history, which really ought to lead any discussion of whether we can tolerate Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Mahmud Ahmadinejad possessing atomic weapons. There is neither a discussion of Allah and Man nor the place of the United States in Iran’s radical Islamic cosmology. Nor a discussion of the Islamic Republic’s lasting embrace of terrorism. Nor its long-standing ecumenical outreach program to Sunni radicals and holy warriors (Al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman az-Zawahiri, has been for twenty years one of Tehran’s favorite militant Sunni poster boys). Nor its enormously worrisome “incarceration” of Al Qaeda warriors who fled Afghanistan and yet still placed phone calls to Saudi Arabia just before Al Qaeda attacks in the peninsula. The Islamic Republic allowed members of Al Qaeda to traverse its territory before 9/11, even though Al Qaeda had clearly established itself as a deadly organization, eager to kill Americans in Africa and the Middle East in large-scale operations. None of this is mentioned.
Instead, Mr. Carpenter talks about Mao and Communist China. No offense meant to Mr. Carpenter, but Mao and his minions do not have much in common—especially vis-à-vis the United States—with the terrorism-generating clerical children of Ayatollah Khomeini. Juxtaposing China during the Cultural Revolution with North Korea might be a valuable exercise in thinking about North Korean nuclear weapons and proliferation—but even here, given the differences between the two totalitarianisms it would be a bit of a push. Try imagining Iran’s leader Ali Khamenei, let alone the slightly more messianic president Ahmadinejad, shaking hands with an American president after a long American motorcade has passed through Tehran and you ought to be able to see that Mr. Carpenter’s discussion is a bit surreal. In a pre-9/11 world, Shi’ite and Sunni radical Islamic terrorism should have been one of those things that scared us the most. To President Clinton’s credit he intellectually understood the potential of the Sunni menace (he understood Iran not at all, though some of his working-level minions, like Ken Pollack, certainly learned from that administration’s experience with the presidency of Mohammad Khatami that there is something seriously concrete in the clerics’ God-delivered anti-American creed). To President Clinton’s shame, he couldn’t compel himself into preemptive military action against the rising Sunni menace. Yet it would appear in 2006 such holy warriors scare Mr. Carpenter not much at all. They should.
Concerning Mr. Luttwak, I don’t think I need to write much in response either. Essentially, we are in agreement. I’m somewhat skeptical that we have three years before we ought to strike—assuming the diplomatic process fails, and it will likely fail completely within twelve months unless the clerical regime becomes much more astute. The dynamism of this situation—the likely increasing clandestine nuclear activities of the mullahs (and I agree with Mr. Luttwak that it will be difficult for the regime to keep its activities completely in the black) and their nefarious activity abroad (the recent actions of the Hezbollah, which is as permeated by Iranian influence as were the former European satellites of the Soviet Union, are just a foretaste of the hard-power games we are likely to see Tehran inspire)—will probably shrink the 36-month calendar, perhaps considerably. As we begin to contemplate seriously the awful ramifications of the clerical regime going nuclear, our patience on this issue may well disappear. The Bush administration will not likely punt this problem to its successor (and to the administration’s credit, there doesn’t appear to be much desire to try to make the next president responsible for the clerics’ atomic bomb). Before the Bush presidency ends, we will probably have the great Iran debate about bombing. I still have a suspicion that the president may make this debate much more lively than most of Washington’s cognoscenti now believe.