Kicking off the Conversation: The Great Iran Debate

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.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, American Enterprise Institute resident fellow Reuel Marc Gerecht argues that American and European diplomacy aimed at derailing the Iranian clerical regime’s quest for nuclear weapons is, for various reasons, bound to fail. Gerecht maintains that we are then left to with two unattractive alternatives. “Is it better to preventively bomb the clerics’ nuclear facilities, or allow the mullahs to have nuclear weapons?” he asks. Arguing that the latter option “would empower its worst enemies in Tehran and spiritually invigorate all Muslim radicals who live on American weakness,” Gerecht advises the former: a policy of preemptively bombing Iran’s nuclear sites.

Response Essays

  • Cato vice president for defense and foreign policy studies Ted Galen Carpenter argues Gerecht’s strategy of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities may be harder than advertised and that “thousands of innocent Iranians would perish in U.S. air strikes.” Such an attack might trigger a “massive regional crisis.” “America’s troubles with the Islamic world do not yet constitute a war of civilizations,” Carpenter writes, “but Gerecht’s strategy could well produce that result.” Carpenter argues the U.S. should try to persuade Iran to give up its nuke program by offering a “grand bargain,” and if that doesn’t work, should pursue a policy of containment and deterrence, which, while “nerve-wracking,” has proved effective against deadlier and more fanatical regimes.

  • In his reply to Reuel Marc Gerecht’s lead essay, Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues the U.S. must exhaust all its diplomatic options before taking military action against Iran, especially given the shaky situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In any case, Cordesman argues, airstrikes are unlikely to be succeed in stopping the Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Further, Iran already has lethal chemical and biological capacities, and the ability to strike back seriously in a variety of ways. If a strike becomes necessary after the exhaustion of non-military options, it would be better to wait until the targets are clearer. Containment and deterrence, Cordesman maintains, may be a more effective approach.

  • Center for Strategic and International Studies senior advisor Edward N. Luttwak argues that if diplomatic efforts fail, “the United States must be ready to bomb the buildings that are likely to house critical processes and equipment.” This can be a single quick strike, and need not destroy all the many Iranian facilities, Luttwak argues, because “the purpose is not to solve the problem presented by Iran or even its nuclear program, but only to delay the acquisition of nuclear weapons as long as possible, in the hopes that a better regime comes along.” The Iranians can get nukes no sooner than three years, though, so within that time the U.S. should concentrate on weakening the Iranian regime through non-military punitive measures. Furthemore, Luttwak maintains that Iran could fragment along national lines. “There are at least 20 million Azeris in Western Iran who are increasingly determined to assert their nationality,” Luttwak say, and U.S. policy aimed at weakening Iran should support them.