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Bad Ideas For Stopping Iran


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HAVING resumed uranium enrichment, has the Islamic Republic crossed the Rubicon?

The question is dividing commentators and decision makers both inside and outside Iran.

Some, like former Vice President Al Gore, believe that the Islamic Republic is a threat to world peace and must be checked, by force if necessary. Others — like Gore's former boss, ex-President Bill Clinton — are convinced that the best way to deal with Iran is to negotiate.

Yet both may be missing the point.

If military action means a few brief airstrikes or missile attacks, it is certain to be counterproductive.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might even welcome such attacks in the hope that they would lift the uncertainty that is damaging the Iranian economy and undermining his authority. And he would not be wrong.

The ineffective missile attacks that Clinton launched against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Saddamites in Iraq in the 1990s strengthened both regimes in two ways.

First, the attacks demonstrated that when the American "sword of Damocles" falls, it does only limited damage. Second, they showed that the United States did not pursue the broader objective of regime change — which is the only thing that would have made the Taliban and the Saddamites pay attention.

Today, we face a similar situation with the Islamic Republic.

As long as no regime change is on the agenda, the leadership in Tehran wouldn't be swayed by air raids or missile attacks. Indeed, constant saber rattling by the Islamic Republic's adversaries (genuine or fake) plays into the hands of a new leadership that is actively seeking a "clash of civilization," provided its hold on power in Tehran is not threatened.

The new Tehran leadership is flattered by the fact that the United States is treating it as an almost equal adversary, rather than a ramshackle Third World regime.

The Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, who has talked to the Iranian leaders recently, is quoted as saying that in today's world only three countries are genuinely free to act as they please: the United States, China and Iran. Ahmadinejad agrees but leaves China out. He believes that the world today faces a choice between an Americanized existence or diversity under the leadership of the Islamic Republic.

If Gore's idea of a "muscular" answer to the Islamic Republic is out, should we adopt Clinton's scenario for negotiations? Again, the problem is that any diplomatic process would play into the hands of the new leadership in Tehran.

Here is why: To persuade Tehran to negotiate, it would be necessary to postpone referring its dossier to the U.N. Security Council. And that is precisely what Tehran is working hard to achieve.

Tehran would like nothing better than a resumption of talks with the International atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in exchange for postponing any action by the Security Council. To lubricate things along the way, Tehran might even offer another "temporary suspension" of its uranium-enrichment program within a year or two.

Overall, the Tehran leadership wants to keep the focus on the nuclear issue. This could win the regime a measure of popular support inside Iran, where most people do not know what the fuss is about and resent being treated as "less than the Indians" when it comes to having nuclear weapons. At the same time, exclusive attention to the nuclear issue keeps the limelight off of other, potentially more explosive issues — such as violation of human rights, waves of executions and ethnic unrest in many parts of Iran.

Manuchehr Motakki, Iran's new foreign minister, has used a Persian proverb to explain Tehran's diplomacy: "There is hope from pillar to pillar." This means that Islamic diplomacy is geared to achieve two things: first, to prevent the emergence of a consensus among the major powers on regime change in Iran; second, to keep the major powers engaged in an open-ended talking process.

Thus, Clinton's analysis would play right into the hands of Ahmadinejad.

The Iranian analysis is based on the belief that the current U.S. strategy is the product of "a moment of madness" under George W Bush." It assumes that Bush's actions are out of character for an American president and that, once he is out of office, his successor, whoever it is, will revert to the traditional American policy of "conflict avoidance" and "alliance building" for soft-power action.

All the talk in Tehran (and, by extension, in Damascus, since the Islamic Republic has now established itself as the principal supporter of the Syrian regime) is about "the three-year endurance course" — that is, what is left of Bush's final term in office.

It is on the basis of that analysis that Tehran will not enter any negotiations that would question its right to develop what Ahmadinejad describes as "a full scientific nuclear cycle." And it is also on that basis that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has decided not only to tell the United Nations to stuff it but also to reassert Syria's dominance in Lebanon through a new Shiite-Maronite alliance underwritten by Tehran.

The irony of all this is that the Bush administration has played the part assigned to it in the Iranian script: It has thrown its lot with the advocates of diplomacy and soft power — thus giving Ahmadinejad the assurance that there will be no unilateral American action against the Islamic Republic. At the same time, Washington is doing enough saber rattling to give credence to Ahmadinejad's claim that a "clash of civilizations" is underway with Iran leading one camp and the United States another.

In the set speech that he delivers during his campaign-like visits to the provinces, Ahmadinejad mocks the major powers for their "obsession with passing resolutions."

"They just don't get it," he told an audience in Bushehr earlier this month. "They think that because they pass a resolution everyone is obliged to obey them. Our message is simple: Pass resolutions until you are blue in the face! We are guided by what the Hidden Imam tells us, not what you dictate in your resolutions."

If the resolutions of the Security Council are meant to serve as sticks, it is already clear that they don't perform that function as far as the Islamic Republic is concerned. A regime that claims a world leadership in a "clash of civilizations" and promises to "save the world from total Americanization" will not be swayed by such classical tactics.

When it comes to dealing with Iran, neither the Gore approach nor the Clinton alternative is likely to work. The Gore scenario is doomed because even he might not support a full-scale war to change the regime in Tehran. The Clinton plan would not work because even he would not be prepared to grant what Ahmadinejad demands.

So, what is to be done? Ah, that requires another column, doesn't it?

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

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