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The third goal of U.S. policy should be to dissuade Iran from pursuing WMD. Back in October 2002, North Korea confronted the United States with an unprecedented challenge when it disclosed that it had clandestinely developed a nuclear capability. North Korea’s nuclear breakout has successfully stymied American strategy in Asia since, and the lesson has not been lost on Iran’s ayatollahs. The Iranian regime has been working tirelessly on its nuclear program, animated by the conviction that it needs to go nuclear like North Korea, lest it end up like Iraq. Simply put, Iran’s ayatollahs have become convinced that the stability of their regime is directly correlated to the maturity of their nuclear effort.
The key to chilling Tehran’s enthusiasm for the bomb, therefore, hinges upon inverting that equation. Through a stronger mix of economic measures (from targeted sanctions to a gasoline embargo) and financial/logistical support for diverse opposition groups inside and outside the country, the United States can craft a policy that makes Iran’s nuclear progress inversely proportional to regime stability. Such steps, if taken resolutely and explicitly linked to Tehran’s nuclear intransigence, will go a long way toward convincing the Iranian regime that if it wants to stay in business, it must get out of the nuclear business.
The fourth objective needs to be the Defense of American assets and allies. Back in February 2003, Kamal Kharrazi, Iran’s foreign minister at the time, sat down with the conservative daily Siyasat-e Rouz for a wide-ranging interview. Kharrazi used that occasion to outline his regime’s doctrine of “defensive deterrence,” a military strategy incorporating the use of asymmetric warfare and terrorist proxies against the superior conventional forces of the United States and the Coalition.
Some five and a half years on, “defensive deterrence” remains very much in vogue among Iran’s warfighters, and nuclear acquisition will have little impact on this game plan. After all, Iran’s ayatollahs know full well that their conventional military cannot stand toe-to-toe with Coalition forces. So a bomb in Iran’s basement is not likely to yield a qualitatively new military strategy, but rather an intensification in the scope and reach of the current one. The United States needs to plan accordingly, hardening its “soft targets”—including embassies throughout the region and provisional reconstruction teams (PRTs) now operating in Iraq—and reinforcing its security assistance to vulnerable local allies. Just as importantly, it must curtail Iran’s ability to support terrorist surrogates in the region in the years ahead.
Above all, policymakers in Washington should harbor no illusions about the nature of the Iranian regime. Now nearly 30 years old, the Islamic Republic remains a radical, revolutionary state—one which, according to U.S. government estimates, serves both as the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism and the “central banker” of it. Its demise would be a net benefit for global security and a blessing to its own captive population.
For all its public pronouncements, the Bush administration has stopped far short of unequivocally supporting such a goal. Come January, the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will need to decide whether he will go further than his predecessor in supporting real change within Iran. Before he can do so, however, the next president will need a strategy for holding the line against the rising regional power of a nearly nuclear Iran. The stability of the greater Middle East, and our long-term interests there, depends on it.
Ilan Berman is vice president for policy at the American Policy Council in Washington, D.C.