According to the Washington Post, the newest edition of the classified National Intelligence Estimate includes a revision of the prevailing view in the intelligence community on the Iranian nuclear program. Whereas the consensus had been that Iran was five years or fewer from building nuclear weapons, the new thinking suggests that, while the mullahs are certainly wedded to the pursuit of such weapons, they may actually be closer to ten years away.
Set aside, for a moment, the point that the American intelligence community's record on predicting such things is, to put it nicely, less than perfect. Let's take it at face value that Iran is ten years from going nuclear. What does that mean for U.S. strategy toward the Islamic Republic?
In short, it means the case for pursuing regime change in Tehran is as strong, and perhaps stronger, than ever.
To review: the Iranian government is America's enemy, and the ally and sponsor of terrorists. Hezbollah has long enjoyed Iranian sponsorship as they killed Americans in Beirut in the '80s and at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. Tehran almost certainly provides some direct support for elements of the insurgency in Iraq, including the Shiite radicals who probably murdered journalist Steven Vincent earlier this week. There is evidence of al Qaeda taking refuge in Iran, as some in the Bush administration warned immediately after the end of major combat in Afghanistan, and even reports of more intimate connections between Tehran and al Qaeda. (Kenneth R. Timmerman has collected the most frightening such reports, including claims by defectors that the Iranian government was aware of 9/11 beforehand and that Osama bin Laden himself is now in Iran, in his book Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran.)
It is important that such a regime not acquire nuclear weapons. It would be even better for it to fall. The problem, though, is that if we believe Iran is right around the corner from going nuclear, and that ongoing diplomatic efforts to convince it to halt production are doomed to fail (and they are), then those two goals may conflict. The mullahs are hated by the people of Iran, particularly the youth (and Iran has an especially young population). America, as the sworn enemy of their oppressive leaders, is admired among the discontented population. But if the U.S. takes aggressive action to stop Tehran's nuclear weapon development, that could change. A full-scale invasion and occupation of Iran, with all that the American military has to contend with at the moment, is impractical, so military action would mean bombing Iranian nuclear facilities to delay their progress. Such an operation would not be "clean"; the regime has been careful to place many of its nuclear facilities so as to maximize civilian casualties. An attack would stoke nationalist anger at America and cost the goodwill of the Iranian people, which is the best thing we have going in the country.
As long as we maintain that goodwill, there is the chance of pushing the regime over by fomenting revolution, both with frequent rhetorical support for Iranian democrats and with material support for anti-regime elements analogous to the support provided for anti-Communist militants under the Reagan Doctrine. Those who favor bombing strikes argue, though, that we don't have time to follow that route. Reuel Marc Gerecht put it this way in his June 9, 2003 Weekly Standard cover story:
Until young men feel differently, it is difficult to see how a new revolutionary movement can develop. It is conceivable that an effective covert action against the mullahs could be devised, but it's just not likely within the time frame allowed by Iran's nuclear program, which may well produce nuclear weapons within two years.
Two years since Gerecht wrote that, Iran is thankfully still nuke-free. If the NIE is correct, we have do indeed have time to directly help build and support an armed resistance.
We should do so immediately. Ten years can go by fast, after all.
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