Maybe, just maybe, the US has pulled off a coup with its Iranian strategy. The mullahs are weakening, and we may finally have a chance to end the regime in Tehran and, with it, its associated terrorism and its nuclear weapons program. But, and this is where things get dicey, we might accept a "deal" that unfortunately leaves the regime in Tehran in place while perhaps not even making "transparent" its uranium enrichment and centrifuge work.
Regime change could transform the Middle East and is what most Americans want. The "deal," -- essentially more negotiating while the Iranians run-out-the-clock -- may be what we get.
In short, do we press on and change this noxious regime? Or do we accept a "deal," imperfect as it may be, but call it "progress" nonetheless? One could be a major victory against state-sponsored terror. The latter might be called "progress," but with it might come nukes built by Tehran under the cover of apparent "cooperation."
So far, much of our efforts over the past year and a half have been to pass what Senator John Kerry called, in his 2004 Presidential campaign, an "international test." Did US foreign policy receive the approval from the elites of Europe and the United Nations? The theory at the time was that only with such approval could US policy be successful.
This required proving that the United States was serious about the possibility of "engagement," of allowing diplomacy to work things out with the leadership in Iran. The idea that you could negotiate with the Mullahs struck many people as fanciful, but remember, the Iraq Study Group, made up of elite luminaries, recommended that such a deal with Iran was viable because, after all, "Iran has every interest in stability in the Middle East."
With the passage first by the UN, then Congress, and soon the EU, of serious economic sanctions against Iran, there is talk that the mullahs in Tehran may be the first to blink in a 30-year conflict which many believed the US was losing.
The history is well known: Our embassy was seized in 1979, and for over 400 days held hostage along with hundreds of American diplomats. Our Marines were slaughtered on a "peacekeeping mission" in Beirut when a car bomb was detonated in their barracks; our rules of engagement had precluded our guards from carrying loaded weapons.
In December 1998, a Pam Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, blew apart: the result of a Libyan-Iranian operation originally farmed out to Damascus and the Assad regime in Syria. According to the 9/11 Commission, Iran assisted in the movement of some of the 9/11 hijackers from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, where they could apply for US visas without authorities knowing their country of origin.
From the documents about our war in Afghanistan, there is additional confirmation that Iran has helped arm the Taliban and Al Qaeda, supporting the very terrorism that the intelligence world too often told us does not see Shiites work with Sunnis and vice versa: General Petraeus explained Iran's dirty work in Afghanistan (and Iraq for that matter) in Congressional testimony numerous times.
So for many Americans, it seems obvious that the regime in Tehran is at war with us; then why has the American response been so feeble?
First, there appears to be an unwillingness to believe that we are at war, or that the mullahs are at war with us. This includes a belief that we face largely bands of jihadis, brainwashed in the mosques, but not that we are facing states actively using terrorist proxies against us, whether Iraq, Syria, Libya, the Taliban of Afghanistan, or Iran.
Second, too many financial interests, comfortable doing "business as usual," seek to invest in Iran's lucrative oil and gas sector, potentially one of the world's largest.
Third, there seems to be an assumption that those who portray Iran as a threat to the US simply want an excuse to "make war on another country."
Fourth, there is a view that whatever the Iranian policy against the US, it is our fault, given our support of the 1954 coup in Tehran, and for the Shah from 1954-1979. One Washington Post reporter wrote an entire book devoted to precisely this "blame America only" syndrome with respect to the US and Iran.
These "assumptions" collectively motivated much of American Iranian policy, which could charitably be characterized as facile and weak (with the exception of when President Reagan reflagged the Kuwaiti oil tankers -- switched the Kuwaiti flags for American flags so if the Iranians attacked the tankers they would be attacking American vessels -- against Iranian attacks). So while mild sanctions were placed on the regime in 1979 following our embassy seizure, they were subsequently relaxed or neutered. It was only in the 1990s, during the Clinton administration, that the US Congress again secured sufficient support within its own membership to pass what became known as the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act.
With the capture of Saddam Hussein, Libya's leadership finally agreed to a US and British team dismantling the nuclear weapons program that Tripoli had been secretly assembling. The key catalysts were two: the seizure of the BBC China, a German freighter stuffed to the gills with nuclear weapons centrifuges destined for Libya from the Khan network's production facilities in Malaysia, and the US liberation of Iraq. Gadaffi deliberately chose not to go down like Saddam.
But with Iran, do we even have a Saddam option or a Gadaffi option? Evidence is accumulating that the Iranians are feeling the pinch of serious sanctions. A South Korean company, a major player in the development of the South Pars gas fields, has withdrawn its participation; and major oil companies, most notably British Petroleum, have pointedly refused to refuel Iranian airplanes at European airports.
Insurance firms are refusing to insure Iranian cargo, leaving ships idle, while banking firms are moving to sever ties with Iran's financial system. According to Ilan Berman, the Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council, as business becomes increasingly difficult to conduct, the merchant class in Iran, critical to the regime's political support, is increasingly turning against the mullahs, the IRGC, and the Iranian leadership. A key factor: Will the bazaars, especially those critical to every day life, stay open, or will they close? Will discontent change the regime or will a "nuclear deal" make any such discontent disappear, if as a result "the democratic opposition is thrown under the bus"?
And here we face a dilemma: as a number of Iranian experts explained to me, what is it we really want to accomplish with the sanctions and the economic barriers we are placing in the way of the Iranian economy? To get full inspections from the UN's International Atomic Energy Administration? David Kay, probably the world's top expert on such procedures, warns in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that even with such inspections, the West will not be able to stop the Iranian drive toward nuclear weapons. As a former director-general of the IAEA correctly noted two decades ago, the NPT and the related IAEA provisions can only be enforced if cooperative countries tell us where their nuclear facilities are.
Although obvious to many Americans, what is sometimes lost is the tendency to treat the IAEA inspection process as somehow the "end of the road"— that, if agreed to, "Problem solved!" But it is not the end of the road; it is the very beginning of a process and it keeps unresolved the exact nature of our end game with Iran.
Here, one Iranian expert told me, it gets problematical: she explained, echoing the views of Henry Sokolski, that the NPT, under traditional views, does allow nation states to enrich uranium up to where they are very close to producing nuclear weapons useable fuel. Is this the Iran we want to live with for the indefinite future, a kind of virtual nuclear state? And how will we know, having returned to the status quo ante, what evidence is required to once again determine if the Iranians are or are not "fully" complying with the terms of the NPT or the specific provisions as laid down by the IAEA inspection process? This game of nuclear rope-a-dope has been played forever by the mullahs. Will we continue to play along?
Is a nuclear-enriched fuel swap, similar to what was proposed last fall, featuring Brazil, Iran and Turkey, the end game? While on the surface it appears attractive, it does nothing to halt the continued production of enriched uranium by the Iranian government, nor does it address Iran's role as the premier terror master in the world today, or its continued production and enhancement of missiles designed to carry warheads -- including nuclear ones -- to their targets in the Middle East, Europe and eventually the United States.
This then brings us to the three possible alternatives most discussed resulting from the current sanctions: (1) An IAEA brokered deal that secures agreement on adequate inspections and some transparency of Iran's enrichment facilities; (2) Continued sanctions and economic "warfare" measures until such time as the regime in Iran "agrees to a deal" eliminating its nuclear program all together; or (3) A decision to use military force to eliminate as much of the nuclear infrastructure and missile facilities as possible, upon concluding that further sanctions will not bring about Iranian compliance with the rules of the NPT and the inspection regime of the IAEA.
Deal number one portends endless negotiations over the narrow terms of IAEA inspection requirements, a road we have traveled now for many years. Deal number two might materialize but the economic sanctions are explicitly designed to ensure Iranian compliance with deal number one, and not to change the regime or eliminate the nuclear program. Deal number three is supposedly "on the table," but perhaps no longer taken seriously by the Iranian regime.
We then come down to who blinks first. Ambassador John Bolton in the end is probably right—the only viable Iranian option is to both destroy the nuclear weapons infrastructure of the Mullahs and the IRGC, and take down the regime. However we are often pointedly reminded that the stomach for regime change is not there among the military, among the public or the political leadership. After all it could be correctly noted, we took down the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq and are still fighting ugly wars costing many American lives.
Even though forcing regime change in Iran may not entail putting US combat forces on the ground, it behooves American leaders to clearly explain the two wars we are now fighting, which we have not done, before we embark on another. To be sure, an effective a military campaign against Iran's nuclear facilities, its missile production and deployment sites, and its terrorist training and supply camps, would have to be serious. Are we prepared to make such choices?
If in fact the congressionally-passed Iranian sanction measures are allowed to go fully into effect, and if they are followed by similar measures from the European Union, the subsequent economic pressure on the terror masters in Tehran may give them real pause, even if only a tactical retreat.
There is growing evidence that these current economic measures are having such an impact. A huge 70% tax increase on the trading classes was withdrawn by the government. But assuming the Iranian government needs a "deal" to survive, our dilemma remains: continue the pressure and seek regime change? Or holdout for some subsequent "deal," on the assumption that even if improbable, one worth agreeing to will be put on the table. The Iranians have again, for example, resurrected the Brazil-Turkey fuel swap proposal.
In short, although, we may have effectively moved the ball significantly in the right direction, have we thought seriously about how this all ends? Whether we have the wisdom to figure out just how far to go toward regime change—what US policy should be about--will to me be the real "international test." Such decisions will have much to do with whether future Iranian threats to the US and our friends emerge, or whether a new more peaceful chapter in Middle East history begins.