Teheran's War by Proxy

With the summer upon us, some may have forgotten that there is a war on. No, not the one in Iraq, no one can forget that one, but between different visions of what life is all about, between our “corrupt, decadent, immoral” dedication to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (gimme more!), and a radical, murderous version of Islamic fundamentalism.
While we were watching the Independence Day fireworks, new evidence has cropped up of this growing confrontation. The administration belatedly confirmed last week, that Iran is, indeed, supplying weapons and other assistance to its Iraqi proxies, which is then used against US forces and allies. Whoa.Who’da thought, Iran waging a proxy war against the US and its allies? In the Wall Street Journal, the level-headed, tell it as it is, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I.-Conn.), called this a virtual declaration of war.  

Let’s be fair. Iran does have serious security concerns. It is surrounded by seven countries, none of which one would particularly want to have as a neighbor, and has a long coast, as well. With a long historical memory  —  the bloody eight year Iran-Iraq war in particular  —   and seeing itself surrounded by the US and US allies on virtually all sides, Iranian paranoia is not without grounds. Moreover, by virtue of its geographic and population size, Iran is, rightfully, a regional power. Building up its military potential and alliances with proxy forces, are legitimate tools of statecraft.

Terror, repression and nuclear weapons are not.

In reality, Iran should be grateful to the US. Through the law of unintended consequences, the US has done more to bolster Iranian security in recent years than Teheran’s mullahs’ ever dreamed of in their greatest flights of religious fancy. The US toppled Saddam Hussein and put Iraq, Iran’s enemy Numero Uno, out of the game for the foreseeable future. It overthrew the Taliban, its Sunni nemesis in Afghanistan, and led to the take over of Gaza by Hamas, Iran’s Palestinian ally, soon to be broadened to the West Bank, as well. In Lebanon, Israel’s inept handling of last summer’s war with Hizaballah, Iran’s foremost proxy, together with the timid US opposition to Hizballah and Syria, have created a situation in which Hizballah may soon be the de facto, if not de jure, government in that country. A renewed Israeli-Hizballah/Syrian/Iranian conflict looms.

The US is fighting a losing battle in Iraq, as Israel has been doing in Lebanon. One cannot win a war against an aggressive, expansionist adversary, simply by fighting a limited war against its proxies. As with the great totalitarian “isms” of the previous century, you either take the war directly to the enemy — or face him on your own shores. Only the US can spearhead this effort. The good news is that it now has some serious partners in this cause — Merkel in Germany, Sarkozy in France (a pro-American, clear thinking French leader, will wonders never cease?) and presumably, Brown in Britain.

In its last eighteen months, it is time for the Administration to adopt a comprehensive and practical policy towards Iran. Its preoccupation with regime change, a worthy objective in its own right, is, as befits the region, no more than a mirage. It has not happened in the 28 years since the Iranian revolution and it will not happen in the foreseeable future, certainly not from the outside, nor before Iran has the “bomb.” The more pessimistic (but not necessarily unrealistic) estimates, predict that Iran may have a first bomb within two or three years, and not more than five.  Betting on regime change as a means of dealing with Iran, especially with its nuclear program, is tantamount to hoping that the next time we watch “Titanic”, the iceberg will choose to sail itself out of the ship’s path.

Following the Iraqi WMD fiasco and the mismanagement of the war, the US will find it very hard to go it alone once again, this time against Iran. It should thus make every effort to bring along its European and other allies, not to mention domestic public opinion, to show that this time it has truly exhausted all diplomatic options. Even if Iran can not be “bought off” to cease its nuclear program and involvement in terror, as many believe, the effort must be made. Only then will the hardball options, an oil embargo, naval blockade, or ultimately military action, become politically feasible.

A realistic policy would include an immediate announcement of a two-tiered US policy: On the carrot side, a willingness to engage Iran in a comprehensive dialogue, focusing first and foremost on its nuclear program, involvement in terror and Iraq, in exchange for all reasonable inducements.  

Talk and diplomacy with aggressive regimes, however, are usually effective, only when accompanied by a sizable “stick”. The next round of Security Council sanctions will be only slightly less ineffectual than those adopted during the previous two. They should thus be accompanied by agreement between the US and its allies to impose truly biting sanctions outside of the Security Council, if Iran does not comply within a short, fixed, period.

Once these diplomatic moves have been rejected, as nearly all Iranian experts believe they will, it will become time to wield the truly big sticks.  It is time to stop doing Iran favors and to adopt a credible strategy aimed directly against her, not just her proxies, and to stop defeating ourselves through a self deterring fear of Iran’s potential responses.

Yes, Iran can (and will, in any event) increase its support for the insurgents in Iraq and terror in the region and abroad — it is doing so anyway — but its options are limited. The worse it can do is refuse to sell its oil, which would be tantamount to cutting off its nose to spite its face – Iran’s economy would simply collapse. They may be nuts, but they are not crazy.  We can face up to the challenge, or go back to enjoying the summer sunshine and wake up a few years from now with a nuclear Iran, further emboldened by its success in driving the US out of Iraq. Chew on that one between now and Labor Day.


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