Sunday, August 15, 2010

Reason for Pessimism on Iran

An interesting article came out this week from Jeffrey Goldberg. Apparently, Israel could attack Iran in the next year. That doesn’t seem like a good eventuality.

Most analysts predict that any Israeli attack will only set the Iranian program back for a little while. Worse, as Iran rebuilds its program, it will be portrayed as a victim of Jewish aggression in the Muslim world. This could not come at a worse time either. Sunni Arab rulers don’t want a Shiite Iranian hegemon any more than Americans or Israelis do. But if pressed, I suspect the average Arab ( who dislikes Israel more than he does Iran) will rally around the Iranian regime.

Yet if attacking right now is bad, so is the prospect of doing nothing. Sanctions have not stopped Ahmadinejad from pursuing weapons, and there is not a serious opposition left to challenge him. The alternative to an Israeli attack is an American one, which has a better chance of setting the Iranian program back for a while. President Obama probably has more credibility to initiate an attack than any Western leader in recent memory. He has tried outreach and sanctions. He has gone through the UN. He spoke to the Muslim world at Cairo. He could say that he really didn’t want it to come to this, but that his hand was forced by a recalcitrant Iranian regime (which would be true). Any statement to this effect would be more believable coming from him than a Netanyahu or Bush.

The other option is containment, ie, living with a nuclear Iran. That’s awful for a few reasons. First, it’s not clear that Iran is as rational an actor as most states. As George Will noted in his column today, the Ayatollah Khomeini once said “We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.” Of course there are plenty of Iranian nationalists as well who rank Iran's interests above Islam's, but there seem to be enough fanatical Islamicists to really affect Iran’s decision calculus.

Second, containment will color everything in US foreign policy from now on. To see evidence of this, look no further than the history of containment against the Soviet Union. The US propped up dictators and overlooked human rights abuses all in the name of stopping global Communism. Do we really want to go down that road again?

So there it is. There are bad options and worse options on Iran. I fear nothing good can now come of the situation.

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