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« Development-in-a-box would be answer in Iraq | Main | What would Churchill do? »
Sunday
Apr232006

Soft-kill option best choice for Iran

Iran is getting the bomb. The only question is, What does the U.S. get out of this? Because, if we get nothing in return, then we've missed a strategic opportunity to make things better in the Middle East.

I know that admitting this strikes many as defeatist, but let's not delude ourselves.

Realistic war planners on our side say that, unless America goes nuclear on Iran in any strike to take out its nuclear facilities, we'll do little more than delay the inevitable.

Since we won't cross that threshold pre-emptively because of the unacceptable precedent that would set for the planet, we're effectively deterred.

That's right. Iran has already achieved a crude, asymmetrical sort of nuclear deterrence vis-A -vis the United States.

And you know what? We made this choice for Iran.

If I walk up to three men sitting on a park bench and shoot the guy on the right, turning to double-tap the fellow on the left, it's not irrational for the man in the middle to reach for his gun in the meantime. I effectively forced that choice.

That's what we did with Iran. We took out the Taliban on its right and then Saddam Hussein on its left -- oddly enough removing the mullahs' two most hated enemies in the region after Israel.

What did America get in return? Nothing.

To me, that's bad strategy.

How so?

President Bush was both correct and incredibly strategic in his decision to lay a Big Bang on the Middle East by toppling Saddam. That stunning act set in motion a ton of political upheaval across the region, resulting in what Freedom House describes as the biggest growth in political freedom there in the last several decades.

But with these stunning changes -- some we welcome (e.g., Syria out of Lebanon) and others we naturally fear (Hamas' rise to power in Palestine) -- inevitably come tough dilemmas, the biggest one being how we accommodate Iran's new king-making position in the region.

By triggering this tumult, the Bush administration emboldened the region's traditionally repressed minorities, like Shiites in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Shiite-heavy Iran is the natural beneficiary, leading many American experts to opine that Tehran is the real winner of the Iraq war.

But here our fears run wild. Iranians are Persian, not Arab, and Shiites the region over have proven themselves to be quite nationalistic when given the chance. Don't expect, for example, Iraq's Arab Shiites to gain self rule simply so they can cede it to the Persians next door. That's like expecting the Poles to continue kowtowing to the Russians once the wall falls down just because they're all Slavs.

Plus, Shiites are not part of the main threat we face in the region: the radical Salafi jihadists of al-Qaida, which draw their numbers exclusively from Sunni ranks. Conflating those two threats is dead wrong, like assuming Green Bay Packer fans and Chicago Bears fans are natural allies because both teams reside in the NFL's North division.

In the end, we need to see Iran for what it really is: a failed revolution. Tehran's tired authoritarianism consists of the mullahs pretending to rule and the youthful population pretending to obey. Meanwhile, it's the only country in the region where the people overwhelmingly like America.

To me, that's a rogue regime you target with the soft-kill option, meaning we kill them with economic connectivity.

We need to get off this myopic focus on mechanisms (weapons of mass destruction) and instead focus on motivations (fear of a U.S.-led regime change). Asking the Iranian people to choose between nationalism and humiliation will never work.

We need to seek detente with Iran, just like we did with the dreaded Soviet Union in the early 1970s, a country that had plenty of nukes and supported terrorists the world over. Less than a generation later, that "evil empire" was gone, dismantled without us firing a single shot.

We need to do the same with Iran, taming the mullahs with economic connectivity instead of this futile attempt at long-term isolation, which only plays into the hands of the hardliners -- just like with Cuba's Fidel Castro.

America needs to think more creatively on Iran. The soft-kill strategy is realistic; the hard-kill option is not.

Where's our Henry Kissinger on Iran? We better find him before we stumble into a war America simply cannot win.

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