The Multilateral Moment?

Our bad and worse choices about Iran.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Multilateralism good; preemption and unilateralism bad.”

For four years we have heard these Orwellian commandments as if they were inscribed above the door of Farmer Jones’s big barn. Now we will learn their real currency, since the Americans are doing everything imaginable — drawing in the Europeans, coaxing the Russians and Chinese to be helpful at the U.N., working with international monitoring agencies, restraining Israel, talking to the Arabs, keeping our jets in their hangars — to avoid precipitous steps against Iran.

Its theocracy poses a danger to civilization even greater than a nuclear North Korea for a variety of peculiar circumstances. Iran is free of a patron like China that might in theory exert moderate influence or even insist on occasional restraint. North Korea, for an increasingly wealthy and capitalist China, is as much a headache and an economic liability as a socialist comrade.

In contrast, Iran is a cash cow for Russia (and China) and apparently a source of opportunistic delight in its tweaking of the West. Iranian petro-wealth has probably already earned Tehran at least one, and probably two, favorable votes at the Security Council.

Of course, Tehran’s oil revenues allow it access to weapons markets, and overt blackmail, both of which are impossible for a starving North Korea. And Iran’s nuclear facilities are located at the heart of the world’s petroleum reserves, where even the semblance of instability can drive up global oil prices, costing the importing world billions in revenues.

No one is flocking to Communism, much less Pyongyang’s unrepentant, ossified Stalinist brand. Islamic radicalism, on the other hand, has declared war on Western society and tens of thousands of jihdadists, whether Shiia or Sunnis, count on Iran for money, sanctuary, and support. Al Qaeda members travel the country that is the spiritual godhead of Hezbollah, and a donor of arms and money to radical Palestinian terrorists.

North Korea can threaten Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and the western United States, and so poses a real danger. But the opportunities for havoc are even richer for a nuclear Iran. With nukes and an earned reputation for madness, it can dictate to the surrounding Arab world the proper policy of petroleum exportation; it can shakedown Europeans whose capitals are in easy missile range; it can take out Israel with a nuke or two; or it can bully the nascent democracies of the Middle East while targeting tens of thousands of US soldiers based from Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf.

And Iran can threaten to do all this under the aegis of a crazed Islamist regime more eager for the paradise of the next world than for the material present so dear to the affluent and decadent West. If Iran can play brinkmanship now on just the promise of nuclear weapons, imagine its roguery to come when it is replete with them.

When a supposedly unhinged Mr. Ahmadinejad threatens the destruction of Israel and then summarily proceeds to violate international protocols aimed at monitoring Iran’s nuclear industry, we all take note. Any country that burns off some of its natural gas at the wellhead while claiming that it needs nuclear power for domestic energy is simply lying. Terrorism, vast petroleum reserves, nuclear weapons, and boasts of wiping neighboring nations off the map are a bad combination.

So we all agree on the extent of the crisis, but not on the solutions, which can be summarized by four general options.

First is the ostrich strategy — see and hear no evil, if extending occasional peace feelers out to more reasonable mullahs. Hope that “moderates” in the Iranian government exercise a restraining influence on Mr. Ahmadinejad. Sigh that nuclear Iran may well become like Pakistan — dangerous and unpredictable, but still perhaps “manageable.” Talk as if George Bush and the Iranians both need to take a time out.

I doubt that many serious planners any longer entertain this passive fantasy, especially after the latest rantings of Ahmadinejad. Pakistan, after all, has some secular leaders, is checked by nuclear India, and has a recent past of cooperation with the United States. Most importantly, it is more than ever a lesson in past laxity, as the United States and Europe were proven criminally derelict in giving Dr. Khan and his nuclear-mart a pass — which may well come back to haunt us all yet.

Alternatively, we could step up further global condemnation. The West could press the U.N. more aggressively — repeatedly calling for more resolutions, and, ultimately, for sanctions, boycotts, and embargos, energizes our allies to cut all ties to Iran, and provides far more money to dissident groups inside Iran to rid the country of the Khomeinists. Ensuring that democracy works in Iraq would be subversive to the mullahs across the border. Some sort of peaceful regime change is the solution preferred by most — and, of course, can be pursued in a manner contemporaneous with, not exclusionary to, other strategies.

It is a long-term therapy and therefore suffers the obvious defect that Iran might become nuclear in the meantime. Then the regime’s resulting braggadocio might well deflate the dissident opposition, as the mullahs boast that they alone have restored Iranian national prestige with an Achaemenid bomb.

A third, and often unmentionable, course is to allow the most likely intended target of nuclear Iran, Israel, to take matters into its own hands. We know this scenario from the 1981 destruction of Saddam’s French-built Osirak nuclear reactor: the world immediately deplores such “unilateral” and “preemptory” recklessness, and then sighs relief that Israel, not it, put the bell on the fanged cat.

But 2006 is not 1981. We are in war with Islamic radicalism, at the moment largely near the Iranian border in Iraq and Afghanistan. The resulting furor over a “Zionist” strike on Shia Iran might galvanize Iraqi Shiites to break with us, rather than bring them relief that the Jewish state had eliminated a nearby nuclear threat and had humiliated an age-old rival nation and bitter former enemy. Thousands of Americans are in range of Iranian artillery and short-term missile salvoes, and, in theory, we could face in Iraq a conventional enemy at the front and a fifth column at the rear.

And Iran poses far greater risks than in the past for Israeli pilots flying in over the heart of the Muslim world, with 200-300 possible nuclear sites that are burrowed into mountains, bunkers and suburbs. Such a mission would require greater flight distances, messy refueling, careful intelligence, and the need to put Israeli forces on alert for an Iranian counterstrike or a terrorist move from Lebanon. Former Israeli friends like Turkey are now not so cordial, and the violation of Islamic airspace might in the short-term draw an ugly response, despite the eventual relief in Arab capitals at the elimination of the Iranian nuclear arsenal.

If the Israeli raids did not take out the entire structure, or if there were already plutonium present in undisclosed bunkers, then the Iranians might shift from their sickening rhetoric and provide terrorists in Syria and Lebanon with dirty bombs or nuclear devices to “avenge” the attack as part of a “defensive” war of “striking back” at “Israeli aggression”. Europeans might even shrug at any such hit, concluding that Israel had it coming by attacking first.

The fourth scenario is as increasingly dreaded as it is apparently inevitable — a U.S. air strike. Most hope that it can be delayed, since its one virtue — the elimination of the Iranian nuclear threat — must ipso facto outweigh the multifaceted disadvantages.

The Shiite allies in Iraq might go ballistic and start up a second front as in 2004. Muslim countries, the primary beneficiaries of a disarmed Iran, would still protest loudly that some of their territories, if only for purposes of intelligence and post-operative surveillance, were used in the strike. After Iraq, a hit on Iran would confirm to the Middle East Street a disturbing picture of American preemptory wars against Islamic nations.

Experts warn that we are not talking about a Clintonian one-day cruise-missile hit, or even something akin to General Zinni’s 1998 extended Operation Desert Fox campaign. Rather, the challenges call for something far more sustained and comprehensive — perhaps a week or two of bombing at every imaginable facility, many of them hidden in suburbs or populated areas. Commando raids might need to augment air sorties, especially for mountain redoubts deep in solid rock.

The political heat would mount hourly, as Russia, China, and Europe all would express shock and condemnation, and whine that their careful diplomatic dialogue had once again been ruined by the American outlaws. Soon the focus of the U.N. would not be on Iranian nuclear proliferation, or the role of Europe, Pakistan, China, and Russia in lending nuclear expertise to the theocracy, but instead on the mad bomber-cowboy George Bush. We remember that in 1981 the world did not blame the reckless and greedy French for their construction of a nuclear reactor for Saddam Hussein, but the sober Israelis for taking it out.

Politically, the administration would have to vie with CNN’s daily live feeds of collateral damage that might entail killed Iranian girls and boys, maimed innocents, and street-side reporters who thrust microphones into stretchers of civilian dead. The Europeans’ and American Left’s slurs of empire and hegemony would only grow.

We remember the “quagmire” hysteria that followed week three in Afghanistan, and the sandstorm “pause” that prompted cries that we had lost Iraq. All that would be child’s play compared to an Iranian war, as retired generals and investigative reporters haggled every night on cable news over how many reactor sites were still left to go. So take for granted that we would be saturated by day four of the bombing with al Jazeera’s harangues, perhaps a downed and blindfolded pilot or two paraded on television, some gruesome footage of arms and legs in Tehran’s streets, and the usual Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Boxer outtakes.

So where do these bad and worse choices leave us? Right where we are now — holding and circling while waiting for a break in the clouds.

Still, there are two parameters we should accept — namely, that Iran should not be allowed to arm its existing missiles with nukes and that Israel should not have to do the dirty work of taking out Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

The Europeans and the Americans right now must accelerate their efforts and bring the crisis to a climax at the Security Council to force China and Russia publicly to take sides. India, Pakistan, and the Arab League should all be brought in and briefed on the dilemma, and asked to go on record supporting U.N. action.

The public relations war is critical. Zen-like, the United States must assure the Europeans, Russians, and Arabs that the credit for a peaceful solution would be theirs. The lunacy of the Iranian president should provide the narrative of events, and thus be quoted hourly — as we remain largely silent.

Economically, we should factor in the real possibility that Iranian oil might be off the global market, and prepare — we have been here before with the Iranian embargo of 1979 — for colossal gasoline price hikes. This should also be a reminder that Ahmadinejad, Saddam, Hugo Chavez, and an ascendant and increasingly undemocratic Putin all had in common both petrodollar largess and desperate Western, Chinese, and Indian importers willing to overlook almost anything to slake their thirst. Unless we develop an energy policy that collapses the global oil price, for the next half-century expect every few years something far creepier than the Saudi Royals and Col. Moammar Gadhafi to threaten the world order.

The Democratic leadership should step up to the plate and, in Truman-esque fashion, forge a bipartisan front to confront Iran and make the most of their multilateral moment. If the Democrats feel they have lost the public’s confidence in their stewardship of national security, then the threat of Iran offers a Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, or John Kerry an opportunity to get out front now and pledge support for a united effort — attacking Bush from the right about too tepid a stance rather from the predictable left that we are “hegemonic” and “imperialistic” every time we use force abroad.

Finally, the public must be warned that dealing with a nuclear Iran is not a matter of a good versus a bad choice, but between a very bad one now and something far, far worse to come.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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