Bush Can’t Afford Inaction on Iran

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Hyped reports about an Israeli “mole” in the Pentagon are falling apart faster than the Kerry campaign. It now seems likely that the analyst in question was, at worst, guilty of mishandling a classified document, not espionage. According to news accounts, the memo he’s accused of passing to pro-Israel lobbyists called for U.S. support of Iranian dissidents trying to overthrow their dictatorial government. This may not be spy-novel stuff, but it does raise an important question: Why hasn’t President Bush implemented the recommendations reportedly contained in the Pentagon paper?

The case for action seems overwhelming in light of Bush’s oft-stated warning: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” There is no question which side Iran is on.

The State Department calls Iran the “most active state sponsor of terrorism in the world.” Much of its support goes to groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, but the 9/11 commission also reported that Al Qaeda members -- including eight to 10 of those involved in the airplane attacks on the United States -- were allowed to use Iran as a transit route to and from training camps in Afghanistan. A number of Al Qaeda operatives remain in Iran, ostensibly under house arrest but in all likelihood allowed to carry on their deadly work.


Iran has trained and armed Muqtada Sadr’s militia, which has been attacking U.S. forces in Iraq. Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, the cleric who now heads an influential government council, makes no bones about what his country is up to. In an April sermon, he declared that the situation in Iraq posed “a threat because the wounded American beast can take enraged actions, but it is also an opportunity to teach this beast a lesson so it won’t attack another country.”

Why would Iran be worried about being attacked by the United States? Because it is close to producing a nuclear bomb. It is also working on missiles with the range to strike targets in Europe and North America, though the likeliest vehicles for delivering an Iranian nuke would be its terrorist networks. Hassan Abasi, a senior member of the Revolutionary Guards, recently boasted that Iran had “a strategy drawn up for the destruction of Anglo-Saxon civilization.”

Faced with this grave and gathering threat, John F. Kerry advocates appeasement. He recommends making a deal for Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program in return for U.S. concessions, such as helping it to build “civilian” nuclear reactors. There’s no reason to think this approach would work any better than a similar accord with North Korea in 1994. Iran has already violated a 2003 agreement with Britain, France and Germany to curtail its nuclear weapons development. The mullahs are hellbent on going nuclear; they are not going to give up what one Iranian newspaper editor calls “the rare pearl for which we have labored greatly.”

If we can’t trust Tehran to make a deal, then we need a more confrontational approach. A military strike can’t be ruled out, but it would be hard to pull off, especially without better intelligence than we had on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Luckily, Iran has a robust opposition movement that makes peaceful change from within a feasible alternative.

Self-styled realists claim that the tyrants of Tehran can’t be budged, but then that’s what they said about the Soviet commissars too, right up until the fall of the Berlin Wall. As in the Soviet bloc, most people in Iran have lost faith in their rulers. Many have even braved regime goons to protest in the streets. If they can succeed in establishing a representative government, it will not matter whether Iran has nuclear weapons, any more than it matters that India, Israel, France or any other democracy has nukes. Conversely, even without nukes, the terrorist-sponsoring mullahs would remain a major threat. We need to focus on the nature of the regime, not simply the nature of its weapons.

Bush has recognized the need for democratization in the Middle East, yet, oddly enough, he doesn’t seem to be doing much to help Iranian freedom fighters. Bush’s own deputy secretary of State has said that regime change is not U.S. policy. I hope this is just a ruse to hide covert actions, but I fear it’s the truth. On Iran, as in so many other areas, the administration seems to be paralyzed by disagreements between Defense Department hawks and State Department doves. If Bush doesn’t break through this gridlock soon, he will greatly undermine his claim to offer strong leadership in the war on terror.