How to handle Iran

MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

NOW THAT WE’VE failed to stop North Korea from going nuclear, it’s all the more imperative to prevent Iran, another member of the “axis of evil,” from going down the same route.

But how? The approach that failed with North Korea -- endless negotiations backed by feeble sanctions and rhetorical bluster -- isn’t likely to be any more successful with Iran.

The only sanction that might really cripple the Iranian regime would be an embargo on its exports of crude oil and imports of refined petroleum, but that would require a concerted international effort. Don’t hold your breath. U.N. Security Council members may be willing to pass resolutions condemning Iran, but they’re unlikely to pay more for oil in order to punish the mullahs.


There are at least two alternatives that should be seriously considered: “soft” and “hard” approaches to regime change.

The soft line would be to offer Iran a grand bargain: If you verifiably suspend your nuclear program and end support for terrorism (primarily in Lebanon and Iraq), the U.S. will lift sanctions, reestablish diplomatic relations and back Iran’s entry into the World Trade Organization. As part of this deal, the U.S. could pledge to not use force to overthrow the Iranian regime, but we would most assuredly not give up peaceful support of Iranian democrats. In fact, by establishing an embassy in Tehran and opening up more cultural and economic links with the West, we might be able to do more to foster regime change than by continuing to try to isolate the mullahs.

This is the preferred strategy of leading Iranian dissidents such as Akbar Ganji, who was released from prison earlier this year after a hunger strike. Iranian liberals believe that such a gambit would put Iran’s government on the defensive because most Iranians want greater foreign investment and more access to the outside world. This approach may be worth trying, if only to score points with the Iranian public and Washington’s allies, but such a deal is unlikely to be accepted by the hard-liners in Tehran. They don’t want to give up the “Great Satan” as a scapegoat for all the ills of their society.

Hence we need to think about a tougher approach to regime change. The U.S. already has increased aid for the promotion of democracy in Iran, from $3 million in 2005 to $76 million in the just-concluded fiscal year. If we’re serious, we need to spend much more, and we need to consider the possibility of going beyond peaceful measures to foment change. An American invasion is out of the question. But perhaps we could do to Iran what the Iranians are doing to us in Iraq, where they are funneling weapons and money to militias that are killing our soldiers.

ALITTLE-KNOWN fact about Iran is that it is only 51% Persian. The rest of the country is made up of ethnic minorities, many of them quite restive. Azeris (24% of the population) rioted earlier this year to protest “Persian chauvinism” after they were depicted as cockroaches in a newspaper cartoon. Kurds (7%), Arabs (3%) and Baluchis (2%) all have active separatist movements that have carried out anti-regime bombings.

There also are a number of opposition groups that span the ethnic spectrum. Workers, women’s groups and students have staged peaceful demonstrations to protest various grievances. The Mujahedin Khalq, a leftist political cult, mounted attacks on Iran in the 1980s and 1990s from bases in Iraq. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, American troops have detained thousands of its activists. They could easily be set loose to make trouble across the border.


This option has a lot of drawbacks. It’s not clear that, even with massive U.S. support, we could mobilize an active insurgency. And, even if we did, our support could backfire and unite the Iranian people around their regime. But then this also would be a likely consequence of airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, which would be the only serious option left once the current Bush administration policy of half-hearted multilateral negotiations backed by toothless U.N. resolutions fails. (Or, rather, once its failure can no longer be denied.)

The options outlined here aren’t palatable to major political constituencies in the United States -- conservatives disdain the soft line; liberals the hard line. But we can’t let political orthodoxy stand in the way of stopping another rogue regime from going nuclear.