Bashing Iran


Atlanta -- Common sense has always been in short supply in the Clinton administration's formulation of foreign policy, and nowhere is this more evident than in its new policy toward Iran. Oblivious of the realities of nuclear proliferation and of change inside Iran, the administration has embarked on a futile attempt to isolate an Iran whose capacity and will to threaten vital Western interests it has grossly inflated.

In April, after declaring Iran an outlaw state steeped in terrorism and lust for nuclear weapons, the administration imposed a full trade embargo on it and urged U.S. allies to follow suit. Not a single one did so, which, as the administration concedes, renders the embargo impotent. Indeed, U.S. allies have become Iran's major trading partners; they correctly point to the dismal success rate of attempting to change another state's political behavior via external economic pressures. The administration then begged Russia to cancel its planned sale of nuclear technology to Iran. The Russians refused.

The United States has isolated itself, not Iran.

Why is the administration pursuing so manifestly futile a policy? Is it trying to pre-empt even tougher measures by the Republican congressional majority? Does the administration recognize that TC truly effective international embargo of Iran would prompt swift and stiff increases in the price of oil? Is this Warren Christopher's revenge against the mullahs who humiliated him and the Carter administration he served during the hostage crisis of 1979-1981? Does the White House remember that ill-conceived U.S. policy toward Iran sank one presidency and came close to destroying another?

Whatever the answers to these questions, there is no doubt that Iran is hardly a civil libertarian's paradise. Iran does sponsor terrorism both within and beyond its borders, and it challenges the imagination that a country so rich in fossil fuel deposits needs the 10 nuclear reactors it plans to build (with Russian and Chinese help) simply to satisfy its future energy requirements.

With respect to terrorism, however, there is evidence that Iranian sponsorship has leveled off or even declined. Revolutionary fervor has cooled considerably over the past decade, and it would be a great mistake to blame Iran for every outbreak of Islamic extremism in the Arab world. The Iranians are not Arabs, and their attempts to export their peculiar revolution have failed in every case. Islamic extremism thrives in places like Algeria and Egypt because economically incompetent secular Arab governments have failed to provide basic social services and a sense of national self-esteem to their burgeoning populations.

They are not alone. The ruling mullahs in Tehran have mismanaged the Iranian economy to the point of hyper-inflation, civil disorder and mass popular disillusionment with the government and the revolution itself. Today's Iran is not the Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Preoccupation with the machinations of "The Great Satan" has been replaced by preoccupation with recovery from the disastrous economic consequences of the revolution and of eight years of war with Iraq.

A new and younger generation of mullahs is publicly questioning the wisdom and propriety of clerical economic and political decision-making. Dress has become relaxed, and more Iranians are seeking direct exposure to Western culture via satellite television links. We are dealing with a post-revolutionary, not a revolutionary Iran.

It is reasonable to believe that Iran is seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Its once formidable conventional military forces never recovered from the revolution, which purged the officer corps of the professionally competent in favor of the politically correct, and from the subsequent loss of U.S. military assistance.

Iran is not in a position to defend itself against the kind of U.S.-led conventional assault that four years ago crippled Iraq's army and economy. Indeed, the spectacular success of Operation Desert Storm has driven Iran into a search for unconventional alternatives. Nuclear weapons not only offer great-power status to a country that once viewed itself and its majestic empire as the center of the universe; they also provide a means of deterring nuclear attacks by such enemies as Israel and the United States, and of offsetting Israeli and U.S. conventional superiority.

The prospect of an Iranian bomb is unpleasant, but it is no cause for panic. Iran's political leadership is brutal and extreme, but it is neither stupid nor insane. It will submit, as has every other nuclear-armed state, to the discipline of nuclear deterrence. (The absence of war among nuclear-armed states is more than coincidental.) The mullahs who run Iran will come to recognize, as did Stalin and Mao, that the launching of a nuclear attack on the United States or its forces and allies overseas would be an act of national suicide. (Far more unsettling than a nuclear Iran or even North Korea is the prospect of truly demented individuals and other non-state actors acquiring weapons of mass destruction.)

Sixteen years have passed since the Islamic revolution came to power in Iran. It remains hostile to Western values and interests, but the intensity of its hostility has diminished. It is a country seeking respite from revolution and war. It poses little in the way of direct military threats to U.S. interests overseas. Even a nuclear-armed Iran would be manageable via the tested regime of nuclear deterrence.

Why is the Clinton administration treating Iran as a great and satanic power, when in fact it is neither?

Jeffrey Record, author of "Hollow Victory, A Contrary View of the Gulf War," writes occasionally on defense issues for The Sun.

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