What to do About Iran?

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Olivier Douliery/ABACA

FINAL REPORT: 9/11 Commission members Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton present their findings

The 9/11 Commission's suggestion that Iran may have had more to do with al-Qaeda than Iraq ever did has prompted a wave of speculation about the possibility of U.S. action against Tehran. The Commission's report notes that some of the hijackers went through Iran en route to the U.S. from al-Qaeda's Afghan training facilities, and that while no operational relationship existed, an element in Iran's leadership may have created a permissive environment for Osama bin Laden's men on the basis that despite their sharp differences they shared a common enemy in the U.S. President Bush earlier in the week suggested these revelations would be looked into, although the U.S. government has obviously been aware of this information for at least the past two years. And neo-conservative ideologues who had first promoted the Iraq invasion took it as an opportunity to put regime-change in Tehran firmly onto the agenda of the next Bush administration (should it win reelection). But despite the enthusiasm of those who most aggressively championed the Iraq war for taking on Iran, the results of the Iraq war may, paradoxically, have actually strengthened the position of the Mullahs in Tehran, by making their cooperation essential to achieving U.S. objectives.

Divining the direction of U.S.-Iran relations has, in recent years, been greatly complicated by the deep policy divisions in both governments. In Tehran, the reins of formal government are held by Islamist reformers who want to extend individual freedoms and achieve a rapprochement with the West. But the real power remains in the hands of conservative mullahs who insist on maintaining an authoritarian clerical regime and who remain innately hostile to the U.S. and its allies. Tension between those two camps has resulted in often confusing signals emanating from Tehran on key security issues, from its nuclear program to its attitude towards al-Qaeda. And the buildup and aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has seen the balance shift more decisively towards the hard-liners.

But just as Tehran is divided over how to deal with Washington, so is Washington split over how to deal with Tehran. The neo-conservative ideologues in the in the Bush administration have never made any secret of their desire to see the U.S. military pursue "regime change" in Tehran next. "Real men go to Tehran" was one of their playful slogans during the buildup to Operation Iraqi Freedom. And they took Iran's inclusion in President Bush's rhetorical "Axis of Evil" as a sign that their agenda might prevail. The neo-con view is that the Iranian regime is incapable of significant reform but is also inherently brittle, and might crumble from within under even minimal application of force. The administration should therefore commit itself unambiguously to a policy of regime-change, and direct its actions accordingly.

The "realist" camp in the Bush administration, as personified by Secretary of State Colin Powell, was deeply skeptical of the Iraq invasion because of the dire consequences they believed it would beget. And on Iraq, they have long advocated greater engagement with the regime in Iran as the only way to address U.S. concerns, insisting that talk of regime-change is hopelessly optimistic and dangerously na´ve. This perspective is outlined in a new report from the Council on Foreign Relations whose authors include top security officials from the Carter and Reagan administrations. It argues that the regime in Tehran is basically stable. Nor is direct military intervention by the U.S. in pursuit of regime change a plausible option — Iran is three times the size of Iraq, and likely to be as hostile, if not more so to foreign occupation. The U.S. military is already stretched to its limits by its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an attack on Iran would almost certainly spark a mass Shiite uprising against the U.S. in Iraq. Absent options for changing the regime in Tehran by force, they argue, the U.S. needs to expand efforts to win cooperation in areas of mutual concern.

If the Iraq invasion helped tilt the balance in Tehran in favor of the hard-liners, its aftermath had the opposite effect in Washington. The failure of the wildly optimistic projections of the neocons to pan out in Iraq has seen the balance in the U.S. foreign policy shift inexorably back towards the realist camp. Where the State Department had initially been shut out of postwar planning by the Pentagon, by the beginning of 2004 it was effectively in charge of the Iraq mission.

And whereas hawkish ideologues had hoped that the presence of tens of thousands of U.S. troops and the installation of U.S.-dependent regimes in Kabul and Baghdad would leave Iran feeling surrounded and crank up the pressure on the Mullahs in Tehran, if anything the opposite appears to have occurred. The conduct of the hard-liners — from stealing the most recent parliamentary election in broad daylight to their defiant handling of the International Atomic Energy Agency's investigation of Iran's nuclear program and their hardball negotiations with the U.S. over the fate of al-Qaeda leaders in Iranian custody — suggests, if anything, that they're feeling rather lucky.

And the reason for their cockiness may rest in the sense that, from a strategic perspective, Iran has been among the greatest beneficiaries of the U.S. military operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Both the Taliban regime and Saddam Hussein were bitter enemies of Tehran — Iran fought a bloody eight year war with Iraq, and had backed Afghanistan's Northern Alliance against the Taliban and even came close to sending in its own troops in 1998. The U.S. has now disposed of two of Iran's most irksome regional enemies, but at the same time, the security burden inherited by Washington in both places has undermined its ability to apply similar pressure on that country.

Iran's cooperation in its traditional sphere of influence in northwestern Afghanistan has been cited, even by U.S. officials, as essential to the effort to stabilize the country under the new government of President Hamid Karzai. And given Iran's relationships with the most important political groupings among Iraq's Shiite majority, its cooperation there may be essential to help the U.S. realize its basic objectives. Tehran could, in fact, be argued to win either way in Iraq: If democratic elections are held on schedule next January, the resulting Shiite triumph will greatly enhance Iranian influence in Baghdad; but if the security situation prevents elections and the process is bogged down, then U.S. forces remain preoccupied and less able to threaten Iran. Both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, Iranian mischief — which they have largely refrained from making — could make life considerably more difficult for the U.S. and its allies.

Tehran, for its part, appears inclined to use the al-Qaeda operatives currently on its soil — in custody, Tehran claims — as a bargaining chip in its dealings with the U.S. It has reportedly offered to hand them over to the U.S. or its allies for interrogation, but only in exchange for some 400 members of the Iraq-based Mujahedeen Khalq, an Iraq-based Iranian opposition guerrilla movement branded "terrorist" by both Tehran and the U.S. But the hawkish element pushing for a policy of regime-change in Washington sees the group as a valuable proxy force to use against Tehran, and opposes handing them over. And the message from the mullahs in Iran appears to be that they won't play ball unless regime-change is taken off the table of U.S. policy options.

Even if the two sides could come to some form of modus vivendi in Iraq, Afghanistan and even on the question of dealing with al-Qaeda — which, being an extremely sectarian Sunni movement remains, after all, a natural enemy of the Shiite regime in Tehran even if they share a common enemy in the U.S. — it's far from clear that the path of engagement can yield the desired result in terms of Iran's nuclear program. Analysts fear that Tehran may now be racing headlong to build a nuclear weapon despite international pressure to desist, possibly sparking a preemptive military response from Israel, which views any challenge to its presumed nuclear monopoly in the region as an intolerable threat.

Regardless of what transpires in Iraq and in relation to al-Qaeda, developing a coherent policy response to the growing power of Iran may be the top national security priority of whichever administration occupies the White House next January. It's unlikely there will be any easy options.