Commentary Magazine


Cut the Gordion Knot, Already

Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised to deliver a “telling blow” against “global powers” on Feb. 11, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, and yesterday, right on schedule, we found out what that blow was. Iran, he boasted before a bussed-in crowd, is now a “nuclear state.” He and his Revolutionary Guards have not yet built a nuclear weapon, but they have — assuming they’re telling the truth — made enormous progress by enriching uranium at the crucial 20 percent threshold.

Yet while millions of Iranians are in open rebellion against their own hated government, the United States is still making policy as if they did not exist. Obama administration officials are ready to impose sanctions, but they’re doing it for the wrong reason. Sanctions, a senior official said, are “about driving them back to negotiations because the real goal here is to avoid war.”

All of us — Left, Right, and Center — worry about war with Iran. “Doves” hope to skirt a small- or medium-sized conflict, while “hawks” dwell on the threat of nuclear war. Doves would rather Iran get the bomb than go to war, while hawks would back anti-government demonstrators or destroy the weapons facilities outright. Every approach is risky, and I don’t know which is best, but this much is all but certain: we won’t be in the clear until the leadership, and perhaps the whole state, is replaced.

Sanctions might help at this point, but negotiations — which the unnamed official hopes to return to — will not. Resistance is at the core of the regime’s ideology. Expecting Ahmadinejad and Khamenei to give that up is like asking Fidel Castro to scrap socialism or Benjamin Netanyahu to let go of Zionism. The odds of it happening are near zero. If that was unclear a year ago, it shouldn’t be now.

No one can know if Iran’s opposition will topple the government, but the odds of it happening are well above zero. If Ahmadinejad and Khamenei bolt the country next month, will anybody really be all that surprised? It would look obvious and inevitable in hindsight. Pessimists say the regime is durable, and maybe it is, but communist governments in Europe looked that way, too, and they weren’t. CIA analysts said it about Iran’s shah in 1979, and they were wrong.

A civilian nuclear-energy program in a secular and moderate Iran won’t be a fraction as troubling as the current nuclear-weapons program in Khomeinist Iran. Politically moderate Iranians won’t nuke Israelis, Arabs, or anyone else, and they’re a lot less likely to even build the bombs in the first place. At the same time, Iran’s Islamic Republic regime has been a toxic menace in the Middle East for 31 years, even without nuclear weapons. It’s the biggest state sponsor of terrorists in the world, it has already ignited a number of conflicts, and it is not going to stop. If the goal here is to avoid war, as the administration says, even if the weapons program is mothballed, it won’t be enough. The rulers themselves are the problem.

Regime change is the bold stroke that would cut the Gordian Knot. It would decapitate the Iranian-Syrian-Hamas-Hezbollah resistance bloc. Jerusalem, Beirut, Baghdad, Tehran, Cairo, Riyadh, and Gaza would all breathe easier. As Reuel Marc Gerecht wrote two days ago, “A democratic revolution in Tehran could well prove the most momentous Mideastern event since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.”

William Kristol wonders if the phrase “regime change” makes the administration uneasy, if it reminds the president and his advisers too much of George W. Bush. Maybe it does, although it shouldn’t — not if regime change comes from within rather than at American gunpoint.

Obama need not transform himself into a Reagan or Bush. If “regime change” tastes bitter, what’s wrong with hope and change in Iran? Instead of cajoling Khamenei — who will never negotiate in good faith — the president need only ask himself the following question when presented with policy options from his advisers: will this or won’t this shorten the lifespan of that government?