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If Iran Is the Problem, Why Focus on Syria?

A major reason why so many American strategists believe it is imperative to aid the Syrian rebels is because Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fall would significantly roll back Iranian influence. Syria has been Iran’s only consistent ally since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the Syrian-Iranian axis has enabled the two terror sponsors to expand their global reach. Riding high since its 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah would soon find out how truly weak its position is should its lifeline through Syria disappear. Had it not been for the interference of Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez, Lebanon might have thrived and Beirut might have maintained its position as “the Paris of the Middle East,” rather than simply been the tenuous oasis it is today with the Sword of Damocles always hovering just overhead.

Iran hovers above other policy debates as well: It was always the elephant in the room during discussions of Iraq, and it remains the predominant concern in western Afghanistan, even if concern regarding its influence is overshadowed by that of Pakistan in Kabul. Dating back to the Karine-A and before, Iran had become a chief impediment to Palestinian compromise with Israel. Iranian involvement in Sudan poses an increasing threat to U.S. strategic interests.

Alas, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now in Syria, American strategists advocate extinguishing the fire rather than addressing the arsonist. Certainly, it is an American strategic interest not to allow Iran to prevail in Syria, although it is doubtful whether the opposition as it is now composed would pose any less of a threat to U.S. interests. Those to whom the Syrian quagmire is predominantly a human rights concern may also counsel intervention, but certainly it is also true that the Iranian leadership cares little if its “export of revolution” kills tens of thousands not only in Syria, but also in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza, or elsewhere.

Simply put, the chief impediment to peace and stability in the Middle East is Iran, and it’s long past time the United States begins to realize that there will be no breakthrough on any issue of concern to U.S. national security until the Islamic Republic no longer exists. It should be the policy of the United States to hasten that day.

Now, make no mistake: seeking regime change does not mean bombing Iran let alone any action which would put any foreign troops in that country. Not only would the U.S. economy not stand it, but military intervention would strengthen the Iranian regime. The best thing that ever happened to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution was Saddam Hussein’s invasion, because the Iraqi aggression enabled Khomeini to rally the Iranian people around the flag just when it appeared that the revolution would collapse upon Khomeini’s cruelty and the emptiness of his ideology.

Nor is bombing wise: I have always opposed military strikes on Iran for a simple reason: Military strikes might delay the ayatollahs’ ambition for two or three years but, unless the United States has a policy to take advantage of that delay, Washington would essentially be using our men and women in uniform to kick the can down the road because Washington was unable to formulate a policy. That would not only have tremendous cost in terms of blood and treasure—both American and Iranian—but it would also be a misuse of the American military. At present, when people talk about military strikes on Iran “as a last resort,” they are essentially talking about bombing Iran every two or three years, and that is not acceptable.

While the State Department no longer considers the Mujahedin al-Khalq Organization (MKO) a terrorist organization, that group is at best a creepy cult and, regardless, is no less noxious to ordinary Iranians who may dislike the Islamic Republic, but hate the MKO even more. Thinly-disguised bribes to American officials does not legitimacy make.

Nevertheless, there are many other strategies that could promote direct citizen empowerment in Iran, make life difficult for the regime, and move to hasten its downfall. Some of them I addressed in COMMENTARY back in 2010, and other technologies I was only introduced to later. Outreach to dissidents, open discussion of Iran’s corruption and human rights situation on the part of U.S.-sponsored Persian language broadcasting, and support for independent labor and civil society groups should also be on the table. After all, if the Iranian regime is so confident in its election participation numbers, why not allow independent groups to compile their own statistics? Surely the Iranian government does not fear truth?

While some lobbyists look at the election of Hassan Rowhani as a sign that Washington should seek reconciliation with Tehran, they are wrong. Not only is Rowhani not the moderate some suggest him to be, but also no one should learn the wrong lesson from the crowds which celebrated his victory: Had anyone more liberal than Rowhani been allowed to run—especially someone who did not pay fealty to the Supreme Leader—that person would have won in a landslide.

Alas, since the 1989 inauguration of George H.W. Bush, the policy of the United States has been at best incoherent and at worst a quarter century replication of the elder Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” approach to international relations. Neither Obama nor Kerry are strategic thinkers, but perhaps there is space among their successors in both the Democratic and Republican parties for some serious discussion about how the region might be different if the Islamic Republic did not exist, and then what the United States might do to achieve that goal.


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