Michael Rubin is on target when he writes today to say that in much of the discussion about the dangerous game Iran has been playing throughout the Middle East, too much focus has been on putting out the fire and not enough on stopping the arsonist. The main problem in dealing with the nuclear issue as well as a host of other conflicts in which the ayatollahs have a finger in the pie is the Islamist regime, not their specific decisions to create havoc. The problems of the United States, the moderate Arab regimes and Israel, will, as he says, never be fully resolved until the malevolent influence of Tehran is ended by replacing the Islamic Republic with a government that neither oppresses its people nor funds terror abroad. But to argue, as he also does, that this should be the sole focus of American policy toward Iran is not a practical plan for dealing with the situation in Syria, let alone the clear and present danger of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
While much can and should, as Michael wrote in COMMENTARY three years ago, be done to promote regime change, counting on such efforts bearing fruit in the limited time left until the Iranians are able to enrich enough weapons-grade uranium to create a bomb strikes me as being as realistic as the blind faith President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry seem to have in diplomacy doing the trick. Moreover, to rule out air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, as Michael also urges, would seem to be giving the regime an ironclad guarantee that no one will interfere with their plans. Whatever the ultimate effect of such strikes on Iran’s nuclear timetable might turn out to be—and others are far more optimistic about their impact than Michael—such an attack may not only be the best method available to stop the Iranians, they may also be the only measure that is remotely feasible for the United States to implement if President Obama is to make good on his pledge to never allow Tehran to get such a weapon.
Rubin is right to raise the issue of regime change because one constant element of the P5+1 negotiations between the West and Iran has been the presumption that any deal would obligate the powers to foreswear efforts to overthrow the Islamist regime. While the Iranians show no sign of being wise enough to accept that deal, this is an extremely shortsighted policy. Nevertheless, even if all of Michael’s proposals to “hasten the day” when the world will no longer have to cope with this terrorist theocracy succeed eventually, there is no reason to believe that this would be the magic bullet that would eliminate the regime in time to avert the prospect of its Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei having his finger on the nuclear button.
In 2010, Michael rightly pointed out that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would probably cause most Iranians to rally around the regime even if they didn’t like being ruled by them. But he also said that didn’t rule out the need for an air strike: History offers lessons in what not to do. Iranians may dislike their government, but they dislike foreign invaders even more. Even limited U.S. military action would likely strengthen the regime even if the initial effect would be to cause it to teeter. This does not mean that military action might not be necessary; an Islamic Republic with nuclear weapons is the worst possible scenario. But we should not count on military action providing a deathblow to the regime.
That formulation of the relative importance of these two issues is even more apt today as the Iranians are three years closer to realizing their nuclear ambition and even more confident that their diplomatic prevarications will continue to succeed to fend off the feeble Western attempts to resolve the problem. It is possible that Michael is right that even successful air strikes on Iran’s facilities would not end the threat for all time and might necessitate further attacks in the future. But the assumption that an Iran whose economy is weakened by sanctions would be able to start again so easily may be mistaken. At worst, such strikes would give the West additional time to work on regime change or to tighten sanctions to the point where such an outcome might actually be possible. Without the credible threat of force, no effort at diplomatic engagement will ever resolve this problem. But by the same token, neither would efforts aimed at regime change work on their own.
Just as important is the fact that we can’t approach the Iranian problem as if it were a theoretical problem rather than one that takes place in an actual political context. Like it or not, Barack Obama is the president and will be in office for the next three years, not a figure like George W. Bush who would be more open to talk about regime change. Though he ought to be working toward that end, it is highly unlikely an Obama administration will ever do what is needed to facilitate a change in power in Tehran. Though it is far from certain that the day will ever dawn when the president will admit diplomacy has failed and take the necessary military action to forestall an Iranian bomb, there is a better chance that will happen than a scenario in which the U.S. actively pushes to overthrow the Islamists. At this point arguing against military strikes even as a last resort amounts to a unilateral pledge of non-interference against Iran, not a way to facilitate the end of Islamist tyranny.