Commentary Magazine

If You Shoot at a King You Must Kill Him

Last week I spoke with Reza Kahlili, a man who during the 1980s and 1990s worked for the CIA under the code name “Wally” inside the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. He wrote a terrific book about his experience as an American agent called A Time to Betray, and today he’s issuing a serious warning about his former Iranian masters: they mean what they say, and the West had better start taking them seriously.

He thinks President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei fully intend to use nuclear weapons if they acquire them, either by exploding them in enemy cities or holding the Middle East and the world’s energy resources hostage. It’s hard, to be sure, for even a well-placed expert to know this for certain. Perhaps not even the leadership knows exactly what it will do with the bomb once it gets the chance. (Either way, a nuclear-armed Iran won’t suddenly play well with others.) What happens in the region over the next couple of years may depend in large part on whether the Israelis are willing to chance it.

We should not, Kahlili says, expect Iran’s people to applaud an Israeli attack on the weapons facilities. “People in Iran do not sympathize with Israel the way they sympathize with the U.S.,” he told me. “They’re looking for help, right? But they’re not looking for the same kind of help from Israel. So if Israel bombs the facilities in Iran, don’t expect people to come out into the streets to celebrate or confront the government forces. That’s not going to happen. They’re just going to sit at home and pray this thing doesn’t get out of hand.”

A military attack against Iran should be rolled out only if every conceivable peaceful solution fails first. Striking Iran would, in all likelihood, ignite several Middle Eastern wars all at once. Hamas and Hezbollah would bombard Israel with missile attacks. Lebanon and Gaza would both come under massive counterbattery fire. The war could easily spill over into Iraq and put American soldiers at risk.

The above scenario may sound like the worst, short of nuclear war, but it isn’t. The worst-case scenario is a regional war that fails to stop Iran’s nuclear program while keeping the regime in place. If the Israelis decide to use force, the nuclear facilities should not be the target. The government should be the target. And the U.S. should back Israel’s play and even assist it, no matter how enraged American officials might be. The last thing any of us needs is a bloodied Iranian government with delusions of invincibility that later acquires the weapons of genocide and then sets out for revenge. As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “If you shoot at a king you must kill him.”

“If any power takes on the Revolutionary Guards,” Kahlili says, “they will find sympathy from the Iranian people. Even Israel. Iranian people do not hate Israel like they do in Arab countries. We aren’t Arabs. Persians are very different from Arabs.”

Some may find it hard to believe Iranians might thank Israelis for ridding them of their government, but I don’t. Not if civilian casualties are low and there’s no occupation.

There are precedents.

In 1982, South Lebanon’s Shias welcomed the Israel Defense Forces as liberators when they crossed border to oust Palestinian militias from the area. The Shia community in Lebanon didn’t turn against Israel until after the long occupation set in. Most Iraqi Shias likewise hailed Americans as liberators in 2003. About half turned against the United States later, but not until after Americans stayed on as occupiers.

Some may be tempted to dismiss Kahlili as an Iranian version of Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress who told self-serving tales to U.S. intelligence agents before the Iraq war. That, I believe, would be a mistake. Kahlili isn’t angling for a position after regime change like Chalabi did. And he’s hardly written or said anything that hasn’t also been written or said by other Iranians. If he’s wrong, he isn’t alone. And he isn’t lying. He’s speculating. His speculation is worth a hearing because he knows both the regime and his countrymen from experience on the inside.

I know Chalabi slightly, as I had dinner last year at his house. He’s a charming host who serves the best Iraqi food I’ve ever had, and he said all kinds of fascinating things that only an insider could know, but he still comes across as a manipulative yarn-spinner. I doubt I would have believed him even if his record were spotless, and for that reason I chose not to publish the interview.

I don’t get the sense — at all — that Kahlili and Chalabi are anything like each other after having spoken with both of them. I don’t know if Kahlili is right, but he does have more experience with Tehran’s authorities than most of the rest of us currently holding forth on the subject.

About the Author

Michael J. Totten is a freelance writer and blogger who has reported from Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Cyprus, Turkey, and Israel. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Reason, and numerous other publications.

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