Defusing the Iranian Time Bomb

On the second page of Michael Ledeen's history of the undeclared war between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iraq, %%AMAZON=0312376553 The Iranian Time Bomb: The Mullah Zealots' Quest for Destruction%% he says "it's time for us to fight back ... using political and economic weapons, not military power." From this quiet beginning, with its disavowal of major military action, Ledeen proceeds to recount events in the 30 year campaign of the Ayatollahs against the US. Many are familiar to the ordinary reader: the seizure of the US Embassy in Teheran in 1979; attacks on the Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983; the bombing of the Khobar Towers in 1996; and most recently Teheran's support for attacks on US troops in Iraq, including the provision of EFP munitions, which account for a large number of US casualties.

Ledeen is on safe ground in describing Teheran's belligerence towards the United States. The record is too clear to leave much room for doubt. The unwillingness of Western Powers to let Teheran get nuclear weapons shows its aggressive nature is widely recognized. Recently French President Nicolas Sarkozy said "Iran with a nuclear weapon is not acceptable to me. ... an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran."

Iran is a "bad guy"; but Ledeen's claim it is the chief bad guy may be more controversial.

This means that Al-Qaeda no longer exists as a separate entity, and that it has been integrated into the terrorist galaxy that revolves around Iran. Like Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and, increasingly, Hamas, Al Qaeda depends on Teheran for the wherewithal any terrorist organization needs to be effective: safe havens, training facilities, weapons, laboratories, false documents, access to the media for its propaganda. It is hard to imagine that al Qaeda could do anything contrary to the wishes of the mullahs, or that it could fail to obey instructions from the Revolutionary Guards Corps, which undoubtedly oversees its daily activities and provides the bulk of its resources.

This is a striking claim to a public accustomed to hearing that al-Qaeda is the root of all terror. Yet Barack Obama of all people appears to agree with Ledeen that Iran constitutes "the greatest strategic challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East". In an op-ed in the NY Daily News, the Democratic Presidential candidate said:

Americans need to come together to confront the challenge posed by Iran. ... The decision to wage a misguided war in Iraq has substantially strengthened Iran, which now poses the greatest strategic challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East in a generation. Iran supports violent groups and sectarian politics in Iraq, fuels terror and extremism across the Middle East and continues to make progress on its nuclear program in defiance of the international community. Meanwhile, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has declared that Israel must be "wiped off the map."

Though Obama's speech might suggest that the Iranian threat flows from the "misguided war in Iraq", a timeline shows that Teheran's nuclear program, mischief in Lebanon, support for the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, subversion in Bosnia, attacks upon the Khobar Towers and participation in the demolition of US embassies in Africa all predate Operation Iraqi Freedom. Iran was steadily attacking America long before 9/11. Indeed, Ledeen claims (on page 105) that one cannot discount the possibility that Iran played a role in the September 11 attacks. At the very least Iran was apparently instrumental in rescuing al-Qaeda's top leadership from the US invasion of Afghanistan just a few months later. If Iran isn't the baddest guy on the block, it is in contention for the title.

Yet Ledeen maintains, with some bitterness, that US policy makers from Jimmy Carter onwards, including legendary "tough guy" Ronald Reagan and current President George W. Bush, all refused to respond to Iran's belligerence with decisive countermeasures. One major reason was a belief that the proper response to repeated Iranian attacks -- on diplomats, embassies, troops -- was diplomacy. Iran, so it was argued, was merely taking its legitimate place as a regional power or seeking revenge for historical grievances at the hands of the US. The aggression of the Islamic Republic could be halted by offering it a "Grand Bargain"; crafting a diplomatic solution that would make everybody happy. "Change their behavior, not their regime ... the slogan went." A second reason for refusing an open conflict was American incapacity. Both before and during Operation Iraqi Freedom there were grave doubts about whether the US had the political and practical resources to take on the Ayatollahs. Those doubts grew larger as US ground forces became stretched in Iraq. Even after it became public knowledge that Iranian operatives were helping kill US troops in Iraq, the words "acts of war" were avoided by Adminstration spokesmen lest they force action. Ledeen quotes Bob Woodward's State of Denial in which a State Department official argues that "if we start putting out everything we know about these things ... the administration might well start a fire it couldn't put out." Sclerotic bureaucracies which took years to revive radio stations, deploy interpreters to the battlefield or recruit human spies were painfully aware of their limitations even if they kept it to themselves. Why put it to the test?

Another reason for doubting the primacy of the Iranian threat was the fact that US combat operations were largely engaged in suppressing the "Sunni insurgency" in Iraq. That was an empirical fact. The Brookings Institute trip report of July 30, 2007 found that of the 18 provinces in Iraq, 96.4 of all insurgent attacks took place in 8 largely Sunni provinces. How then could Ledeen's argument that Iran was the center of gravity of terror be sustained in the face of the policy record and combat emphasis? How could he say:

We cannot possibly "win" in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, because Iraq and Afghanistan are single battlefields in a ... regional war ... Iran is the key to this war, as it has been from the beginning. If the mullahs retain power in Teheran, we are truly in for a long war, possibly a nuclear war. If they fall, the world will change overnight.

How could anyone accept that the root of the trouble in Iraq and Afghanistan lay in Iran? In fairness to Ledeen, his assessment is no more outrageous than claims that the solution to the crisis lies in hunting down Osama Bin Laden and bringing him to trial; or that Israeli concessions will bring a lasting subsidence in the Jihad, two other 'basic causes' that are widely advanced. The strategic goals of the War on Terror have been very poorly articulated by both President George W. Bush and his critics and there is no bipartisan consensus on what "the key to this war" is. It would be a bold member of the public who could confidently say just who America is at war with or who it should appease. In the unresolved strategic debate, Iran has as good a claim to being the center of gravity as any. Despite the fact that most US combat operations in Iraq are directed against the Sunni insurgency, diplomats have included Iran in talks designed to rein in terrorist attacks in Iraq, confirming its role in combat. In another admission of strategic worries, Saudi Aramco World and the New York Times report the completion of "the 747-mile trans-Arabia pipeline" capable of moving Iraqi oil directly to the Red Sea, bypassing the Straits of Hormuz. The Long War Journal projects that the final disposition of the Iraqi Army being rebuilt by the US will have four times as many units deployed on the Iranian border as facing the other way. And unlike Saddam's Iraq there is apparently no question that Iran is actively seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Whether or not one believes Ledeen's claim that "Iran is the key to this war" it is clearly an important part of it.

The %%AMAZON=0312376553 The Iranian Time Bomb%%'s, weakest chapters are those which sketch out the largely nonmilitary strategy for defeating the ayatollahs. While Ledeen convincingly portrays an economically stagnant Iran seething with discontent, not everyone will agree it is in a "pre-revolutionary situation" ripe for change. Nor is it clear how his proposed three cornered strategy, consisting of public American commitment to regime change, information warfare and support for dissident groups can succeed if there is no broad agreement in Washington that Iran is the main enemy. More importantly, the viability of Ledeen's recommendations are contingent on at least partial success in Iraq. The defeat of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani by the Iranian-sponsored Moqtada al-Sadr in southern Iraq would mean the ideological downfall of the clerical opposition to Supreme Leader Ali Khameini. Both the dissident Ayatollah Mohammed Boroujerdi and Sistani share the traditional Shi'ite doctrine of noninterference by the clergy in government affairs. If Sistani were beaten, Boroujerdi's followers would be close behind. A humiliating US defeat in Iraq will probably spell the end of any regime-change project in Iran for at least a decade. Finally, a successful campaign against the Islamic Republic would require internalizing the lessons of the last four years of war, especially those gained of its recent successes in Anbar. It would imply the repair of US human intelligence capability, reportedly so poor that agent networks in Iran were rolled up shortly after they were deployed. America has to learn how to mobilize all the resources of its national power if it is to confidently confront the Islamic Republic. Iran, with its large population of minorities and led by hardened terrorist veterans funded by oil, will be at least as hard a nut to crack as Saddam's Iraq.

In summary Iran may well be "the greatest strategic challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East in a generation", in the words of Barack Obama. It might even be, as Michael Ledeen says "the key to this war" which if turned will cause "the world [to] change overnight". But it presents a formidable challenge; one which America must be ready to face before it turns the key to meet whatever lies beyond the door.