Michael Totten

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: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran, 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.”

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.