Changing of a Single Letter

One of Winston Smith's tasks as an employee of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's 1984 was making the appropriate changes to the news reports when " Oceania " changed its current foe.

One of Winston Smith's tasks as an employee of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's 1984 was making the appropriate changes to the news reports when " Oceania " changed its current foe.  The same justifications and charges could be used; all that had to be altered was the name of the power.

In Washington today, we can do one better: we only need to substitute one letter.  Now that the war with Iraq is over, the same litany of charges and aspirations is being marshaled for use against Iran (as well as against Syria ).

Consider William Kristol's editorial in this week's issue of The Weekly Standard, where he writes:

"Iran is the tipping point in the war on proliferation, the war on terror, and the effort to reshape the Middle East . If Iran goes pro-Western and anti-terror, positive changes in Syria and Saudi Arabia will follow much more easily. And the chances for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement will greatly improve."

Forgive my ignorance, but I thought that it was Iraq that had been the "tipping point."  It was Iraq 's liberation that was supposed to restart the peace process and start a democratic renaissance for the Middle East.  Now, it seems, Iraq wasn't really the linchpin after all.

Michael Ledeen writes in yesterday's Globe and Mail: "It is impossible to win the war on terrorism so long as the regimes in Syria and Iran remain in power.  So now what?  The short answer is regime change." ( May 7, 2003 )

The short answer isn't enough.  "Regime change" is being promoted as the one-size-fits- all solution.  But its proponents treat this policy as a dogma of faith rather than realistically evaluating it as a means of achieving U.S. goals.  We are at a critical moment in the Middle East.  Incendiary rhetoric from the American side about overthrowing the governments in Tehran and Damascus could backfire, strengthening hardline elements in both states, leading to increased support for terrorism and accelerating programs seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction.

No one questions the fact that Iran and Syria provide funds, equipment and sanctuary for terrorist groups that target Israel, and more specifically, Israeli civilians.  This support must end, and the Bush Administration is quite right to use the leverage gained by the victory against Saddam Hussein to apply pressure against both Tehran and Damascus .  Indeed, the administration is to be commended for diminishing the "double standard" which previously drew a sharp distinction between terrorists who target Americans and those who target "others."  It is very true that the Tamil Tigers, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or the Chechen separatists have never once targeted the American homeland or U.S. civilians for attack.  Nevertheless, the Bush Administration has taken concrete steps against these and other organizations for their use of terrorist methods--a stance that has helped to solidify the coalition against terrorism.

But it is prudent to question whether the policy of actively promoting regime change is the best solution for dealing with Iran and Syria.  Obviously, Mr. Kristol does not believe that it is the only way to deal with regimes that sponsor terrorism or seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction.  He believes that North Korea , for instance, can be contained--even though its weapons of mass destruction pose an imminent danger to two leading U.S. allies and trading partners (who, incidentally, also hold a growing proportion of the American debt that helps to finance the extension and global application of U.S. military power against international terrorism).  

I disagree.  I think that North Korea is a higher priority at this juncture.  The North Korean nuclear program directly threatens the United States, and any conflagration on the Korean peninsula immediately affects the national interests of three nuclear powers.  The U.S. homeland is directly vulnerable if North Korea continues developing ballistic missiles and producing atomic weapons--especially given the current management.

Moreover, proliferation is a supply-side problem.  Removing North Korea as a source of dangerous technology is more efficient that trying to deal with multiple customers in the Middle East .  With North Korea now reportedly threatening to export nuclear arms, putting Pyongyang on the backburner to focus on Iran and Syria --regional troublemakers--conveys the impression, particularly to America 's partners around the world, that Washington is more interested in carrying water for Israel in the Middle East than in removing threats to the global system.

Iran and Syria are containable at this juncture; we have a number of tools at our disposal that are less destabilizing than regime change to deal with the situation.  The Turkish experience with PKK terrorist leader Abdallah Ocalan demonstrates that Damascus , in particular, is amenable to sustained and focused pressure designed to end noxious behavior--without having to resort to "regime change."

Pursuing a policy of "regime change" against Iran (as well as Syria ) at this time is a risky strategy for Washington .  Neither state should be confused with Iraq .  Most world leaders saw Saddam Hussein as a loose cannon and an irresponsible and brutal figure.  Bashir Asad and Mohammad Khatami do not fall into the same category (although the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is not a pleasant figure and stridently anti-American).   Tehran , in particular, is not as isolated as Baghdad was, and U.S. attempts to isolate Iran economically have faltered in recent years.  Our NATO allies are among Iran 's leading trade and investment partners.  And while Washington focuses on Iran's negative role in the region, primarily vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and meddling in post-Saddam Iraq, Iran's pragmatic conservatives have won kudos in European and Asian capitals for their positive contributions to ending a bloody and destabilizing civil war between secularists and Islamists in Tajikistan and promoting stability throughout Central Asia.

If the United States wishes to take the fight to Iran , it will do so alone.  Notwithstanding Tony Blair's popularity in Britain , in the absence of any compelling national security threat to the UK , and without the backing of a broad international coalition, the Prime Minister will get no suport for U.S. action against Iran .

And no other major power shares the assessment that Iran or Syria poses a major threat to global security.  Barring dramatic, incontrovertible proof of Iranian or Syrian plans to threaten the world community with weapons of mass destruction, the United States will find it impossible to rally any sort of coalition to support regime change.  

Certainly, the Western democracies would support political reform in Iran (and Syria ), as Mr. Ledeen suggests, but not as part of an American strategy of "liberation without representation."  And such a move could very well jeopardize the existing coalitions supporting the reconstruction of Afghanistan and the search for a solution to the Korean crisis.  

There is another disturbing factor that needs to be considered. Both Mr. Kristol and Mr. Ledeen discuss the use of covert operations and political warfare as tools to promote regime change in Iran .  What is not clear, however, is what role they envision for organizations such as the Mujahedin-e Khalq (an Iranian opposition group that was armed and abetted by Saddam Hussein) in that process.  

The United States still continues to enjoy a moral advantage in the fight against international terrorism, and even though other major powers may have disagreed with the American decision to go to war against Iraq , the international coalition against global terror remains largely intact.  In our haste to promote "regime change" in Iran , however, any support for groups such as the Mujahedin-e Khalq might undercut the very goals we seek to promote.  This group is listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department.  Indeed, in these very pages last fall, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer pointed out: "it is incontestable that Iraq has supported terrorism. Iraq has been on the State Department list of states that support terrorism for more than twenty years. At least two major terrorist groups have had their headquarters openly in Baghdad for most of that time--the Palestine Liberation Front and the Mujahedin-e Khalq."  (http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol1issue5/Vol1issue5Bremer.html)
By signing a "cease-fire" with this organization, the U.S. has already lost a great deal of credibility that its policy toward Iran is based on the principle of fighting terrorism.  The majority of Iranians, whether reformers inside Iraq or in exile in Europe or the United States, will have nothing to do with this group because of its attacks on civilians and the role it played in helping Saddam Hussein remain in power.

Israel 's continued existence as a viable and prosperous state in the Middle East is a compelling American interest.  It is not clear, however, that the use of American power to forcibly redraw the political map of the Middle East achieves this goal--and the costs could prove to be prohibitive.  America does not have unlimited power, and clear priorities have to be set. In the aftermath of victory, let's not get carried away by the rhetoric.

 

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.