Facing Down Iran

Facing Down Iran

Mini Teaser: Everyone agrees that Iran is a threat. What makes Ilan Berman stand out?

by Author(s): Richard Weitz

Ilan I. Berman, Tehran Rising: Iran's Challenge to theUnited States (Lenham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005),224 pp., $24.95.

This concise book represents a well-integrated compilation ofIlan Berman's writings on Iran, supplemented with new arguments andinformation. Its main thesis is that the United States lacks acoherent policy to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. Although theanalysis is deliberately stark, Tehran Rising makes an essentialcontribution to the ongoing debate about how the United Statesshould respond to the Iranian challenge.

Mr. Berman, vice president for policy at the American ForeignPolicy Council and the editor of the Journal for InternationalSecurity, begins by reviewing Iran's support for internationalterrorism since the advent of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Bermanstresses the unswerving commitment of the regime's leaders sinceAyatollah Khomeini to providing such assistance. Like the earlyBolsheviks, they have seen exporting revolutionary principles(albeit Shi'a Islamic fundamentalism rather than Marxism-Leninism)as their core mission. Like Moscow during its heyday, Tehran hashosted myriad would-be revolutionaries and provided them withmilitary training, financial assistance and other support. Theregime's closest terrorist ally, Hizballah, drove Western andIsraeli military forces from Lebanon and became an influentialplayer in Lebanese national politics. The text underplays, however,the weak performance of Iranian-trained revolutionaries in mostother countries, and the negative blowback Tehran has experiencedfrom its subversive policies--including protracted pariah status, apaucity of allies during its eight-year war with Saddam Hussein,and now the apparent spill-over of violence from post-Saddam Iraqinto Ahvaz and other Iranian cities. Only in recent years haveIran's leaders, by renouncing their external revolutionaryambitions, largely succeeded in mending overt relations with SaudiArabia and other Middle Eastern governments.

Berman then moves on to present a comprehensive summary ofIran's extensive nuclear-related activities. He cogently arguesthat Iranian behavior fits a country seeking nuclear weapons,rather than one exclusively developing a civilian nuclear energyprogram. In their complex negotiations with Britain, France andGermany, Iranian officials have given the concept of a "phasetransition" a bad name by constantly freezing and unfreezing theiruranium enrichment program. One fact suggesting Iranian interest innuclear weapons that the text does not mention is the nature ofIran's ballistic missile programs. Thus far Tehran has devotedresources toward improving their range rather than their accuracy,making these missiles most suitable for carrying nuclear, ratherthan conventional, warheads. While Berman does highlight theassistance that foreign states and non-state actors have providedto Iran's nuclear program, he makes it clear that Tehran could soonpossess the indigenous capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons evenwithout such help.

Still uncertain is whether some Iranians, now or in the future,would have both the interest and the ability to transfer nuclearweapons, radiological materials or related items to terroristgroups. Prudent American policies should aim not only to preventsuch a transfer, which would threaten the United States even morethan an Iranian national nuclear deterrent, but also to respondeffectively should it occur.

Berman then addresses a topic that typically has received muchless attention: the recent improvements in Iran's relativepolitical-military positions in the Persian Gulf, the Middle East,Central Asia and the Caucasus. He notes how the U.S.-led invasionsand occupations in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq have providedTehran with geopolitical openings in those countries. Besides thesedevelopments, the author ascribes much of Iran's regionalresurgence to the soaring price of energy, which has resulted in anexponential increase in the petrodollars at the regime's disposal.By 2000, Tehran had become the third-largest purchaser of Russianarms exports and had acquired weapons from China, North Korea andother sources (including private dealers) as well. The country alsocontinues to develop its indigenous defense industry. Together,foreign and domestic arms suppliers have enabled Iran to improveits navy and shore-based defenses near the sensitive Strait ofHormuz and to deploy ballistic missiles that could threaten targetssuch as Israel more than a thousand miles away.

Although Berman convincingly dissects Iranian intentions, heexaggerates Iranian capabilities. For example, the third chapter(entitled "Suddenly a Superpower") speaks of Iran's "massivedefense acquisitions", "far-reaching military maneuvers" andalleged transformation into the "preeminent military power in thePersian Gulf." With the recent decimation of Iraq's military,Iran's armed forces clearly enjoy superiority over its Persian Gulfneighbors, but they would not long survive a clash with theAmerican military. Its U.S.-supplied warplanes possess 1970s-eraavionics and sensors; its ground forces lack mobility; itscommand-and-control technologies lag decades behind those found inmost advanced Western militaries. Politically, Tehran's influencein most of Central Asia and the Caucasus remains much less thanthat of Russia, China or the United States. Iran is not a fullmember of any of the four multilateral security institutions mostactive in its neighborhood--the Shanghai Cooperation Organization,the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Gulf CooperationCouncil or NATO--and must rely on a disparate array ofunderdeveloped and frequently conflicting bilateral relationshipsto advance its regional interests.

Berman's analysis also may underestimate the Americangovernment's commitment to countering Tehran. His general view isthat for many years U.S. policymakers have not taken the Iranianchallenge sufficiently seriously and that their response hastherefore proven inadequate. A passage from the introductionsummarizes much of the author's critique:

"Embroiled in a worldwide war on terrorism, the United Stateshas not yet turned its attention to Tehran. Instead, it has cededleadership to the international community on the most prominentaspect of the global threat posed by Iran: its nuclear capacity.And it has remained silent on Iran's mounting adventurism in thePersian Gulf, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, as well as itspersistent support for international terrorism."

Other observers also have accused the current BushAdministration of "outsourcing" to foreigners its policies towardIran (and North Korea), but it would be more correct to say that,while members of the administration share a general concern aboutIranian behavior, its various factions have remained divided overhow best to respond. The result, as with North Korea, has beendeadlock, disjointed and sometimes conflicting policies, and therepeated postponement of difficult decisions in the hope thatexternal developments (such as European or Russian intervention)will in time resolve these problems.

In addition, some material presented in the book's concludingchapters weakens the arguments found in the first part. Forexample, in making the case that a well-constructed Americanresponse could exploit favorable geopolitical trends to overcomethe Iranian challenge, the author shows how various developmentsalready are working to check Tehran's influence. Rather thanseeking to appease Iran's growing strength, for instance, itsneighbors have taken steps such as strengthening their defensesagainst ballistic missile attacks to counter it. In a recentarticle in the International Herald Tribune, Berman himself notesthat Russian policies toward Iran--a relationship the bookcharacterizes as a "strategic partnership"--might be hardening asMoscow comes to appreciate how Tehran could threaten Russianinterests in the Caucasus and elsewhere.

Despite the overtly stark description of the Iranian threatfound in the initial chapters, the underestimation of thecountervailing forces already constraining Tehran, and severalambitious proposals that might prove counterproductive if they leadWashington to hedge prematurely against still-incipient threats,the last chapters offer a coherent set of reasonablerecommendations that warrant American policymakers' profoundattention. In this respect, Tehran Rising provides a valuablecounterpart to the influential 2004 Council on Foreign Relationsreport, Iran: Time for a New Approach. The members of the CFR TaskForce advocated abandoning expectations of near-term regime change,selectively engaging the current government on specific areas ofmutual concern and using combinations of negative and especiallypositive incentives to try to shape its behavior (for example,taking steps to reduce the insecurities identified as drivingIran's nuclear weapons program). In contrast, Berman considersattempts to negotiate meaningful agreements with the presentIranian regime as futile, given its unswerving commitment toaggressive revolutionary policies. Instead, he advocates policesthat resemble the containment strategy U.S. leaders successfullyemployed against the previous Soviet threat. The most importantcomponents of this approach would include strengthened multilateralinitiatives both to impede Tehran's access to WMD-related items andto prevent direct and indirect (that is, through terrorism) Iranianaggression, combined with intensified efforts to acceleratepeaceful regime change within Iran.

The author cogently analyzes the weaknesses associated withalternative policies. Attempting to apply military pre-emptionwould encounter substantial resistance from foreign governments(including Britain) and within both Iran and the United States nowthat Operation Iraqi Freedom has highlighted the difficultiesassociated with this option. An effort to destroy Iran's nuclearweapons-related infrastructure through a limited campaign involvingprecision airstrikes and sea-based attacks and supporting specialoperations would also likely fail given our poor intelligenceregarding Iran's suspected WMD sites. At best, it would merelydelay Iran's program by a few years and could prompt asymmetricretaliation in Iraq or elsewhere. Occupying the entire countrythrough an all-out invasion would prove especially problematicgiven its large size, likely Iranian resistance and the long-termcommitment of so many U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq andelsewhere.

On the other hand, attempting to coexist with a nuclear-armedIran under its current government in the hope that it will pursuemoderate policies would entail great risks. Having a nucleardeterrent against the United States might reassure Tehran's leadersabout their security and make them more willing to introduceadditional domestic reforms and improve ties with Washington. Morelikely, the regime would seek to hide behind its nuclear shieldwhile it continued to support terrorism and pursue otheranti-American policies.

Given the problems with both coexistence and combat, the bestapproach until a major transformation occurs either within Iranitself or with its external environment is to employ multilateralpolicies like those advocated in the book's conclusion to changeits behavior. Such a strategy would be more effective, however, ifit explicitly ranked the various threats Tehran presents to theUnited States and allocated resources accordingly. Therecommendations also would be even stronger if they more clearlydifferentiated between policies the United States should pursue nowto help shape the international environment and hedging strategiesWashington should adopt only if these shaping strategies fail. Forexample, although the author explains why an Osiraq-like militarystrike against Iran's nuclear facilities likely would entail morecosts than benefits, the text does not specify how the UnitedStates should respond if timely regime change does not occur andthe current Iranian government actually deploys an operationalnuclear arsenal. Mr. Berman points out that Iran's acquisition ofnuclear weapons could embolden Tehran's anti-Americanism and leadSaudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and other countries to seek their ownnuclear arsenals. U.S. policymakers need to begin crafting detailedplans to hedge against such adverse developments long before theyoccur.

Essay Types: Book Review