Defense Secretary Robert Gates must want Iran to build nuclear weapons. He didn’t say that directly. But how else should one interpret his latest threat against the embattled Persian Gulf state?
In what he said was his last major policy address, Secretary Gates expressed hope that Iraq would allow U.S. troops to remain. In fact, that’s a really bad idea, since America’s mission is over and Washington can’t afford to occupy the entire globe. Once defeated, forever occupied appears to be the secretary’s slogan. We are lucky that the Pentagon doesn’t still have army garrisons in Mexico, defeated back in 1848.
Secretary Gates talked about redeeming America’s blood “investment” and demonstrating that Washington planned to stay engaged in the region. He added: “It would be reassuring to the Gulf States. It would not be reassuring to Iran, and that is a good thing.”
There obviously is much to dislike about Iran. An authoritarian theocracy with little sympathy for individual liberty. A troublesome meddler backing brutal Syria and aggressive Hezbollah. A regime with grudges against America’s favorite totalitarian theocracy, Saudi Arabia, and favorite democracy, Israel. A geopolitical adversary with strong connections in Iraq, which the Bush administration had hoped would become a base for American military operations. An untrustworthy government apparently developing nuclear weapons.
Obviously, none of these are good. But will failing to reassure Iran—in fact, doing the utmost to unsettle Iran—make the region safer? The fact that the regime is odious does not mean that it has no legitimate security concerns, concerns constantly exacerbated by Washington. If the United States does not reassure Tehran, the mullahs, and whoever might replace them, would be foolish to abandon their presumed nuclear program.
The Shah first gave life to his nation’s nuclear ambitions. He wanted to become a regional power for reasons of ego, but he also had cause to feel insecure. Iran was a geopolitical battleground during World War II; Britain and the Soviet Union invaded, forcing the Shah’s father, Reza Khan, to abdicate. Later the prime minister was ousted with the aid of the U.S. at the instigation of the British. Iran, Muslim but not Arab, never fully aligned with its Gulf neighbors, especially Iraq. As Henry Kissinger once said, even paranoids have enemies.
The Shah’s successors have even more reason to fear for their future. Iraq, supported by most of the Gulf States and America, launched an unprovoked invasion. The horrendous eight-year conflict killed between a half million and million Iranians. Syria is an unreliable ally, populated by a Sunni majority and ruled by Alawites, a peculiar Shia offshoot. Tehran faces Saudi Arabia in a cold war, with the latter using troops to buttress Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy against the Shia majority. Israel, once pragmatically cooperative in the shadows, now threatens unprovoked war.
Then there is the United States.
In 1953 Washington played a key role in ousting elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in favor of the Shah. The U.S. resolutely supported the Shah despite his despotic rule. After Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded in 1980, the Reagan administration tilted towards the aggressor, providing Baghdad with intelligence and reflagging Kuwaiti tankers to protect the smaller state’s oil sales—which funded loans to Iraq.
Over the years presidents of both parties proved willing to bomb, invade, occupy, and threaten most any nation for most any reason. Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq (twice) received the not-so-loving attention of the U.S. military. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, some neoconservatives urged the Bush administration to continue on and overthrow the Tehran regime. Indeed, in October 2003 John Bolton, then Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, said: “The threat posed by Iran … has to be eliminated.” The administration refused to even receive a proposal passed through Switzerland by Tehran for wide-ranging negotiations essentially on America’s terms.
Moreover, a parade of U.S. policy makers—not to mention an even longer list of policy wonks and political pundits—advocate waging war on Iran. Top officials casually suggest killing people who have done nothing to them. Americans urge aggressive war because Iran might do what America did sixty-six years ago—build an atomic bomb. Yet Iranian officialdom looks anything but suicidal.
In his most recent speech to AIPAC, President Barack Obama stated: “we remain committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” The underlying premise appears simple: if Tehran does not voluntarily abandon any nuclear program, the United States may use force.
President George W. Bush was similarly indirect, indicating that “all options are on the table.” In contrast, it was publicly reported that Vice President Richard Cheney wanted to strike Iranian nuclear and military facilities. He told the Wall Street Journal: “I was probably a bigger advocate of military action than any of my colleagues.”
Republican presidential candidate John McCain responded to a question about Iran by singing a little ditty to the Beach Boy’s song Barbara Ann: “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” Past and future GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney stated that “the military option remains on the table.”
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said “it is unacceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons,” without indicating how she would respond if the unacceptable looked to become the reality. When she was asked about a possible threat against Israel, she responded: “I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran. In the next ten years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000 and considered by Sen. McCain for the Republican ticket in 2008, advocated military strikes against Tehran’s nuclear facilities. He added: “I think we’ve got to be prepared to take aggressive military action against the Iranians to stop them from killing Americans in Iraq.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor backed statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advocating military strikes on Iran. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “the U.S. must be prepared to act alone, if necessary, and bring every weapon in its arsenal to bear.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) opined that President Obama would “feel a lot of Republican support for the idea that we cannot let Iran develop a nuclear weapons” and if Obama “decides to be tough with Iran beyond sanctions.”
What is the logical response by Tehran to this cavalcade of threats? Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program (who later sold that knowledge around the world), recently argued in Newsweek that Islamabad’s bomb had protected Pakistan from attack: “Don’t overlook the fact that no nuclear-capable country has been subjected to aggression or occupied, or had its borders redrawn. Had Iraq and Libya been nuclear powers, they wouldn’t have been destroyed in the way we have seen recently.”
By America and its allies, he could have added.
Consider Libya, which hired Dr. Khan. Muammar Qaddafi’s government later agreed to give up its nuclear ambitions and foreswear long-range missiles. President Bush promised that Libya’s “good faith will be returned.” The State Department’s Flynt Leverett explained: “The lesson is incontrovertible: to persuade a rogue regime to get out of the terrorism business and give up its weapons of mass destruction, we must not only apply pressure but also make clear the potential benefits of cooperation.”
For a few years Qaddafi was feted for having rejoined the “international community.” But when the same “international community” had a chance, it turned on him. Now Washington is leading the military campaign for regime change. So much for giving up a potential nuclear deterrent. North Korea has explicitly denounced Libya’s naiveté. Undoubtedly Tehran also has taken note.
Yet Secretary Gates wants to further unsettle Iran, by maintaining a permanent American military garrison next door.
There probably never was much hope of a negotiated nuclear settlement with Tehran. But the more Washington threatens Iran, the stronger the United States makes the case in Tehran for developing nuclear weapons. If the Obama administration continues its present course, it should drop any hope for a nonmilitary solution. And then what? The president should think carefully before painting himself in a geopolitical corner.
Image by Daniella Zalcman