Iran and History's Ash Heap

November 26, 2013 Topic: Nuclear ProliferationSecurity Region: Iran

Iran and History's Ash Heap

Forget the deal—these four steps will do more to thwart Iran.

The Obama administration's deal with Tehran brings the world closer to two profoundly undesirable events: an Iranian nuclear breakout capability or a possible Iranian retaliation in the wake of an Israeli strike to disrupt Iran's nuclear program. Such is the implication of the Geneva agreement that U.S. diplomats call a nuclear "freeze," but which allows Tehran to proceed merrily with uranium enrichment.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu—representing those caught playing the role of canary in a coal mine, who may presumably fall first to Iran—has made no secret of his distaste for what he called yesterday "a historic mistake." He has also lamented the approximately $7 billion in sanctions relief sanctions relief given to Tehran for the deal—money that will alleviate domestic pressure on Iran's government and allow it to augment its nuclear program.

Netanyahu is not alone. Over the past month, Washington has gotten an earful from other U.S. allies as well, including Saudi Arabia and several Persian Gulf states that must contend with Tehran's terrorism and political subversion efforts. This loss of confidence in America will have real consequences.

Iran also poses a direct threat to the United States—one that will grow larger and more critical if the Islamist regime gets a nuclear-weapons capability. This is the same government whose inaugural act of foreign affairs was sanctioning the taking of U.S. diplomats as hostages. More recently, Tehran's allies blew up U.S. military barracks in the eighties and nineties, helped inflict thousands of American casualties in Iraq in the last decade, and was caught just two years ago allegedly planning a mass-casualty assassination in Washington.

Meanwhile in allied capitals, the debate over national security, such as it is, has settled on the familiar territory of diplomacy and sanctions at one end of a spectrum and a "military option" on the other—a threat President Obama still insists is "on the table" but which no one seriously believes. Unfortunately, there is a missing middle to this list, encompassing a segment of the statecraft spectrum at which the free world used to excel: smart power. In other words, absent are the many things states can do between diplomatic horse trading and outright war to make life difficult for Iran's government.

Washington and its allies could take four steps short of war to undermine the Iranian regime and distract it from its aggression:

First, put a virtual information mirror over Iran. Dictatorships are always threatened by the truth and Iran is no exception. Media control in Iran is pervasive and the government goes to great lengths to censor the internet. Providing dissident or expatriate Iranians with the tools to overcome this information blockade can help erode support for the regime. It can sow further economic and political disaffection among Iran's majority Persians and highlight the mistreatment of Iran's minority ethnic and religious groups, including Azeris, Kurds, Balochs, Baha'is, Sunni Muslims and others.

Importantly, this should not involve throwing more money at U.S. government broadcasters like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. Instead, free media efforts should help cultivate an opposition. As one dissident observed in "The Little Conspirator," a handbook for surviving in Poland's underground during the communist era in that country: "The process of producing and distributing an underground newspaper teaches all the elementary techniques of conspiracy." The same could be true with modern media inside Iran.

Second, the free world should revive another successful Cold War practice and fund the Iranian opposition. Whether a political movement is open or underground, money and know-how matter greatly. Washington should provide both covertly.

Third, let's give fear a chance. The civilized world could help Tehran understand that any use, proliferation or smuggling of a nuclear weapon abroad will lead to massive retaliation. The United States could help ensure Israel's undeclared nuclear deterrent can survive a first strike to discourage an Iranian sneak attack. Washington can also reclaim regional leadership by establishing a missile-defense alliance of countries around Iran, each of which could vow to shoot down any missile that leaves Iranian airspace.

Fourth, America and its allies should wield clarity. In 1982, President Reagan predicted that the march of freedom would leave Marxism and Leninism "on the ash heap of history." The Soviets called this statement a "provocation"—and it was, in both an intellectual and political sense. We now know it was also a tremendous boost to dissidents fighting tyranny. It helped focus the United States and other governments on an overarching goal and clarified the issue for people around the world. Let's call for the peaceful end of Iran's dangerous and illegitimate regime.

Together, these four smart-power steps can put Tehran on the defensive. Of course, President Obama is unlikely to follow this course. After all, he refused to side with average Iranians who took to the streets at great personal risk in 2009 to protest their government, and recently said at the UN that the US is “not seeking regime change” in Iran. But in the coming months, when the toll of Mr. Obama's appeasement of Iran becomes more clear, Americans should insist on precisely such an approach. Only when free Iranians take control of their country's destiny from Tehran's Islamist tyrants will real security in the Middle East be possible.

Christian Whiton is the author of Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War. He was a State Department senior advisor during the George W. Bush administration.