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International Affairs

Countering Iran's Revolutionary Challenge

Posted: November 16, 2007

Remarks by Peter W. Rodman

Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution

(as prepared)

ADL Annual Meeting

New York City
November 2, 2007

During the Iran-Contra affair 20 years ago, editorial cartoonist Mike Luckovich published a cartoon on the theme of how to distinguish between "radicals" and "moderates" in Iran.  It depicted two mullahs carrying signs.  The one on the left had a sign that read, "Death to America."  The other's read, "Serious Injury to America."  Someone watching this says to someone else: "I think the one on the right's a moderate."

I actually believe there are moderates in Iran.  In any system there are bound to be people who are more risk-averse than others.  The way we help these moderates, the way we strengthen their argument, is to pose actual risks, so they can point to the costs of present policies.  We have only started to do that.


Let me discuss, first, the nature of the problem, and second, some thoughts on a strategy for dealing with it.


The Nature of the Problem


Iran is a revolutionary power, still in an exuberant, militant phase of its revolution. During the Khatami period it may have seemed to be losing its militancy, but we don't see that now.  Today, Iran combines both an ideological threat and a geopolitical threat.


It is, first, an ideological regime.  It's the regime's ideology that drives its foreign policy, and it's this ideologically-driven foreign policy that drives its aggressive behavior.  There is no diplomatic conversation that can talk them out of their most deeply-held convictions.  We can't charm them out of it.  Indeed, it's an insult to them to think they really don't mean what are their most deeply-held convictions.  It's their ideology that defines us as their enemy, and Israel, from the beginning.  (We are the Great Satan, Israel the Little Satan).  One way to test this is to think:  If it were a different regime, it would look around and discover it didn't have so many enemies. (Remember the Shah, who was our friend, and Israel's.)  So it's not national interest that drives their policies, but ideology.



Ideology is important for a second reason:  It fuels Iran's ambition to make itself the leader of modern Islamist radicalism.  Remember Ahmadinejad's letter last year to President Bush:  He set himself up as the spokesman for the whole Muslim world.  Now, they may not be able to pull this off:  The Arabs, the Sunnis won't buy the idea that Iran is their leader and spokesman.  But the aspiration is there.


This is where the geopolitical thrust comes in.  Iran is a major country, with the potential to dominate the Gulf, or even he Middle East, and thereby make itself the leader of the radical forces.  Already it's the strongest conventional military power in the Gulf.  Its nuclear weapons program is part of this ambition.  It's a hegemonic ambition.


It is sometimes said we can live with an Iranian nuclear weapon; it's said that Iran won't use it, because it will be deterred.  But in the Cold War, there was a saying that "nuclear weapons make the world safe for conventional aggression."  With nuclear weapons, Iran would be emboldened to redouble everything else it's doing – terrorism, support for Hezballah/Hamas, destabilizing Iraq – and figure that we will be deterred from intervening to stop them (or inhibited).  And the Gulf Arabs could be intimidated; the appeasement reflex could operate.  (Or they may be tempted to pursue nuclear weapons of their own, which some may be flirting with.)  So Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon is part of its ambition to dominate the region, and this geopolitical effect would operate from Day One, regardless of whether Iran ever really lobbed a nuclear missile at anyone.


For decades it has been a basic principle of U.S. foreign policy not to allow a hostile power to dominate the Gulf.  It goes back to the Carter Doctrine.  This still should be our policy.


What Strategy to Deal with It?


Let me make three points here:


The first point is to note that a strategic consensus seems to be emerging: the US, the Arabs, and Israel. When I was at the Pentagon, I was involved with a State Department colleague in what was called the Gulf Security Dialogue – an initiative to strengthen cooperation with our Gulf Arab partners.  I can tell you that all our friends in Middle East – Arabs and Israelis -- see Iran as the #1 threat.


So this is the core of a strategy – shoring up the regional barriers to Iran's dominance, particularly among our Arab friends.  It is traditional for many decades to have a U.S. military presence in the Gulf, and cooperation with these countries.  The purpose has been at various times to deter Saddam, and also to deter Iran.  That's what it's about.


So, when you read about U.S. military sales to Gulf countries (including Saudi Arabia), it's about consolidating these relationships and shoring up the regional barriers to Iranian dominance.  It is a strategic consensus:  Israel has open ties with several of the smaller Gulf countries, and there have been rumors of contacts with the Saudis.  They all know they're on the same side now.


A second element of a strategy is pressure on Iran.  In the nuclear field, Iran's defiance of the international community is leading to increased economic and financial pressures.  Some of these measures are coming from the UN Security Council, probably more significant measures from a "coalition of the willing" in which the US Treasury is mobilizing the international banking community to cut its exposure in Iran.  These latter measures I believe have been unusually effective.  We need to do more.


We need also to support the moderates, the reformers, civil society in Iran.  I know this has been criticized on the ground that help from the U.S. gets people in trouble.  But I can't believe we are forcing help on anyone who doesn't want it – but many groups do want it.  It's their decision to make.  The regime's crackdown is evidence of how much it's afraid of this – how much it's afraid of its own people.  Our broadcasting into Iran, too, needs to be better.


I'm not a fan of military options.  We therefore owe it to ourselves to exhaust all the political, economic, diplomatic, and other instruments of policy that are available to us – "us" meaning the world community -- so we can hope we won't get to that point.


There is ferment in Iran, there is a debate in Iran; everybody can see this.  The latest sign is the firing of Larijani, the nuclear negotiator.  Ahmadinejad admitted in a speech on September 2 that "some people" in Iran wanted to retreat on the nuclear weapons issue because of fear of war.  (Of course, he rebutted this, saying war won't happen because "God is on our side."  But the admission was interesting.)  The same may also be true of economic pressures; economic mismanagement is a vulnerability of the regime (despite high oil prices). The external pressures are fueling the debate.  This goes back to my point at beginning: The best way to strengthen contrarian voices in Iran is by raising the costs of the regime's present policies.


Finally, I have to say a word about Iraq.  The Arabs, as I say, see Iran as the #1 threat.  While we in this country are preoccupied by Iraq, for understandable reasons, the Arabs all view Iraq in that wider context – the context of the Iranian threat.  They will see our performance in Iraq as a test of American credibility.  Here we are  trying to reassure them we are their protector with respect to Iran – they want us to be strong in Iraq. "Don't abandon us," I heard one Gulf leader say.  There is no way for the United States to be strong against Iran if we are weak in Iraq.  This should be an important factor in our domestic debate right now.  And whoever is our next President will discover how true it is.




Now, let me conclude on an upbeat note.  We know from the Soviet case that ideologies can be defeated – they can be discredited by failure.  The Iranian regime is vulnerable, in my view.  A few years ago, there were many forces of opposition – they are cowed into silence now, but they are till there.  Like the Soviet dissidents, they look to the United States for inspiration.  They find strength in our strength.


We cannot afford to let them down, especially when we ourselves have so much at stake.


Thank you.

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