Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 12/16/2005 [Archive]

Iran is the Real Threat to Peace

Interview with Ilan Berman, author of 'Tehran Rising'

While we wait to see how the war in Iraq turns out, we might want to take a closer look at the Middle Eastern country that the experts say actually poses the single greatest challenge to the United States and the war on terror -- Iran.

Iran -- the Islamic Republic formerly known as Persia -- is not only considered the globe's No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, it is hard at work trying to produce its own nuclear weapons.

Ilan Berman, a vice president for policy for the American Foreign Policy Council, has written a new book about Iran, "Tehran Rising," which spells out the threat Iran presents to U.S. policy-makers and its Persian Gulf neighbors. I talked to professor Berman Dec.14by phone from his offices in Washington.

Q: What's the 60-second synopsis of your book?

A: It's that the United States and the world in general are asking the wrong questions about Iran. We've spent a lot of time over the last two years worrying about Iran's nuclear ambitions and what Iran wants to accomplish with regard to its nuclear program. That's obviously a big concern, but it's also only one part of a much larger picture. Iran is actively politically, economically, even militarily in the Persian Gulf, in central Asia, in the Caucasus, and in its support for terrorism in ways that are a profound challenge to the U.S. war on terror and to long-term American strategy in the Middle East. This is something we are really not accounting for, so my book is very much a threat assessment and also a look at the various options we have.

Q: What's the most immediate threat Iran poses to our nation-building efforts in Iraq?

A: Iran is pursuing a fairly sophisticated strategy with regard to Iraq. It's not just that they are funding the Shiite segments of the Iraqi insurgency. They are also trying to change the terms of the political debate by a very robust sort of influence operation -- paying off and wooing Shiite politicians and attempting to bring them into Iran's fold and Iran's political objectives. The larger objective here is not so much the creation of an Islamic Republic of Iraq. What Iran has in mind is to create enough instability in the country that Iraq's Shiite minority is going to seek protection from Iran and allow Iran to expand its influence over Iraq if a sectarian conflict breaks out.

Q: How does Iran threaten the United States' long-term objectives in the Middle East?

A: First of all, most directly, Iran has positioned itself as a spoiler for our democratization efforts in the region. Quite clearly the policy-makers in Tehran understand that if democratization can be stopped in Iraq, it won't migrate throughout the region. It won't migrate into Iran, for example. But what we can expect -- and here's where the nuclear issue becomes very important -- is that as Iran gets closer to a nuclear capability, the region is going to become less and less hospitable to the United States. We are already seeing that a number of countries -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even potentially Turkey -- are beginning to make plans in the event that Iran goes nuclear. This is going to make those countries seek nuclear capability. But it's also going to make other countries that don't have the resources that those three do to become less and less hospitable and less and less cooperative with the United States and the coalition.

Q: Is Iran more dangerous because of its fanatical leaders or its pursuit of nuclear weapons?

A: It's a combination of all those things. When I say that we're asking the wrong questions about Iran, it's precisely for that reason. We're not concerned over Iran's nuclear program, per se, or we shouldn't be, because the nuclear program actually predates the Islamic Republic. It started in the late '60s and early '70s under the shah. We knew all about it, and we weren't worried. We are worried about this regime getting a nuclear capability, and it has everything to do with the fact that this is the world's leading state-sponsor of terrorism; they are committed to a conflict with the West, and they are advocating a radical expansionist foreign-policy line.

Q: The major problem is Iran's leadership, not necessarily what weapons it has or will have.

A: That's exactly right. The character of the regime in Tehran dictates everything. A pluralistic, post-theocratic government in Iran will make the nuclear issue much less of a concern, will make Iran no longer the world's leading state-sponsor of terrorism, and will make it a source of stability, not instability, in the Persian Gulf.

=Q: Do you think Israel will really try to knock out Iran's secret uranium enrichment sites or are these threats just part of the larger game?

=A: There is some political jousting that is going on, but I think this is a very real possibility because Israel doesn't have the luxury of being separated from Iran by a vast ocean. A nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel. This is why what Israel does and doesn't do is very important ... . They think a nuclear Iran is going to materialize much sooner than we do. If they don't see us acting robustly, they are going to do something about it.

Q: What, realistically, should America do about the threats posed by Iran?

A: Right now, we are not doing much. We are subcontracting our strategy to the Europeans and their nuclear negotiations. At the other extreme, we could -- in the fairly near future -- subcontract our strategy to Israel and their military option. I don't think either polar opposite is a very good approach. There are many things we could do in terms of supporting Iranian opposition groups, in terms of economic sanctions that could delay and curtail Iran's ability to acquire nuclear capabilities, and military actions that can reinforce our coalitions in the Persian Gulf and prevent Iran from emerging as a dominant regional power, unquestionably. But we are not doing these things. This is a series of discussions that needs to happen and it needs to happen in very short order.

Q: Haven't our previous interventions in the Middle East shown the limitations and dangers of trying to control events over there?

A: Oh, absolutely. It's not a secret that we have a very spotty track record when it comes to Middle East security, Middle East stability. Certainly, in recent times the Iraq conflict has depleted a lot of our political capital that we would otherwise marshal vis--vis Iran. So it's quite clearly a very large diplomatic problem. But, I think when we look over the horizon -- five years from now, 10 years from now -- we see a situation where Iran will, unquestionably, have some level of nuclear capability. Their program is simply too mature to be rolled back wholesale. So the question then becomes, 'What do we do in the time we have left to make sure that when a nuclear Iran does emerge, it doesn't consider itself to be at war with the United States and the West." And that is a conversation very much about things we could do to alter regime character.

Q: Didn't everyone who knows that region and knows the crazy politics know that if the U.S. knocked out Iraq that Iran would become more influential in the region. It's not a surprise, is it?

A: It's not a surprise. The type of policy we've been pursuing towards the Middle East over the last decade and a half has very much to do with the twin pillars of stability in the Middle East -- and that is balancing Iran off of Iraq. And with Iraq gone, Iran is poised to inherit the Persian Gulf, if you will. This is obviously a foreseeable consequence. But what is not fully appreciated here in Washington is the degree to which Iran's strategic objectives and the efforts it is making to alter politics and change the military balance in the Gulf and the post-Soviet space, and even in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, are a direct challenge to our objectives. Not only do we not recognize those for what they are -- which is a direct challenge -- we don't have very much by way of a coherent answer to those challenges.

Q: How do you think this will play out?

A: There are many things that we can do now, short of military action, whether it's economic sanctions or political warfare or covert action. As we move closer to a nuclear Iran, we have less and less options at our disposal. So when we're thinking about how to approach Iran, the time to formulate this policy is now. Because in two years or in five years, if we don't formulate a policy that prevents this regime from acquiring a nuclear capability or changes this regime,we'll be on the cusp of another military confrontation of some sort.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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