Mr. President, Don't Forget Iran by Christopher HItchens

The Wall Street Journal


Mr. President, Don't Forget Iran
February 19, 2008; Page A19

Dear Mr. President: A few months ago, it became possible to hear members and supporters of your administration going around Washington and saying that the question of a nuclear-armed Iran "would not be left to the next administration." As a line of the day, this had the advantage of sounding both determined and slightly mysterious, as if to commit both to everything and to nothing in particular.

That slight advantage has now, if you will permit me to say so, fallen victim to diminishing returns. The absurdly politicized finding of the National Intelligence Estimate -- to the effect that Iran has actually halted rather than merely paused its weapons-acquisition program -- has put the United States in a position where it is difficult even to continue pressing for sanctions, let alone to consider disabling the centrifuge and heavy-water sites at Natanz, Arak and elsewhere.

Over the course of the next year, you will have to decide whether this question will indeed be left to become a problem for the succeeding administration. As matters now stand, the U.S. is in the not-unfamiliar position of appearing to be more bellicose than it actually is. The picture is complicated by the fact that, unlike Iraq in the past or North Korea today, Iran can boast quite an impressive "civil society" movement, which would like both to replace the current ramshackle theocracy and to adopt better and closer relations with the U.S.

In other words, Iran is running on two timetables. The first one -- the gradual but definite emergence of a democratization trend among the young and the middle class -- is something that we can gauge but not determine. The second one -- the process by which a messianic regime lays hold of the means to manufacture apocalyptic weaponry -- could move rather faster, and is partly designed in any case to insulate the mullahs from regime change.

Is it possible that these two apparently discrepant elements can be brought into a more, shall we say, synergistic relationship, and that the U.S. can regain the initiative that has (yet again!) been lost to it by the actions of its own intelligence bureaucracy? The answer is yes.

Consider our advantages. To begin with, all visitors to Tehran report an extraordinary level of sympathy with the U.S. among the general population. On my own visit to the country, I was astonished by the sheer number of people who had relatives overseas, and who wished they could join them. Most especially among the young, pro-American cultural and musical "statements" are as common as they were in Eastern Europe before 1989.

We have removed from power the two most hated enemies, not of the Iranian mullahs alone, but of the Iranian people. It is true that many Iranians feel nervous about having American forces on their Afghan and Iraqi frontiers, but it is equally true that our ability to demolish the Taliban and the Saddam Hussein tyrannies has greatly impressed many Iranians. Iranians are acutely aware of the backwardness of their country. Iran may be floating on a lake of oil, but still conducts much the same backward, rug-and-pistachio economy that it was operating when the mullahs seized power almost 30 years ago.

Changing my gear and tone a little, I want to mention another kind of advantage altogether. Iran is scheduled to suffer from a devastating earthquake in the very near future. Its capital, Tehran, is built on a cobweb of fault-lines: a predicament not improved by the astonishing amount of illegal and uninspected construction that takes place, thanks to corruption and incompetence, within its perimeter.

I want to underline what might be called a seismic imperative. A serious earthquake in Iran could wreak untold damage not just on the Iranian people but on their neighbors, and the clerical regime is doing nothing to prepare for this eventuality or to protect against it.

In the aftermath of the 2003 earthquake that rocked Bam, American search-and-rescue teams performed prodigies of valor and skill and became so popular locally that the news of their achievements had to be hushed up by the regime's less-than-perfect censorship. Consider, then, the "public diplomacy" impact of a serious public offer to Iran, made through international media and from the podium (so often usurped by the clownish Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) of the United Nations. The U.S. could propose the following: a commitment to help Iran protect its centers of population and its key installations against an earthquake. Along with the provision of expertise and advice would come a request for inspections of key facilities, especially those which might, if ruptured, pose a Chernobyl-type threat to neighboring countries.

At one stroke, this would make a strong appeal, on a matter of urgent material interest, to the general Iranian public. It would point a contrast between our priorities and those of the regime. And it would position us, before the fact, for something not unlike the well-improvised post-tsunami operation mounted by the U.S. Navy in Indonesia.

In the same speech it ought to be said that the U.S. and its allies -- committed as they are to assisting Iran to acquire a peaceful nuclear energy capability, and alarmed as they are by signs of a deceptive strategy in this regard -- would like to be sure that our negotiating partners truly represent the Iranian people. It could even be said that our intervention in Iraq, and the consequent liberation of the Shiites, will prove to have long-term positive consequences.

I have heard it argued that any carrot-shaped initiatives directed at Tehran constitute a reward for the regime's bad behavior, and might even encourage the harder-line mullahs to believe that their intransigence had paid off. But I don't think that this can be said for the proposals outlined above, which are directed at the Iranian people, and which in effect offer them considerable benefits in exchange for something that the majority of them appear to desire in any case, namely political and social transparency.

It's eternally fashionable in Washington (and elsewhere) to contrast "diplomatic" initiatives with "saber-rattling" ones. What this naïve dichotomy overlooks is the plain fact that without the known quantity of the American saber, few if any diplomatic movements would be possible. If the moment comes when you, Mr. President, feel that a "Nixon-in-China" initiative is required, and an offer of direct dealing with Iran and the Iranians is warranted, it will be important for you to find some telling words in which to phrase an acknowledgment of those facts.

The current period of suspended animation cannot be protracted indefinitely. In our own current election, every serious candidate has stated that the outcome of a nuclear theocracy is simply not acceptable. It will indeed need to be decided, and in the lifetime of your administration, whether we aim merely to negate that intolerable ambition, or whether we have the ingenuity to make this the occasion for a wider and deeper engagement, consummating the progress made in Iraq and Afghanistan and confirming it in the keystone society that lies between them.

Mr. Hitchens is a Vanity Fair columnist. An expanded version of this article first appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of World Affairs.

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