The Region: Let's help out the bad, but less mad

Faction change in Iran is the thing to push for.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
The simplest and cheapest - therefore very popular - idea is to talk Iran out of making nuclear weapons. This is silly. The regime wants them, laughs at Western threats not backed by strength, and awaits the next American president (no prizes for guessing whom it prefers) in the hopes he'll follow a surrender strategy. Iran won't be bought off; it merely seeks to buy time. As for an attack to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, it might one day be necessary, but it won't be easy. There's too much to destroy, and Iran would have the knowledge and equipment to rebuild. The cost of such an attack, which could include Iranian missile attacks on Israel, rocket barrages from Hizbullah and Hamas, heightened global terrorism, an Iranian campaign to destabilize Iraq and Afghanistan and far higher oil prices, would also have to be taken into account. That list doesn't make the cost of an attack too high if Israeli leaders believe the country's very existence to be at stake. (In fact, our research indicates the direct cost to Israel is quite sustainable.) Nevertheless, while an attack might be necessary, it surely isn't preferable. Moreover, if Barack Obama is elected, Iran will know itself safe not only from any US assault, or even pressure, for four years, long enough to complete the nuclear project. Iran will also know itself guaranteed that Obama would never give Israel a green light to attack. Teheran wins. IS THERE anything else that can be done? Regime change is a dream. The Islamic government is too well-armed and deeply entrenched to be overthrown; no revolutionary movement is in sight. The opposition reform faction is too weak, divided, and demoralized even if it has great popular support. There remains the option of faction change. All Iran's leaders are radical; all would like to see Israel destroyed. But how much risk and how high a cost would a given leader pay to try? Ahmadinejad is so extreme, adventurous, demagogic and seemingly irrational that his threat to use nuclear weapons against Israel is credible, forcing Israel to attack. Others, like Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; former president, now Expediency Council Chief Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; and former presidential candidate, now Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani (whom Ahmadinejad fired as nuclear negotiator) are also bad guys - but much less mad guys. Khamenei will use Ahmadinejad unless the price of his behavior becomes too high. But he and the rest know Ahmadinejad uses demagoguery, even to the point of risking war with Israel and America, because he wants all power for himself and for his increasingly powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps friends. In comparison, Rafsanjani wants nuclear weapons, but also good commercial relations with the West. He'd like to see Israel wiped off the map, but he isn't going to be the one to do it. A POWER struggle rages in Iran, with next year's presidential election a key battle. Ahmadinejad's critics use everything possible to discredit him, including his economic mismanagement and provocative deeds. They should be helped. Pressure against Iran should be heightened and tightened; the possibility of military conflict should be kept before its eyes. It should be made clear that Ahmadinejad and his allies are more dangerous to Iran's prosperity and the regime's survival than to Israel or the West. That's why talk about direct negotiations or concessions is especially dangerous now. This strengthens Ahmadinejad and makes an eventual Israeli attack, with resulting confrontation, more likely. To avoid war, Iran must be isolated and Ahmadinejad boycotted. It should be made clear that he's leading Teheran toward disaster, one that a more reasonable leadership can avoid. The West must say that if the right person wins the election, direct talks could happen. THERE ARE dangers here for Israel if the West accepts a radical Iranian regime with nuclear weapons. But remember these points: • Israel may attack Iran's installations at some point without real Western support. • The West won't do much more than it is doing now to stop Iran from succeeding. • If the West doesn't like this outcome, it had better give Israel enough to avoid it happening. More thought should be given to "appeasing" Israel by meeting its security requirements. • An Israeli military campaign isn't going to stop Iran from continuing its effort, no matter how much is destroyed. So alongside this onrushing disaster, we need a realistic strategy to reduce the chance of an Iranian leader actually trying to use nuclear weapons against Israel. ANY ISLAMIST government in Iran armed with nuclear weapons would be a disaster for the Middle East and for the West in general, not just Israel. Arab countries would then make their own deals with Teheran; the West would be paralyzed from acting effectively in the region; Arab-Israeli peace would be delayed by many decades; oil prices would rise to higher triple digits; and revolutionary Islamist movements would grow, threatening every Arab regime. A "moderately radical" leadership would still seek its ambitions and nuclear weapons, but would be more likely to be pushed and talked out of going to the brink. Better a Teheran regime less likely to fire nuclear-tipped missiles on Israel or pursue risky aggressive adventurism than what looks like a suicide bomber president forcing Israel to attack. The writer is director of Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, IDC Herzliya.