The Wrong Way on Iran

Talking tough is not enough. Neither imposing economic sanctions nor going to war will work. Leslie H. Gelb on the best of the bad options for Obama on Iran.

02.21.10 10:49 PM ET

Sure, every decent, right-thinker longs for regime change in Iran. The country’s rulers bludgeon their own people, hurt American interests, lie—and could pose real security threats. But talk of Washington stopping Iran’s nuclear march by overthrowing its regime is more for American than Iranian ears. None of the proposed policies—tougher U.S. rhetoric, more economic sanctions, and/or a military strike—is at all likely to work. Nor do get-tougher proponents credit the fact that most Iranian moderates oppose leaps in American toughness. It usually lands them in jail and unites Iran against America. There is a better U.S. policy—not much better, but better—to strengthen our friends in the Gulf region and try to weaken the Revolutionary Guard regime with quiet and practical persistence.

To beat up constantly on Iranian bad guys, to daily sing the praises of America’s virtues, and to chant “regime change” won’t help.

The first alternative: Be more assertive about U.S. values and more damning of Tehran’s. I like Secretary of State Clinton’s calling Iran’s ruling Revolutionary Guard a band of “military dictators.” They are, and her words single them out without compromising friendly Iranians. I like President Obama’s condemning Tehran’s use of violence and torture. It’s important to repeat our values from time to time. Friendly Iranians don’t want us to forget them.

But to beat up constantly on Iranian bad guys, to daily sing the praises of America’s virtues, and to chant “regime change” won’t help Iranian reformers and certainly won’t topple the dictators. This kind of chest-thumping allows the dictators to portray friendly Iranians as stooges of the American Satan—and it works. That’s not just my opinion; it’s the belief of the Iranians we want to help. I met with a group of about 25 Iranians not long ago, thirtysomethings who run democracy/human-rights organizations and newspapers in their country. They all said loudly and clearly that they didn’t want Americans preaching for them and against the government. They said that when Congress passed a multimillion dollar bill for their support, Tehran’s thugs shuttered their newspapers and jailed democracy advocates. Moreover, our Iranian hero, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the presidential election “loser,” argued carefully not for regime change, but for “reform, not for vengeance and not for seeking power.” So far as we know, he and other reformers want a reformed democratic Islamic state, not regime change. In any event, it’s plain that the strongest U.S. rhetoric won’t convince Tehran to stop its nuclear program nor lead to regime change. And we should heed that point until our Iranian friends tell us otherwise.

Second alternative: Ratchet up economic sanctions. The United States already imposes sanctions on Iran that have made banking and other financial transactions more difficult for Tehran. Now the administration wants to take the next step and zero in on new sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard. That’s good insofar as it complicates the lives of the bad guys, and so long as it doesn’t slop over into generalized sanctions harmful to most Iranians.

Economic sanctions generally don’t succeed. That’s a historical fact. With regard to Iran in particular, it’s certain they won’t work without China’s participation, which we won’t get. Beijing won’t do anything to seriously jeopardize its oil purchases. So, let’s squeeze the bad guys so long as we can localize the squeeze, and be realistic about the fact that it won’t accomplish regime change nor stop Iran’s nuclear efforts.

Third alternative: Make war, stop talking. There is a growing faction in both the United States and Israel that has convinced itself that only war can prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state. This faction believes that all of Obama’s negotiating proposals simply smack of weakness. They correctly point out Tehran’s repeated lies about and efforts to cover up its uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons programs. The war crowd advocates dropping the peace proposals and warning Tehran to stop or face a military strike.

But we don’t know the exact number of uranium and other nuclear sites, or their exact location or how much damage American strikes can inflict. We do know from U.S. intelligence, however, that Iran could probably restore its nuclear program to current levels within two to three years regardless. Not to be discounted is Iran’s responding with a terrorist rampage worldwide by blowing up railways, planes, or even using chemical weapons. And obviously, Tehran would throw its considerable weight on the oil market to reduce supplies and jack up prices—which would hurt America and its friends enormously.

War hawks also conveniently forget that most friendly Iranians believe deeply in their country’s right to a uranium-enrichment program. Iranian reformers say they don’t want a nuclear-armed country, but they strongly favor nuclear programs short of that, especially in light of America’s and the world’s acceptance of India, Pakistan, and Israel de facto as nuclear states. Mousavi even opposed the recent U.S. and Western proposal to ship slightly enriched uranium abroad, have it slightly upgraded for medical purposes, and returned to Iran. If this idea is accepted, he said: “All the efforts of thousands of scientists will go to the wind.”

No one has a magic bullet for the Iran puzzle. But the history of power teaches us one thing above all: Don’t fail. What can be done is to work very closely with our Arab friends in the Gulf to strengthen them in the face of increasing Iranian pressure. This would include behind-the-scenes efforts to bolster the legitimacy of friendly regional governments plus very public upgrades of U.S. capabilities to defend them, as the Obama administration is doing with missile defenses. It also means proceeding with sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard. It entails continuing to try to sabotage Iran’s uranium-enrichment and other nuclear programs as well. This effort will slow down the Ahmadinejad government and give them something to worry about. Finally, it also means preserving present negotiating proposals, but not pushing them. No sense in being overeager.

We still may run into a nuclear Iran down the line, probably later rather than sooner. That would be too bad for us and for our friends, but above all, for the Iranians themselves. They would be making themselves a prime, hair-trigger target for Americans and Israelis unwilling to take chances in a crisis. This potential catastrophe doubtless weighs on the minds of Ahmadinejad and his guardsmen—no matter how crazy they may appear. They won’t want a military tangle with Israel or America. Still, our war hawks insist that Iranian crazies can’t be moved by rational calculations and think only about what awaits them in martyr heaven. But I suspect Iran’s faux Islamists are now imbibing those very joys here on earth—and won’t risk joys in hand for those in the misty bush.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.