Nuclear weapons were part of an Iranian “long term strategic vision” dating from the 1980s, Lebanese-American Middle East scholar Walid Phares explained at the Russell Senate Office Building. Along with these “fissiles,” Iran was developing missiles as weapons delivery vehicles, an arsenal currently capable of striking Israel and in the future targets like Moscow. Iran’s Islamic Republic “perceived itself as a superpower” challenging infidels such as the Israeli “Little Satan” and the American “Greater Satan” with an international revolution analogous to Soviet Communism. The subsequent presentation by Andrew Bostom on canonical Islamic anti-Semitism recurring throughout history emphasized the troubling ideological nature of the Islamic Republic.
There is in Iran currently, however, “nothing to compare” with Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, Phares determined. Despite contrary hopes, Iran betrays the “opposite of reform.” Phares dismissed impressions of Islamic Republic moderation as manifesting how this regime is “not predictable on the tactical level” while maintaining a consistent strategic vision. The Islamic Republic is willing to go “very far” in the name of pragmatism and “sell you anything.” Iran, for example, is currently claiming to be “part of the war on terror” alongside the United States in opposing Al Qaeda in Iraq, a “narrative” of “common enemies” designed to impress “Ivy League experts.” Yet “there is no difference” between the infamous Islamic Republic founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the current Islamic Republic Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Phares’ fellow panelist, the former Central Intelligence Agency officer and CSP fellow Clare Lopez, similarly rejected prospects of the Islamic Republic reforming. Contrary to “people with stars in their eyes,” current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is not any moderate but rather a “long term insider of the regime.” Among other things, Rouhani helped plot the 1994 Buenos Aires Jewish cultural center bombing. Ettinger likewise described Rouhani as a “con artist” and “master of taqiyya” who had been “misleading the world community for ten years” as Iran’s nuclear negotiator. Lopez also dismissed any debates in the Iranian parliament or majlis over the November 24, 2013, Iranian nuclear agreement between “hardliner” and “moderate” elements as merely “theater” for foreigners.
Deceit, rather than reform, is far more likely coming from the Islamic Republic, in accord with the canonical saying of Islam’s prophet Muhammad (hadith) cited by Lopez that “war is deceit” (Bukhari 4.52.269). Former Rouhani adviser Mohammad Sadeq Al-Hosseini’s televised description of the nuclear deal as emulating the treacherous 628 Hudaybiyya truce made by Muhammad emphasized such calculations for Lopez. Given past Iranian concealment of nuclear facilities at Lavizan-Shian and Parchin to avoid international inspections noted by her, the Islamic Republic had a proven track record of duplicity.
Phares additionally analyzed how the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi’s failure to acquire nuclear weapons led the Islamic Republic to develop regime defenses before obtaining nuclear weapons. Thus Iran is seeking to consolidate a “geographic space” from Afghanistan to Lebanon, including a NATO-like alliance formed with “Papa Assad,” Syrian ruler Bashar Assad’s father and predecessor Hafiz. While this alliance allows for Iranian penetration of Lebanon through Hezbollah, Iran has also made its influence felt in Africa and Latin America.
Distressing to Phares, President Barack Obama’s administration actually looks to Shiite Iranian influence along with that of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (MB) to stabilize the Middle East. A key “benchmark” for Phares was Obama’s recognition of continuing Islamic Republic rule by not supporting the 2009 Green Revolution that came “very close” to “shaking off” the Iranian regime. The 2013 nuclear deal now implies “recognition of influence in the region” for Iran in places like Syria, an “undeclared Yalta agreement” in return merely for Iran’s promise to abandon nuclear weapons. “Why on Earth did we partner with the Ikhwan” or (MB) in Egypt, an astonished Phares asked, while noting Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution and the Green Revolution as examples of pro-democratic movements with which the United States could ally.
“We betrayed them in 2009” and “unfortunately failed to support them in any way,” was also how the Iran expert Michael Ledeen described American policy towards the Green Revolution during the conference call with Ettinger. Yet the Islamic Republic is a “hollow regime…quite clearly terrified” of opposition movements in Ledeen’s judgment, contrary to assessments of the regime as stable. Islamic Republic repression of public gatherings and intellectuals reminds Ledeen “a lot of the last days of the Soviet Union.” Indeed, current Iranian opposition movements are “much bigger” than past Soviet dissident groups and Iranian security services are not as effective as their former Soviet counterparts like the KGB. The “Iranian people do not like this regime,” Ledeen concludes, something Rouhani’s ultimately empty “great reputation as a reformer” has not changed.
“Bring it down…support the Iranian people,” is thus Ledeen’s policy recommendation for regime change in Iran. In fact, this “third option” between eventual acceptance of Iranian nuclear weapons and any military counter-proliferation strike is the only viable long term Iran strategy. Yet the “folly” of the American government not contacting Iranian opposition figures amazed Ledeen, who himself regularly communicates with them. “If I can contact them, believe me the American government can contact them,” Ledeen says.
The “same debate” that existed during the Reagan Administration concerning the Soviet Union is replaying for Ledeen now concerning Iran. “What are you crazy?” was the response to suggestions of greater American public diplomacy pressure upon the Soviet Union from people who considered Gorbachev “reasonable.” Subsequently released records, however, showed how important support for Soviet dissidents was in the Soviet Union’s fall. By contrast today, Obama has been “desperate to make a deal” with the Islamic Republic since his election campaign.
While Iran’s “domestic opposition is greatly deterred” since 2009, Ettinger saw the nuclear agreement with Iran transforming a “tactical and controllable threat” into “strategic and apocalyptic threat.” “Time is the most important resource which the mullahs are looking for at this stage,” Ettinger judged in considering their nuclear ambitions, something which the agreement provides. To think that the Islamic Republic with its “hate education” and (lethal) opposition to American interests globally would live up to the agreement’s nonproliferation goal is a “high form of naiveté” and an “oxymoron.” Rather, “once again the free world is being taken for a ride by a rogue regime” exploiting American policymakers who have already “failed systematically,” as was previously the case with the now nuclear-armed North Korea. Suspicions about undisclosed terms in the nuclear agreement (“I would be shocked if there are no such secret clauses,” Ettinger said) only heightened Ettinger’s concern.
The United States is the Islamic Republic’s “number one target,” Ettinger warned. The Iranian “mega-goal” of Persian Gulf domination required nuclear weapons as “mega-capability” against America as the “mega-obstacle.” Capitol Hill lobbyists should understand as a “top priority” that Israeli interests are “absolutely disconnected” from this Iranian pursuit of a “meltdown” of America’s strategic position in the Gulf.
The EMET/CSP panelist Mark Langfan, a Middle East security analyst, also viewed an Israeli context as one of “two faulty prisms” for understanding an Iranian nuclear threat. The other was application of Cold War Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine to any Iranian arsenal. Langfan, in contrast, focused on an Iranian “asymmetric nuclear threat” using an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) attack against a “soft target” like Saudi Arabia as opposed to the Israeli “hard target.” Drawing upon ideas probably obtained from North Korea, an Iranian EMP strike would avoid Islamic theological objections to nuclear weapons in a “fatwa compliant” attack killing few people. Yet this “very rational” Iranian strategy could result in an “IranPEC” dominating Langfan’s delineated “Black Gold Triangle” around the Gulf containing 56% of the world’s known oil and gas reserves. Thirty-thousand American military personnel in the region would also become hostages.
Ettinger considers military preemption the only way to avoid ultimately a “horrible war” with a nuclear-armed Iran. Economic sanctions “have not left a dent” on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as it is simply a “reflection of gullibility” to believe that a dictatorship cannot subordinate butter to guns. Even a military strike delaying the Iranian program for a few years would be a “good thing,” Ledeen agreed with Ettinger. Such delay would provide a window of opportunity for regime change while encouraging the Iranian opposition that the “free world has decided to do away” with the Islamic Republic, Ettinger argued. With the United States foreseeably refraining from military action, “Israel is left as the only option available.” Ettinger is confident that Israel can effectively strike Iran, but it is a “question of backbone.”
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