How to Stop Iran (Without Firing a Shot)
by BRET STEPHENS
Current diplomacy isn't working. Here's Plan B.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT
What can the Bush administration do to persuade Iran's leaders that their bid to develop nuclear weapons will exact an unacceptable price on their regime? What can it do, that is, short of launching air strikes?
Begin by shelving the current approach. For three years, the administration has deferred to European and U.N. diplomacy while seeking to build consensus around the idea that a nuclear-armed Iran poses unacceptable risks to global security. The result: Seven leading Muslim states, including Pakistan and Indonesia, have joined hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to affirm his right to develop "peaceful" nuclear technology. China and Russia have again rejected calls for U.N. sanctions. The Europeans are again seeking to sweeten the package of technical, commercial and security incentives the mullahs rejected last year. And that's just last week's news.
Today, the international community is less intent on stopping Tehran from getting the bomb than it is on stopping Washington from stopping Tehran. That's something the administration may not be able to change. But there are steps it can take independently to alter Iran's calculations. Here are four.
Take the diplomatic offensive. "Western countries must push the internal conflicts inside the Iranian government," says Mehdi Khalaji, an Iranian journalist and visiting scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Mr. Khalaji proposes that President Bush write an open letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, specifying the conditions under which the U.S. would be prepared to negotiate. By addressing Mr. Khamenei this way, Mr. Bush would bypass and humiliate Mr. Ahmadinejad, aggravate the regime's internal frictions and explain to the Iranian people why theirs is a pariah state.
"The administration could say, 'If you halt enrichment, we can negotiate. If you stop supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, we can negotiate. If you release the following political prisoners, we can negotiate. If you stop meddling in Iraq, we can negotiate.' This would provoke a controversy inside the government. Some would say, 'OK, we can give up on these prisoners. We can back away from our relationship with Hamas. And so on.'"
Mr. Khalaji also urges the U.S. government to recast the content of its Farsi-language radio station, known as Radio Farda. The station's programmers, he says, "misunderstand the young generation of Iran, which is very political. The quality is not appropriate for a serious audience. The news isn't professional the way the BBC is." Offering a serious journalistic alternative to the Beeb ought to be an administration priority.
Target the regime's financial interests. "In many ways, the Islamic Republic of Iran has become the Islamic Republic of Iran, Inc.," says Afshin Molavi, the Iranian-American author of "Persian Pilgrimages." Between 30% and 50% of Iran's economy is controlled by the bunyad, so-called "Revolutionary Foundations" run by key regime figures answerable only to Mr. Khamenei. Hard-line Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, considered to be Mr. Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor, controls the sugar monopoly, while former President Ali Rafsanjani is said to be the richest man in the country.
Since Mr. Ahmadinejad came to power, these ayatollah-oligarchs have been running for financial cover: Capital outflows from Iran surpassed the $200 billion mark in the past year alone. Much of that money has made its way to banks in the United Arab Emirates, many of which have correspondent banks in the U.S. "We are preventing financial transactions going to the Palestinian Authority because banks are scared they'll be hit by U.S. terrorism-financing laws," says a source who closely tracks the Iranian economy. "Why can't we do the same thing with Iran?"
Support an independent labor movement. On May Day, 10,000 workers took to Tehran's streets to demand the resignation of Iran's labor minister. And despite last year's $60 billion oil-revenue bonanza, the Iranian government routinely fails to pay its civil servants, leading to chronic, spontaneous work stoppages.
Workers' rights got a boost in January when Tehran's bus drivers went on strike to demand the release of their imprisoned and tortured leader Mansour Ossanloo. In a state that bans independent labor unions, the strike was an unprecedented event, calling to mind the 1980 Gdansk dock strike that became Poland's Solidarity movement. That movement succeeded largely thanks to the support of Lane Kirkland's AFL-CIO, which in turn received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy. The same model needs to be energetically applied to Iran today.
"The neat thing about the labor movement is that wherever it goes, it's welcomed," says a source familiar with Iranian workers' groups. "It actually makes America look good."
Threaten Iran's gasoline supply. Iran is often said to have an oil weapon pointed at George Bush's head. Rob Andrews, a Democratic congressman from New Jersey, notes the reverse is closer to the truth: Because Iran lacks refining capacity, it must import 40% of its gasoline. Of that amount, fully 60% is handled by a single company, Rotterdam-based Vitol, which has strategic storage and blending facilities in the UAE. The regime also spends $3 billion a year to subsidize below-market gas prices.
With Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, Mr. Andrews has introduced legislation calling for the quarantine of gasoline imports should Iran continue to flout Security Council resolutions. "If gas prices were to soar in Iran," he says, "the regime would be destabilized, the possibility of internal change would increase and the regime would find a way to back away from the precipice."
One objection: A gas quarantine may require the naval blockade of Iranian ports, which is legally tantamount to an act of war. Not a problem, says Mr. Andrews: "I think the development of a nuclear weapon in violation of an international treaty is an act of war, too."