There are two key rules to keep in mind when looking at the world strategically. First is the inevitability of change. Stability is chimerical. The past century has seen at least five distinct strategic environments, depending on how you count them. Powers with global influence have risen and others have fallen—or both in the case of the Soviet Union. All countries seek security, and many of them also strive to increase their power and authority. When faced with a state pursuing an aggressive plan to achieve regional hegemony, the worst move is to seek to institutionalize the status quo. The rising power won't accept it, though it might say it does; and the established powers will cling to the familiar, and grow complacent. The results are what you might expect; Europe in the late 1930s, for example.
The second rule is to give credit to people that they are sincere in their beliefs. Western liberals, who prize reason, are subject to the tendency to explain away beliefs they consider unreasonable. Progress and freedom are inevitable because they are the natural courses of history. Ideologies that do not fit our predetermined vision of the future are not worth taking seriously. Extremism cannot triumph because it does not make sense. Therefore, the Bolsheviks and their successors were not really after global Communist revolution, even though they said they were. The Nazis would not really commit armed aggression and genocide, even though they advocated both. And while Khmer Rouge military leader Khieu Samphan's 1959 doctoral thesis identified the urban bourgeoisie as a parasite class that had to be removed to the countryside, they wouldn't really empty Phnom Penh of its 2.5 million citizens and subject them to collectivization, reeducation, and execution, would they? Isn't that just plain crazy?
So when a freshly ambitious Iran claims it has "the inalienable right to have access to a nuclear fuel cycle," and radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies that Iran seeks to build nuclear weapons, states that Israel must be "wiped off the map," should we be concerned? Perhaps "concerned" is an understatement.
Ilan Berman has written a useful new book that helps make sense of Iran's ambitions, and the means they are using to try to achieve them. "Tehran Rising: Iran's Challenge to the United States describes the consequences of the worst-case scenario, an emboldened nuclear-armed Iran establishing regional hegemony and continuing to utilize the cat's paw of terrorist surrogates that it has perfected in over 25 years of state sponsorship. Iran is a prime example of what strategists refer to as a "nexus" state, combining hostility to the United States with nuclear potential and access to a global terrorist network. This was the very combination of threats that made Saddam Hussein's Iraq a candidate for aggressive regime change. In addition, as the author notes, the Iran question goes well beyond the nuclear issue that is currently the focus of the world's attention. The book is a comprehensive threat assessment that finds Iranian activity in other spheres of power (political and economic, as well as military) and in many parts of the world (the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and even the Western Hemisphere).
As with any state, the threat to U.S. interests comes not from Iran's capacity to make mischief, but its intention to do so. Ahmadinejad's assumption of the presidency last summer brought a more bellicose tone to Iranian rhetoric, which has increased these concerns. But there is some good news. As the author notes, two clocks are racing in Iran, the "nuclear" clock and the "regime change" clock. The United States, its allies, and Iran's neighbors have a vital interest in seeing that Iran experiences a democratic transition before the current regime can realize its nuclear ambitions.
There are some indications that such a transition is on the horizon. The Iranian population is young (the median age is just over 24 years old) and most did not live under the shah's regime—which was a model of progressive liberalism compared to the darkest days of the Khomeini theocracy. They have shown little interest in Ahmadinejad's desire to restore the revolutionary virtues of two decades ago; many scoffed when the Iranian Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council issued an edict banning western music from state radio, saying that the "promotion of decadent and Western music should be avoided and the stress should be put on authorized, artistic, classical, and fine Iranian music." There is open agitation for liberal reform, and occasional riots and other forms of protest. It is possible that as the grip of the reactionaries tightens, the democratic elements could rally the Iranian people to participate in a "color revolution" of the types that have brought change in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Lebanon. Yet, these developments seem to be moving more slowly than the nuclear program, and in any case, the current regime is probably more determined to hold power—mobs in the streets sometimes make revolutions, and sometimes are treated to a "whiff of grapeshot." Let's not forget Tiananmen Square.
So what can be done? Berman notes that U.S. policy towards Iran has been ambiguous and contradictory over the years. For example, Iran is the number-one terrorist state sponsor, and is giving support to the insurgents in Iraq, yet somehow has not been called to account even as we fight a global war on terrorism. The U.S. is vitally concerned about the proliferation of WMD technologies, yet takes a backseat to the Europeans in trying to settle the Iranian nuclear issue. (In my opinion, this may be a good thing in that it places the Europeans on the frontlines and prevents them from simply being critical of the United States as we try to solve the issue—but that political benefit must be weighed against the possibility they will not get the job done.) Perhaps, as the author suggests, we can contain Iran through a diplomatic campaign to make other countries in the region understand the magnitude of the threat. However, if they have not figured that out by now (and if the behavior of countries like Turkey is any indication, they have not), what can the United States do to convince them?
I recommend Tehran Rising as a sober and objective assessment of the threats, both actual and potential, that the United States faces from Iran. One hopes the international community will increase the pressure on Tehran to forgo its nuclear ambitions before the matter has to be resolved by other means. So long as President Ahmadinejad continues to speak his mind publicly, the world will have no doubts as to the regime's intentions. We just have to take him at his word.