It is too early to tell whether the Bush administration's new Iraq strategy will provide the course correction necessary to ensure victory. On at least one other issue, however, President Bush's plan is a long overdue sign of seriousness.
"Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops," Bush declared in his Jan. 9 televised address. "We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran … And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
Bush's bold pledge was tantamount to a direct repudiation of the suggestions of the Iraq Study Group, which counseled the White House on the need to unconditionally engage Iran in hopes that Iran's ayatollahs would commit to more "constructive policies" in the region. It was also a welcome indication that the Bush administration has finally begun to grasp the destabilizing role that Iran plays on the territory of its western neighbor, Iraq.
Few now dispute that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons and is doing so in defiance of the UN. Iran is also actively expanding its ballistic missile arsenal and will soon be capable of threatening targets far beyond the Middle East. At the same time, Iran has become a serial proliferator, demonstrating the capacity and the intent to transfer weapons of mass destruction technologies to rogue states and terrorists. Iran remains the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism, fueling the activities of Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in addition to insurgents in Iraq.
A lasting American victory in Iraq and the larger Middle East will require that the Bush administration craft a broader strategy for dealing with Iran–one designed to prevent Iran from going nuclear, contain its regional ambitions and encourage a fundamental political transformation within its borders.
Such a strategy needs to focus on several fronts.
The first is intelligence. The U.S. and its allies know far too littleabout the strategic capabilities of Iran, including how far Iran actually isfrom the nuclear threshold. Washington desperately needs a crash intelligence program to "get smart" on Iran in order to better understand the country's internal dynamics–and to identify the best tactics to employ against the ayatollahs.
The second approach deals with regime leadership. Thanks to the recent Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, ongoing unrest in Iraq and Iran's nuclear advances, Iran is rapidly gaining in regional influence and prestige.Diminishing its standing needs to be a major American objective. That can be accomplished by publicizing the regime's corruption, human rights abuses and ties to international terror, and using these issues to isolate Iran internationally.
The third front must be economic. Iran is deeply dependent on foreign capital and foreign gasoline. Targeted financial measures that take advantage of these vulnerabilities can substantially impact Iran's political priorities. But in order to be effective they need to be carried out outside the confinesof the United Nations, where serious financial action is subject to a Russian or Chinese veto.
Fourth, Washington must tackle Tehran's deep support for terrorism. If it is serious about winning the war on terror, the U.S. will need to degrade Iran's ability to support regional instability, stopping its arms shipments to terrorist proxies and capturing or killing Iranian-supported radicals. Such steps would be an important signal to other state sponsors of terror that their actions are not cost-free.
The fifth component should be communication. Washington needs to improve the clarity and strength of its message to the Iranian regime and its people. To the former, the U.S. must communicate in no uncertain terms that continued rogue behavior carries adverse consequences, up to and including the use offorce. To the latter, outreach should be optimized to better demonstrate our commitment to their urge for freedom, both in word and in deed.
Finally, the White House needs to map out a full spectrum of military options vis-a-vis Iran. Although Bush has declared that the U.S. "will not tolerate" a nuclear Iran, the political costs of military action against Iran's nuclear program mean that such a step will be strictly a last resort. However, more limited overt and covert military measures aimed at increasing economic and political pressure on the Iranian regime can and should be explored now.
These steps will not be cost-free. Iran already has demonstrated that it is a sophisticated adversary with the ability to respond to American initiatives in a multitude of destabilizing ways. And in the near future, it will achieve a nuclear-weapon capability, cementing its status as a regional power and fundamentally altering the strategic balance in the Middle East. What is exceedingly clear, however, is that the consequences of inaction far outweigh the risks of resolutely confronting Iran now.