One letter makes such a difference. Or it may.
To Americans tired of Iraq - an extremely blue group of voters ranging from disillusioned war supporters to longtime angry opponents - the advent of Iran as the administration's new "ax" in the axis of evil, the fresh threat to world peace seeking the ultimate WMD, understandably goes down hard.
Are we the world's policeman? (Yes, alas, asserts a new book by Michael Mandelbaum, who contends the world loves not having to pay for its police force.) Must we pay attention just because Iran's new president routinely says what he thinks, threatening Israel and any country that blocks Iran's national interests?
Let the Israelis take care of it, right? Don't they have more than 6 million people to throw up against Iran's 70 million?
Ilan Berman's efficient, fact-packed book, which appeared quietly in late 2005, indicates plenty of reasons why Western diplomacy's sudden stiffening of spine toward Iran may still be too soft, too little and too late.
As with the fall of Russia into fascism, the financial ascent of China, the re-radicalization of South America and other global shifts with strong potential to disrupt isolationist American weekends, Iran's nonstop troublemaking around the world has received only scattered attention from the downsizing U.S. press.
But Berman, vice president for policy at Washington's American Foreign Policy Council, argues persuasively for several disturbing claims that only draw strength from Tehran's new insistence on restarting its nuclear program.
First, Berman maintains that ever since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran, "the world's leading sponsor of terrorism," has consistently stood for export of that revolution. It put the aim in its constitution and, more important, its money where its muezzins were: "a 150 million-dollar program to arm and train terrorist groups active in Lebanon," among other charitable donations. Far more than Iraq, Iran has vied with Saudi Arabia to be radical Islam's Santa Claus.
Second, and perhaps Berman's most chilling claim: Since the demise of the Soviet Union, no national government has so consistently adopted a "proxy" system of violence to expand its interests. Iran, Berman states, uses its international privileges to funnel money and weapons to terrorist groups while talking diplomatic talk and stalling when necessary to avoid sanctions.
Third, Berman argues that a combination of elements - limited military options, Iran's status as an energy supplier to our allies, support from its arms suppliers Russia and China, and hope that "reformist" President Mohammed Khatami in the late '90s would make a difference (he didn't) - has produced "policy paralysis" in U.S. strategy toward Tehran, allowing Iran's sway to grow.
Fourth, Berman submits, Iran has drawn the same reasonable conclusion as North Korea from the Bush administration's preemption policy. The only guarantee against U.S. military attack is nuclear weapons. In this view, we attacked Iraq because it didn't have any. We left North Korea alone because it did.
In supporting his case, Berman provides sentence after footnoted sentence of material about Iran's mischief: its massive destabilization operation in Iraq (many call the resistance an "insurgency"; Berman sees it as an outsourced jobs program by Iran); its harboring of al-Qaida members; its support of Hezbollah ($100 million annually), Palestinian Islamic Jihad ($2 million), Hamas, and other outlaw NGOs that play dirty.
Berman also reviews what might grimly be called Iran's greatest hits: the 1986 Paris bombings; the 1992 murder of 29 at Israel's Buenos Aires Embassy; the 1993 assassination of four Iranian dissidents in Berlin, and more. Berman says that "by some estimates, 90 percent or more of the major acts of global terrorism committed in the two decades before September 11 can be traced back to Tehran."
One conclusion? Iran wouldn't consider providing nukes to terrorist groups a red line it couldn't cross. The distribution system is already in place.
Berman concedes that military options remain limited because Iran now operates more than two dozen nuclear sites and already enjoys retaliatory power against both Israel and U.S. forces in Iraq thanks to its missile and rocket buildup.
Why hasn't the United States or Israel attacked Iran's nuclear facilities? Berman implies that it can't be done without retaliatory casualties in the thousands. Similarly, we haven't been tough with Syria. Iran signed a defense pact with Damascus in 2004, pledging to defend it if the United States or Israel attacks.
To a certain extent, "Tehran Rising" thus mandates the blurb, "Read this book and weep." For context, you might read a second book, about Germany in the 1930s. Change some of the names. Add nuclear weapons and stir.
Berman has no easy answers, but does offer a few policy suggestions. Ratchet up broadcasting into Iran by America's 2-million-plus Iranian exile community in the hope of fomenting an internal democratic revolution. Contain Iranian power in the Caspian Sea. Convince Russia that the first place the Iranian bomb will turn up is in Chechnya (a possibility Russia might grasp, Berman thinks, given that its predecessor state was "the principal sponsor of international terrorism for the preceding four decades").
"Death to America is not a slogan," Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, said on his Al-Manar TV station in July 2003. "Death to America is a policy, a strategy and a vision."
Iran. Sounds a bit like Iraq. Break it up into two words and it spells, "I ran."
Not, according to Berman, a wise strategy for any nation threatened by Tehran's mullahs. But neither, it seems, does "I bomb" look very promising.