Mr. Berman is vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. An expert on security issues in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Russia, he has consulted for the CIA and the Pentagon and is a frequent guest on radio and television. His writings have appeared in The National Interest, the International Herald Tribune, Financial Times and Middle East Quarterly (here and here). He is adjunct professor at the National Defense University and editor of the Journal of International Security Affairs.
The Iranian government is moving aggressively towards acquiring a nuclear capability that it could easily transform into an offensive nuclear arsenal. The scope of that nuclear endeavor is ambitious, and includes hidden sites, plutonium conversion and uranium enrichment. Iranian authorities have prevented IAEA inspectors from entering certain sites, and some sites that were inspected were discovered to have been "sanitized."
The Iranians see themselves as having a choice: to become like North Korea, which possesses nuclear weapons and has stood up to the U.S., or to end up like Iraq, which did not and could not. Not surprisingly, the regime has grown to see nuclear weapons as a tool to deter Washington.
But Iran's nuclear capability should not be America's only concern. The Iranian regime has long ranked as the world's leading sponsor of terrorism, and not much has changed. Recently, it has begun expanding Hezbollah's reach through missile deliveries that threaten Israel, and increasing the group's activities in Africa. As a result of this assistance, U.S. officials now say Hezbollah's capabilities equal or exceed those of Al-Qaeda.
It once was thought that Shiites and Sunnis would not cooperate because of theological differences. It is now clear that the Iranians and Al-Qaeda have found common cause. Between 2002 and 2003, at least 10 percent of Al-Qaeda's communications go through Iran. Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda's key lieutenant in Iraq, has been given safe haven in Iran in the past, and his group, Ansar al-Islam, has relocated to Iran's Kurdish regions, where it continues to plan insurgency operations in Iraq.
Tehran is also meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli officials say that Hezbollah directed over 50 separate Palestinian terrorist cells in 2004, a seven-fold increase from 2002. Hezbollah, and through it, Iran, is filling the political vacuum in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Iranian leadership perceives U.S. actions such as the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq as a clear threat, and has been interfering in Iraq to avoid the possibility that democratization there will lead to change within Iran itself. It also has been increasing its activity in the post-Soviet states in an effort to co-opt countries that could be useful to the U.S. In May, for example, Tehran signed a bilateral security agreement with the government of Azerbaijan outlining that neither country would host troops that could be hostile to the other. In addition, Iran has increased its naval presence in the Caspian Sea, which is a substantial energy hub.
The Rest of the World
In the Persian Gulf, the balance of power is shifting toward Iran, which has now become the region's dominant military power. Despite the War on Terror, the American strategic umbrella in the region is receding, and the countries of the Gulf are beginning to make other arrangements.
The U.S. government has tried to work through the EU on the nuclear issue, but without success. This is not surprising, given the fact that European and American goals are incompatible. President Bush has declared that he will not tolerate a nuclear Iran; some of his European counterparts have approved, at least implicitly, of Iran having some level of nuclear capability.
Neither will the UN Security Council be able to control Iran. Two of its permanent members, Russia and China, have been important providers of nuclear know-how and technology to Iran. And although the Russians might wake up to the dangers of proliferation, the Chinese are another matter entirely. Over the past year, Beijing has succeeded in signing a series of energy deals with Iran that could in effect provide Tehran with a Security Council veto.
To confront Iran, Washington should:
Deploy defenses to protect countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait from Iranian ballistic missiles. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have, in particular, cited Iran's capabilities as a threat. Such defenses would provide an answer to Iranian nuclear blackmail, and blunt Iran's influence in the region.
Expand counterproliferation efforts, such as the Bush administration's Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). The PSI is a series of bilateral arrangements, now involving more than 60 countries, that allow for greater intelligence sharing and interdiction capabilities relating to preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The PSI has managed to curtail as much as two-thirds of North Korea's missile trade over the past two years. Washington should think of bringing the PSI to the Persian Gulf and nearby regions to contain technology flowing into, and out of, Iran
These steps can delay Iran's nuclear capabilities, but they cannot stop them. It is therefore important to focus on the question of regime character. Iranians are deeply dissatisfied with their government. Economically, the country is at pre-revolutionary levels. Half of Iranians live under the poverty line, the unemployment rate is at 20 percent and rising, and the rate of drug abuse is 5 times higher than that of the U.S.
The U.S. government should promote the possibility of regime change in Iran. It can do so by empowering opposition elements through public diplomacy and greater political and financial support. The White House has said it supports Iran's urge for democracy, but it has not shown it. Proponents of Iranian democracy need to know they have solid American support, and will for the long run.
In 5 or 10 years, there will be a nuclear Iran. The key question therefore becomes: whose hands do we want those weapons in?