West must find political solution to Iran’s nuclear program

The Israeli president’s recent threat to bomb Iranian nuclear sites focused world attention on Iran’s nuclear program even before the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) shocking report on the country’s efforts to get the bomb was published.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says his country would not step back one iota. He was backed by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warning that possible Western attacks on Iranian nuclear sites would be met with “iron fists.”

Who would prevail if there were such an attack? I think Ahmadinejad.

To carry out such an attack, two elements are essential: military or technical might and political will. Neither one seems to exist.

Iran’s nuclear facilities are mostly buried in a vast country covered with mountains. Sure, there are open facilities, like the uranium enrichment compound in Natanz, but the scattered locations decrease vulnerability, so the military challenge is immense.

But, even before the technical issues could be seriously addressed, political ones should be set. Israel is, like it or not, part of the West. It is supported by the United States and has to act, in many ways, according to general guidelines set by the latter and the rest of the Western community. The West, especially the United States, has never had any intention of standing firm against the regime in power in Iran, and they have not yet shown any sign of a policy change. Ahmadinejad understands this.

Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is an existential challenge to the regime. Deprived of popular support and engulfed in internal threats following the Arab Spring, the regime is in dire need of a stabilizing factor. The long-sought bomb is life insurance for the clerics. Being part of the famous “axis of evil,” the Iranian regime is convinced that to avoid the fate of Iraq they should follow the North Korean example. So, Ahmadinejad’s vow of not stepping back should be taken at face value. The regime is not able to tep back. The strong support by Khamenei, these days usually at loggerheads with his president, confirms their seriousness.

The West’s political dilemma lies in wanting an Iran without the bomb.

But Iran’s longtime efforts — revealed for the first time after 19 years of secret existence by their main opposition movement in 2002 and confirmed by the recent report of the IAEA — show clearly that a nonnuclear Iran would soon belong to the past. So the technically difficult military attack to wipe out Iran’s nuclear capacity requires, in the long run, a new Western policy based on the concept of a regime change. That is where the West stands undecided, and the clerics in power in Iran understand this. Strong words will not frighten where sound policies do not exist. The West has to choose between a nuclear Iran and a different regime in that country. The policy of kowtowing to the regime is counterproductive and should be stopped. 

A political consensus around a true regime change in Iran should be built before any serious action can be taken. Only after this consensus is built can there be any forward movement. And then, it is wise to include in that consensus Iranian democratic forces opposed to the nuclear ambitions of the clerical regime. A necessary step toward a final resolution would be talking seriously to those forces inside the country that have stood up to the nuclear program. To this day, the United States position toward the true opposition has been calculated to avoid antagonizing the regime. (See “U.S. Should Support Iranians’ Right to Oppose Regime,” Nov. 11.)

Because everybody has to settle with a nuclear Iran, militarily, or look beyond the current regime, any credible internal opposition to the regime should also be expressed in terms of opposition to its nuclear program.

There is no popular support for nuclear power in Iran. In a country rich in oil and gas reserves, no one has any doubt about the regime’s military ambitions under the guise of a peaceful nuclear program. The best sign is that the regime has never been able to mobilize great masses in a bid to show “popular support” for its nuclear program.

In a country where even the smallest opposition is crushed in blood, there are no “nationalistic” feelings toward the clerics’ trump card for staying in power.