Iran’s new political leader, Hassan Rouhani, has launched a charm offensive aimed at convincing the West that Tehran has turned over a new leaf—and that it’s time to lift the sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. But if Tehran’s tactics have change, its goals have not. Although Rouhani has struck a less belligerent tone than his predecessor, the real power in Iran continues to reside in the supreme religious council, which remains committed to joining the nuclear club. After all, the centrifuges continue to spin.
The IAEA concludes that Iran “has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device.” In fact, to conceal its progress toward the nuclear finish line, Iran recently paved over a massive military site where nuclear-weapons experiments were conducted, making it virtually impossible for IAEA inspectors to test soil samples for telltale signs of weapons-grade nuclear material. U.S. and European intelligence agencies estimate that Tehran could produce weapons-grade plutonium by 2014. In August, a Sierra Leone man was nabbed in a sting as he tried to sell 1,000 tons of yellowcake uranium to Tehran.
In tandem with its nuclear program, Tehran is standing up a sophisticated missile program. Satellite imagery reveals that Iran has constructed new launch sites for long-range missiles. The Pentagon reported in 2012 that Iran may be able to flight-test an ICBM by 2015. And the British government revealed in 2011 that Iran had carried out tests of missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload. Add it all up, and the product is a gathering threat to U.S. national security.
President Barack Obama warns, “A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained.” He’s right about this. The rules of containment and deterrence simply don’t apply to Iran’s government—a regime that uses terrorism as a tool of foreign policy. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explains, “Deterrence worked with the Soviets, because every time the Soviets faced a choice between their ideology and their survival, they chose their survival. But deterrence may not work with the Iranians once they get nuclear weapons.”
If we read between the lines, Israel and the United States agree that once Iran adds a nuclear weapon to its arsenal, it will be too late, which means Israel or the United States—or both—must be prepared to take action to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear club. If that’s the given, to what degree should the United States be involved? Reagan’s presidency offers some helpful lessons.
First things first: let’s put to rest the notion held by some revisionists that Reagan would take a hands-off approachto this mushrooming threat. After all, it was Reagan who said, “For the sake of humanity, we must be willing to undertake military action and covert operations to prevent the spread of nuclear knowledge and weapons to terrorists and hostile states.”
Reagan’s example reminds us that there are many levers of American power—and hence, many ways America could support counter-proliferation efforts against Iran’s nuclear program.
War by other means
It’s worth noting that Israel and the United States have already conducted counter-proliferation operations against Iran. They just happened to do so in cyberspace. The Stuxnet computer virus targeted the computers that run Iran’s uranium-enrichment program and centrifuges. The good news is that Stuxnet hindered Iran’s nuclear program; the bad news is that it only delayed an Iranian bomb—and once Stuxnet was exposed, Tehran hardened its systems against follow-on cyberattacks.
More can be done. For example, given what Iran has perpetrated against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s time for Washington to show Tehran that two can play the proxy-war game. That was the message Reagan sent with his aid-to-anticommunists program. The mullahs, like the Soviets, have many enemies. Some are in neighboring countries; some are in Iran; some appear to be already at work targeting the regime. Perhaps some are worthy of America’s quiet support. Just as Reagan sent Stinger missiles to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and fax machines into Poland to aid Solidarity’s struggle against Moscow’s puppets, the U.S. should quietly send satellite dishes, laptops, smart phones and other technology to help the Iranian opposition organize a movement to topple their rulers.
One thing America should not be quiet about is the backwardness of the Iranian regime. Speaking about the Soviets, Reagan argued that “a little less détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.” Washington should call for an opening of Iran’s political prisons, an end to the dictatorship of the mullahs, and the beginning of an Iran that is free and self-governing.
Silence is golden
In 1981, Israel was faced with a fast-evolving nuclear threat from Iraq. Intelligence indicated that uranium was on its way from France, leaving Israel with a narrow window for action. In response, Israel launched a preemptive strike against Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear facilities.
The episode is instructive for what Reagan did not do. Although the U.S. sent a communication to Israel expressing muted criticism of the strike, Reagan did not publicly undercut Israel. “We are not turning on Israel,” Reagan wrote in his diary. He vowed to protect Israel from U.S. sanctions, noting, “Iraq is technically still at war with Israel.” He later used his memoirs to add, “I had no doubt that the Iraqis were trying to develop a nuclear weapon.” Indeed, Israel’s Osirak strike spared Washington from a nuclear showdown with Baghdad a decade later.
If Israel moves against Iran alone, Washington at the very least should offer unequivocal public support. But before letting Israel cross that threshold on its own, the American people should remember Reagan’s commonsense observation about Iraq being in a state of war with Israel. In the same way, Iran is at war with the United States. That was true in 1979-81, when Iran invaded the U.S. embassy and held America hostage; in 1983, when Iranian-backed terrorists bombed American peacekeepers in Beirut; in 1996, when Tehran funded the Khobar Towers attack; in 2003-08, when Iranian-built IEDs killed and maimed American serviceman in Iraq; and for more than a decade in Afghanistan.
Friends in need
When Argentina invaded Britain’s Falkland Islands, Reagan ordered his divided national-security team, “Give Maggie everything she needs to get on with it.” Washington created a special task force within the Pentagon to coordinate with the Brits; allowed the British expeditionary force to use U.S. bases for refueling and resupply; provided Britain weaponry and logistics materials; and, as we learned decades later, secretly offered to loan the amphibious aircraft carrier USS Iwo Jima to the Royal Navy.
Given that Iran’s nuclear assets are further away from Israel than Osirak, better defended and more dispersed, Israel will need all the help it can get to neutralize Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Yet Obama’s dithering response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons has done little to engender confidence among Israeli policymakers. “The theory that the U.S. will come to Israel’s aid at the last minute, and attack Iran to lift the nuclear threat, seems less and less likely,” said one Israeli military analyst, citing the administration’s “weak, hesitant and vacillating” response to Syria.
The language of force
Further up the ladder, the Obama administration could borrow a page from Reagan’s Libya playbook, using limited strikes to send a broader message about U.S. seriousness.
After Qaddafi claimed a vast swath of the Mediterranean, Reagan ordered the Sixth Fleet to defend freedom of the seas. When Libya’s air force challenged the Americans, Reagan authorized the Navy to pursue Qaddafi’s planes “all the way into the hangar.” U.S. F-14s responded with deadly force, making it clear to Qaddafi that there would be high costs for flouting international norms. Soon after, Reagan ordered airstrikes against Libya’s military and intelligence machinery to punish Qaddafi for a spasm of terrorist attacks. Qaddafi finally got the message.
In a similar way, Washington could decide it has had enough with Iran’s support for the Taliban, interference in Iraq and Syria, bankrolling of Hezbollah, threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, deployment of agents into South America, and attempts to assassinate allied diplomats on American soil—and communicate in the only language terrorists and tyrants seem to understand: force.