The most touching remark I heard during my time in Iran last year was from a woman in the wonderfully beautiful city of Isfahan. (It is just outside this cultural treasure house that the mullahs have chosen to place one of their mountain-dugout nuclear sites.) In the family home where I was staying, contempt and hatred for theocracy was a given, but this was a family friend, moreover draped in a deep black chador, who stayed on the edge of the conversation. Finally she broke in to ask shyly, in faultless English, “Would it be possible for the Americans to invade just for a few days, get rid of the mullahs and the weapons, and then leave?”
My heart went out to her. And I would guess, from traveling around several Iranian cities, that there are very many Iranians who are wishful along just those lines. They dream of some magic trick that would just make the bearded ones go away, restore Iran to the international community, and yet not compromise its cherished national pride and independence. My guess would also be that, of the millions who want the mullahs gone, very few would support an outside military intervention if it actually occurred. In other words, the most precious asset that the United States has in the current crisis—a large pro-American public opinion in Iran—is apparently not of much use to it in deciding what to do about the weapons program.
All the war games and simulations that I have seen have concluded that it isn’t possible to disarm Iran by airstrikes. Learning perhaps from what happened to Saddam’s nuclear plant at Osirak, the authorities have dispersed the program widely and put a lot of it underground. Nor can the Israelis be expected to do much by proxy: They would have to fly over Iraq this time, and it would be even more obvious than usual that they were acting as an American surrogate. Professor Edward Luttwak claims, in the Wall Street Journal, that selective strikes could still retard or degrade the program, but this, if true, would only restate the problem in a different form.
This means that our options are down to three: reliance on the United Nations/European Union bargaining table, a “decapitating” military strike, or Nixon goes to China. The first being demonstrably useless and somewhat humiliating, and the second being possibly futile as well as hazardous, it might be worth giving some thought to the third of these.
Assume that the Iranians are within measurable distance of nuclear status. Appearances sometimes to the contrary, they are not mad—or not clinically insane in the way that Saddam Hussein was and Kim Jong-il is. The recent fuss about the obliteration of Israel is largely bullshit: Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for this has been intoned pedantically and routinely ever since he first uttered it, and it only got attention this year because of the new phenomenon of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the scrofulous engineer who acts the part of civilian president for his clerical bosses. These people (who once bought weapons from Israel via Oliver North in order to fight Saddam Hussein) are cynical and corrupt. They know as well as you do what would happen if they tried to nuke Israel or the United States. They want the bomb as insurance against invasion and as a weapon of strategic ambiguity to shore up their position in the region.
But they have a crucial vulnerability on the inside. The overwhelmingly young population—an ironic result of the mullahs’ attempt to increase the birth rate after the calamitous war with Iraq—is fed up with medieval rule. Unlike the hermetic societies of Baathist Iraq and North Korea, Iran has been forced to permit a lot of latitude to its citizens. A huge number of them have relatives in the West, access to satellite dishes and cell phones, and regular contact with neighboring societies. They are appalled at the way that Turkey, for example, has evolved into a near-European state while Iran is still stuck in enforced backwardness and stagnation, competing only in the rug and pistachio markets. Opinion polling is a new science in Iran, but several believable surveys have shown that a huge majority converges on one point: that it is time to resume diplomatic relations with the United States. (The vast American Embassy compound, which I visited, is for now a stupid museum of propaganda. But when one mullah recently asked if he could have a piece of the extensive grounds for a religious school, he was told by the authorities that the place must be kept intact.)
So, picture if you will the landing of Air Force One at Imam Khomeini International Airport. The president emerges, reclaims the U.S. Embassy in return for an equivalent in Washington and the un-freezing of Iran’s financial assets, and announces that sanctions have been a waste of time and have mainly hurt Iranian civilians. (He need not add that they have also given some clerics monopoly positions in various black markets; the populace already knows this.) A new era is possible, he goes on to say. America and the Shiite world have a common enemy in al-Qaida, just as they had in Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban, and the Iraqi Baathists. America is home to a large and talented Iranian community. Let the exchange of trade and people and ideas begin! There might perhaps even be a ticklish-to-write paragraph, saying that America is not proud of everything it is has done in the past—most notably Jimmy Carter’s criminal decision to permit Saddam to invade Iran.
The aging mullahs might claim this as a capitulation, which would be hard to bear. But how right would they be? The pressure for a new constitution and genuine elections is already building. Within less than a decade, we might be negotiating with a whole new generation of Iranians. Iran would have less incentive to disrupt progress in Iraq (and we should not forget that it has been generally not unhelpful in Afghanistan). Eventually, Iran might have a domestic nuclear program (to which it is fully entitled and which would decrease its oil-dependency) and be ready to sign a nonproliferation agreement with enforceable and verifiable provisions. American technical help would be available for this, since it was we who (in a wonderful moment of Kissingerian “realism”) helped them build the Bushehr reactor in the first place.
Just a thought.