The Big Idea

The Two Clocks

Getting Iran wrong, again.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

In his book The Persian Puzzle, Kenneth Pollack aptly frames the problem of Iran as a “race between two clocks.” One clock counts down the time until Iran enriches enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon. The other ticks off the hours remaining for its corrupt and dysfunctional clerical regime. The danger confronting the United States, Israel, and the world is that the alarm on the first clock seems set to go off before the alarm on the second.

A sensible way to think about policy toward Iran might be to consider ways to reverse the order—to stretch out the nuclear timetable while accelerating the demise of an Iranian government bent on proliferation. The most common estimates of the time needed for Iran to get enough fissile material and assemble a bomb range from three to eight or 10 years. (The Iraqi example counsels skepticism about all such forecasts.)

Predicting the durability of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rule, or that of the Islamic Republic as a whole, is an even trickier business. Depending on which demise one is talking about—Ahmadinejad’s presidency or the mullah-state—and a variety of imponderables, it could be a matter of months or of generations. But there may be a considerable window for political change to occur before the nuclear point of no return.

At the moment, the Bush administration’s policy seems to be taken straight from the self-sabotage playbook—quite a thick volume when it comes to America’s relations with Iran. Were our goal to persuade the Iranian regime to hasten its nuclear race while binding it more closely to a weary and discontented populace, it’s hard to see how we could be advancing it more effectively. Especially in the past month, American policy has seemed more about rattling sabers than carrots and sticks. In this week’s installment, Vice President Cheney, who may just be twisted enough to want a military confrontation with Iran, underscored that the aircraft carrier USS Stennis is being sent to the Persian Gulf as a “strong signal” of warning. This comes on the heels of our detention of several Iranian “diplomats” in Iraq on suspicion of aiding anti-American insurgents.

Such belligerence seems unlikely to produce the result we desire for a variety of reasons. For one, our bluster is essentially empty. The United States lacks plausible military options for taking out Iran’s nuclear program and dealing with the potential reaction, especially now that we are bogged down in Iraq. It is also proving extremely difficult to get the rest of the world to go along with the kind of comprehensive sanctions that would bite. Meanwhile, America’s hostility is supplying Ahmadinejad with an external demon for his propaganda and helping him cover over his domestic failures. This American push for futile sanctions  follows a familiar pattern, extending from Cuba to Burma to North Korea to pre-invasion Iraq—places where economic isolation and threats have fueled not regime change but regime stabilization. 

What might an alternative strategy—one framed explicitly in terms of reversing the speeds of the two clocks—look like? To begin with, it would emphasize America’s preference for diplomacy over brinksmanship. Secretary Rice would embrace the “time out” deal recently proposed by Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Under this proposal, Iran would suspend its efforts at uranium enrichment, the United States would hold off pushing for further U.N. sanctions, and we’d all settle in for a long palaver over mint tea and pistachio nuts. The ultimate goal of these negotiations would be a compromise whereby Iran agreed to remain bound by the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the United States dropped not only international sanctions but also the bilateral ones in place since the hostage crisis.

Expressions of dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad’s leadership are already being heard inside Iran from both hard-liners and reformers. Iran’s internal political dynamics are opaque, to say the least, but conciliation with the Great Satan would probably make it harder for him to divert attention from the costs his people are paying for his mischief-making, domestic repression, and inability to reform the economy. As we pushed diplomacy, we would also challenge the regime on moral grounds, emphasizing international support for human rights, civil society, and solidarity with the oppressed Iranian people, who are being bled for the sake of their president’s hegemonic ambitions.

We know well the effect that this kind of rhetorical stance can have. Jeane Kirkpatrick, who died in December, became famous for an article she wrote arguing that Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on human rights helped bring down the shah and usher in the Iranian revolution. As ambassador to the United Nations during Ronald Reagan’s first term, Kirkpatrick eloquently challenged the legitimacy of totalitarian regimes. After the fall of communism, opposition leaders from Poland to Czechoslovakia to the Soviet Union testified that Western support—including  from the BBC and Radio Free Europe—made a tremendous difference in their struggle for liberation.

George Bush pays lip service to these sentiments, routinely hailing the greatness of the Iranian people and their struggle for freedom. But for the past three years, the president has failed to mention in public the name of Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights lawyer. Ebadi is the closest thing Iran has to an Andrei Sakharov, but she is hardly an ally of the current U.S. administration. She is a critic of the Iraq war, the war on terrorism, and our stance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because of sanctions, it took a lawsuit against the Treasury Department for Ebadi to publish her memoirs in the United States. Bush didn’t raise a finger on her behalf.

But perhaps it would be worse if he had. The president, who has managed to make democracy a dirty word in many parts of the world, may by now retain only the ability to taint liberal heroes with guilt by association. Last summer, Iran’s other leading dissident, Akbar Ganji, declined to meet White House officials when visiting Washington, saying—with reference to both Iraq and Iran—that “you cannot bring democracy to a country by attacking it.” The only encouraging news may be that Bush’s clock, with just 103 weeks to run, is ticking even faster than the other two.