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Is Iran the New Four-Letter Word?

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Several weeks ago, I was invited to the Hertzliya Conferences, Israel's political follow up to Davos. I came back with the eerie sense that a new four-letter word has emerged in the international arena: Iran. Iran was mentioned, or alluded to, no less than 47 times during the two and a half hour opening ceremony. In his closing address, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forswore reference entirely, as if even one mention would sully the Conference's success, or dishonor its guests.

Is America's old protege the new face of the enemy? Is this repressive regime the current symbol of shame? Is Iran ten feet tall and dangerous, or four letters long and ugly?

To be sure, Israel perceives Iran as both dangerous and ugly. This week's report by the IAEA stating that Iran may be working on a nuclear payload, combined with Ahmadinejad's venomous rhetoric, has once again raised the red flag for Israel. As a famous Persian proverb says, "those who are bitten by a snake will fear even a strip of yarn." Israel has been bitten many times and the strips it sees are on an Iranian nuclear warhead.

It also sees the ugly side of Tehran. Web pictures streaming back to us of bloodied, defenseless Iranians prove the point Israelis have consistently made: "if they can do that to their own citizens, why wouldn't they do it to us?" For Israel, Iran's very possession of nuclear weapons, as long as the current regime is in power, is menacing to the stability of the Middle East. As Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations put it: "what happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East." What's happening in Iran is definitely threatening to both Israel, and the West, and they want it stopped.

The options for stopping Iran, as proffered by the host of international policymakers gathered in Hertzliya, ranged from impractical to ineffective. Both the formerly optimistic and the perennially pessimistic argued that Obama's engagement policy has failed and needs to be abandoned in favor of air strikes and/or "smart" sanctions--a political Prozac aimed at controlling a country's unruly behavior.

That would be a prescription for failure. Either directly or through proxies, Iran can retaliate in any theater of operation, from Afghanistan to Lebanon, targeting both American and NATO troops. It can readily renew its rocket attacks in Israel through its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas.

If there were to be an attack, the Iranian people, even the reform-minded pro-western youth, might pour into the streets in support of their leaders. In the words of Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, "nothing extends the shelf life of this regime more than if Israel or America attacked Iran." America-loving Iranians may hate their regime, but would hate being bombed even more.

Sanctions have been largely ineffective in improving Iran's behavior. Iranians have managed to withstand eight years of brutal war with Iraq, survive a further eight years of the Clinton administration's "dual containment", US unilateral sanctions, three rounds of UN sanctions, and a fractious international effort to counter their monetary and military operations. To this end, the steady, easy flow of goods from Dubai--estimated by the US Department of Treasury at $8 billion per year--solid trade with the EU, China and Russia, a traditional Iranian resiliency and a penchant for "suffering" continue to help render all sanctions, even the so-called "smart" sanctions, palpably ineffective.

But all hope is not lost. There is reason to believe that President Obama's engagement policy may not have failed, because at no other time, under no other American president since the Islamic Revolution have the Iranian people felt empowered enough to create a movement, let alone give it a color. The massive demonstrations that started as legitimate protest over the results of the presidential elections on June 12th did not fade into the archives of the regime's secret service. The Green Movement is alive and well, and by some accounts gaining momentum, despite the poor showing on February 11th, the thirty-first anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. The mullahs are getting visibly nervous and confused. Just recently, Iran's judiciary forced the ouster of its key prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi--the notorious "butcher of the press"--only to announce weeks later the execution of two protestors whose crimes are classified as Moharrebeh, or waging war against God. The throne of theocracy isn't crumbling yet, but it is showing some signs of stress fracture.

If Iran is citing "God" as its political ally, then America must take the lead as the moral crusader of the Iranian people. This role is not incompatible with President Obama's attempts to talk to Tehran. Engagement is not appeasement; it is patient political jostling. President Obama's promise of change has crept into the Iranians' psyche, and planted itself in their dreams. What the world must remember is that change is slow to occur in the Middle East, where the past is very much a part of the present, and traditions are not only kept, but revered. President Obama's bold diplomacy needs time to take hold before it can make the past irrelevant. America must continue to offer an "out-stretched hand." This is the only way to pry the door open and expose the regime for what it really is. To describe that, there is no shortage of four-letter words!