There has been a great deal of discussion about what is the most suitable policy to pursue towards Iran. Although we seem to have been given various approaches, real choices have remained few with none consisting of all the necessary elements for sound policy. Let's briefly review some of these approaches and why they make for poor policy.
Military strikes on Iranian nuclear installations are flawed policy for several reasons. While republicans - and now many democrats, including Senator Clinton - claim that Iran's nuclear program is for weapons building purposes, they have presented no evidence to back that claim. In light of false allegations about Iraqi WMDs, we need to not back down this time from rigorously demanding that those who make this claim present evidence to support that claim, because this country is not ready for any more generic if-I-knew-then-what-I-now-know excuses from Senator Clinton and others who are cheerleading this administration's anti-Iran rhetoric. Anyone with the smallest level of commitment to freedom and democracy would be appalled by human rights violations in Iran. Regardless, Iran has been allowed to become a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which gives it the explicit right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. That's what Iran is doing. In fact, Iran's nuclear program had the full support of the United States before the overthrow of Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979.
Finally, Israel (Iran's main adversary) is allowed to have about 200-300 nuclear weapons without joining the NPT. In light of all these facts, one wonders, what is the point of NPT if every time a non-U.S.-ally NPT member decides to exercise the nuclear rights given to it under the treaty, it is to face sanctions and threats? As long as we allow non-NPT-member enemies of Iran to have nuclear weapons, veto UN security council resolutions against them - as we have done 47 times in Israel's case since the beginning of the Reagan Administration - and fail to present evidence to back the claim that Iran wants a nuclear weapon, we cannot gain moral justification and international support for military strikes against Iran. If we carry out such attacks without meeting that standard, we will pay the price with our international standing as we have done time and again since World War II.
Besides, what benefit would a so-called surgical strike on Iran's nuclear installations have for us? The majority of experts now agree that since Iran has obtained the knowledge to reach its current level of uranium enrichment, any strike would only delay its program by 5 to 10 years, which means that we will have to fight the same battle again soon. On the other hand, such a strike would have a devastating impact on the under-reported reformist movement within Iran. Since the early 1990s, Iran's young population has been involved in a highly secular and pro-western movement that gave rise to the moderate President Khatami and shook the foundations of the theocracy in a massive student protest in the summer of 1999. However, the movement lost its momentum after the United States adopted a sharp anti-Iranian stance following 9/11, even though Iran had nothing to do with 9/11, and in fact, President Khatami was one of the first world leaders to categorically denounce terrorism and that day's "barbaric acts." This anti-Iranian stance cut the legs from under the reformers and saved the hardliners in Iran by creating a false sense of patriotism around them and contributed to pushing Ahmadinejad into power. While a military strike will have little tangible impact on Iran's forty-year-old nuclear program and broader intentions to complete a project that has now become a matter of national pride, it will further undermine the efforts of moderates by helping the regime find support among the Iranian public. Hence, Military strikes would be of little benefit for our security and a colossal mistake in helping to farther the cause of democracy in Iran.
Then there is the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment approach, which labeled Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a "terrorist organization." It was extremely unfortunate to see so many senators buy into this administration's justifications for this action as the legislation was an example of everything that has been wrong with Bush's foreign policies. Over the past seven years, President Bush's approach to diplomacy has been more about name-calling than dialogue. I read Joseph Wilson's piece in defense of Senator Clinton's support for yet another neoconservative piece of legislation, in which he makes the point that the legislation was necessary in order to impose additional sanctions on Iran. I have a great deal of admiration for Mr. Wilson's courage in speaking the truth about the Bush administration's false assertions on Iraq's purchase of uranium from Niger a few years back. But despite his reasoning, the fact is that by voting for the legislation, Senator Clinton has managed to squander the possibility of ever having a chance of being taken seriously in diplomacy with the Iranian regime. (Usually when you call a country's army "terrorists," they're not going to want to make deals with you). If there is a State Department rule that requires a country's army to be called "terrorist" in order to enact certain sanctions against that country, then it is that rule that's the problem and must change. Those who support this reckless name-calling approach do not seem to understand its consequences on countries' internal affairs. The Iranian state-run TV's heavy reporting on the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment to further create anti-American sentiments within Iran is an example of such consequences.
Mr. Wilson condemns Senator Obama for not signing onto this flawed legislation or the subsequent damage-control letter that followed it. Why should he sign this letter? Since he never signed onto the original legislation and has been consistently against giving this administration the authorization to use the military for its adventures, his presumed position is that Bush does not have the right to use military action against Iran without explicit congressional authorization. He does not need to sign Senator Clinton's letter about that. It is rather Senator Clinton who is at fault for once again signing onto another neocon legislation and then trying to do PR damage control after the fact.
Ambassador Wilson mentions his diplomacy experience to strengthen his argument. While I admire his service and dedication to this country, I am not sure if he has ever been to Iran and do not see any signs that he has any understanding of the reformist elements within Iran or how Senator Clinton's policies are impacting the movement or her legitimacy to do substantive diplomacy should she get elected to office. As someone who was born in Iran and lived there for seventeen years, did research in the streets of Tehran on the growth of the Iranian democracy movement in 2005 and is now intimately involved in promoting democracy in that country, I believe Senator Clinton's approach is wrong on Iran. When it comes to Iran, Senator Obama's "personal diplomacy" approach is much more productive and suitable for our broader goals of promoting democracy and human rights in Iran.
But an important point to make on policy toward Iran is that none of the candidates are giving us all the components of the right policy. At the core of that sound policy is the recognition that the term "Iran" or "Iranians" should never be used alone. There is no such thing as "Iranians" for all our policy purposes. There is rather on the one hand the Iranian regime - an undemocratic repressive Islamic theocracy that is a non-U.S.-ally - and the Iranian public - which is an overwhelmingly young, pro-western, secular and pro-democracy population. Because the Iranian regime is not democratic, it does not represent the interest or will of Iranians, and therefore cannot be referred to as "Iran" or "Iranians." As for the country of Iran, the United States must pursue a double policy.
One policy focuses on containing the Iranian government and maintaining a certain level of diplomacy for strategic and geopolitical purposes without becoming allies with them as that would damage America's legitimacy and help the Iranian regime's survival. But a second set of policies should aim at directly engaging the people of Iran and energizing the democratic movement. While the United States should not explicitly call for regime change as that would jeopardize its diplomatic efforts with the regime, it should continuously and vigorously acknowledge the violations of human rights and work to open the channels of information to Iran and try to prevent western companies from selling internet censorship or spying technologies to the regime.
What none of the candidates have so far acknowledged is that it is only with such precise double-policy that they can help bring democracy to Iran without having to sacrifice lives or farther damage America's popularity abroad. As I have said before, any Iran policy that does not have the clear distinction between the pro-western and secular young population and the religiously fanatical regime at its core will fail miserably.