V.D. Hanson: "The Multilateral Moment?"
Analysis by Victor Davis Hanson
January 13, 2006, 8:37 a.m.
The Multilateral Moment?
Our bad and worse choices about Iran.
"Multilateralism good; preemption and unilateralism bad."
For four years we have heard these Orwellian commandments as if they were
inscribed above the door of Farmer Jones's big barn. Now we will learn their
real currency, since the Americans are doing everything imaginable - drawing
in the Europeans, coaxing the Russians and Chinese to be helpful at the
U.N., working with international monitoring agencies, restraining Israel,
talking to the Arabs, keeping our jets in their hangars - to avoid
precipitous steps against Iran.
Its theocracy poses a danger to civilization even greater than a nuclear
North Korea for a variety of peculiar circumstances. Iran is free of a
patron like China that might in theory exert moderate influence or even
insist on occasional restraint. North Korea, for an increasingly wealthy and
capitalist China, is as much a headache and an economic liability as a
In contrast, Iran is a cash cow for Russia (and China) and apparently a
source of opportunistic delight in its tweaking of the West. Iranian
petro-wealth has probably already earned Tehran at least one, and probably
two, favorable votes at the Security Council.
Of course, Tehran's oil revenues allow it access to weapons markets, and
overt blackmail, both of which are impossible for a starving North Korea.
And Iran's nuclear facilities are located at the heart of the world's
petroleum reserves, where even the semblance of instability can drive up
global oil prices, costing the importing world billions in revenues.
No one is flocking to Communism, much less Pyongyang's unrepentant, ossified
Stalinist brand. Islamic radicalism, on the other hand, has declared war on
Western society and tens of thousands of jihdadists, whether Shiia or
Sunnis, count on Iran for money, sanctuary, and support. Al Qaeda members
travel the country that is the spiritual godhead of Hezbollah, and a donor
of arms and money to radical Palestinian terrorists.
North Korea can threaten Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and the western United
States, and so poses a real danger. But the opportunities for havoc are even
richer for a nuclear Iran. With nukes and an earned reputation for madness,
it can dictate to the surrounding Arab world the proper policy of petroleum
exportation; it can shakedown Europeans whose capitals are in easy missile
range; it can take out Israel with a nuke or two; or it can bully the
nascent democracies of the Middle East while targeting tens of thousands of
US soldiers based from Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf.
And Iran can threaten to do all this under the aegis of a crazed Islamist
regime more eager for the paradise of the next world than for the material
present so dear to the affluent and decadent West. If Iran can play
brinkmanship now on just the promise of nuclear weapons, imagine its roguery
to come when it is replete with them.
When a supposedly unhinged Mr. Ahmadinejad threatens the destruction of
Israel and then summarily proceeds to violate international protocols aimed
at monitoring Iran's nuclear industry, we all take note. Any country that
burns off some of its natural gas at the wellhead while claiming that it
needs nuclear power for domestic energy is simply lying. Terrorism, vast
petroleum reserves, nuclear weapons, and boasts of wiping neighboring
nations off the map are a bad combination.
So we all agree on the extent of the crisis, but not on the solutions, which
can be summarized by four general options.
First is the ostrich strategy - see and hear no evil, if extending
occasional peace feelers out to more reasonable mullahs. Hope that
"moderates" in the Iranian government exercise a restraining influence on
Mr. Ahmadinejad. Sigh that nuclear Iran may well become like Pakistan -
dangerous and unpredictable, but still perhaps "manageable." Talk as if
George Bush and the Iranians both need to take a time out.
I doubt that many serious planners any longer entertain this passive
fantasy, especially after the latest rantings of Ahmadinejad. Pakistan,
after all, has some secular leaders, is checked by nuclear India, and has a
recent past of cooperation with the United States. Most importantly, it is
more than ever a lesson in past laxity, as the United States and Europe were
proven criminally derelict in giving Dr. Khan and his nuclear-mart a pass -
which may well come back to haunt us all yet.
Alternatively, we could step up further global condemnation. The West could
press the U.N. more aggressively - repeatedly calling for more resolutions,
and, ultimately, for sanctions, boycotts, and embargos, energizes our allies
to cut all ties to Iran, and provides far more money to dissident groups
inside Iran to rid the country of the Khomeinists. Ensuring that democracy
works in Iraq would be subversive to the mullahs across the border. Some
sort of peaceful regime change is the solution preferred by most - and, of
course, can be pursued in a manner contemporaneous with, not exclusionary
to, other strategies.
It is a long-term therapy and therefore suffers the obvious defect that Iran
might become nuclear in the meantime. Then the regime's resulting
braggadocio might well deflate the dissident opposition, as the mullahs
boast that they alone have restored Iranian national prestige with an
A third, and often unmentionable, course is to allow the most likely
intended target of nuclear Iran, Israel, to take matters into its own hands.
We know this scenario from the 1981 destruction of Saddam's French-built
Osirak nuclear reactor: the world immediately deplores such "unilateral" and
"preemptory" recklessness, and then sighs relief that Israel, not it, put
the bell on the fanged cat.
But 2006 is not 1981. We are in war with Islamic radicalism, at the moment
largely near the Iranian border in Iraq and Afghanistan. The resulting furor
over a "Zionist" strike on Shia Iran might galvanize Iraqi Shiites to break
with us, rather than bring them relief that the Jewish state had eliminated
a nearby nuclear threat and had humiliated an age-old rival nation and
bitter former enemy. Thousands of Americans are in range of Iranian
artillery and short-term missile salvoes, and, in theory, we could face in
Iraq a conventional enemy at the front and a fifth column at the rear.
And Iran poses far greater risks than in the past for Israeli pilots flying
in over the heart of the Muslim world, with 200-300 possible nuclear sites
that are burrowed into mountains, bunkers and suburbs. Such a mission would
require greater flight distances, messy refueling, careful intelligence, and
the need to put Israeli forces on alert for an Iranian counterstrike or a
terrorist move from Lebanon. Former Israeli friends like Turkey are now not
so cordial, and the violation of Islamic airspace might in the short-term
draw an ugly response, despite the eventual relief in Arab capitals at the
elimination of the Iranian nuclear arsenal.
If the Israeli raids did not take out the entire structure, or if there were
already plutonium present in undisclosed bunkers, then the Iranians might
shift from their sickening rhetoric and provide terrorists in Syria and
Lebanon with dirty bombs or nuclear devices to "avenge" the attack as part
of a "defensive" war of "striking back" at "Israeli aggression". Europeans
might even shrug at any such hit, concluding that Israel had it coming by
The fourth scenario is as increasingly dreaded as it is apparently
inevitable - a U.S. air strike. Most hope that it can be delayed, since its
one virtue - the elimination of the Iranian nuclear threat - must ipso facto
outweigh the multifaceted disadvantages.
The Shiite allies in Iraq might go ballistic and start up a second front as
in 2004. Muslim countries, the primary beneficiaries of a disarmed Iran,
would still protest loudly that some of their territories, if only for
purposes of intelligence and post-operative surveillance, were used in the
strike. After Iraq, a hit on Iran would confirm to the Middle East Street a
disturbing picture of American preemptory wars against Islamic nations.
Experts warn that we are not talking about a Clintonian one-day
cruise-missile hit, or even something akin to General Zinni's 1998 extended
Operation Desert Fox campaign. Rather, the challenges call for something far
more sustained and comprehensive - perhaps a week or two of bombing at every
imaginable facility, many of them hidden in suburbs or populated areas.
Commando raids might need to augment air sorties, especially for mountain
redoubts deep in solid rock.
The political heat would mount hourly, as Russia, China, and Europe all
would express shock and condemnation, and whine that their careful
diplomatic dialogue had once again been ruined by the American outlaws. Soon
the focus of the U.N. would not be on Iranian nuclear proliferation, or the
role of Europe, Pakistan, China, and Russia in lending nuclear expertise to
the theocracy, but instead on the mad bomber-cowboy George Bush. We remember
that in 1981 the world did not blame the reckless and greedy French for
their construction of a nuclear reactor for Saddam Hussein, but the sober
Israelis for taking it out.
Politically, the administration would have to vie with CNN's daily live
feeds of collateral damage that might entail killed Iranian girls and boys,
maimed innocents, and street-side reporters who thrust microphones into
stretchers of civilian dead. The Europeans' and American Left's slurs of
empire and hegemony would only grow.
We remember the "quagmire" hysteria that followed week three in Afghanistan,
and the sandstorm "pause" that prompted cries that we had lost Iraq. All
that would be child's play compared to an Iranian war, as retired generals
and investigative reporters haggled every night on cable news over how many
reactor sites were still left to go. So take for granted that we would be
saturated by day four of the bombing with al Jazeera's harangues, perhaps a
downed and blindfolded pilot or two paraded on television, some gruesome
footage of arms and legs in Tehran's streets, and the usual Nancy Pelosi and
Barbara Boxer outtakes.
So where do these bad and worse choices leave us? Right where we are now -
holding and circling while waiting for a break in the clouds.
Still, there are two parameters we should accept - namely, that Iran should
not be allowed to arm its existing missiles with nukes and that Israel
should not have to do the dirty work of taking out Iran's nuclear
The Europeans and the Americans right now must accelerate their efforts and
bring the crisis to a climax at the Security Council to force China and
Russia publicly to take sides. India, Pakistan, and the Arab League should
all be brought in and briefed on the dilemma, and asked to go on record
supporting U.N. action.
The public relations war is critical. Zen-like, the United States must
assure the Europeans, Russians, and Arabs that the credit for a peaceful
solution would be theirs. The lunacy of the Iranian president should provide
the narrative of events, and thus be quoted hourly - as we remain largely
Economically, we should factor in the real possibility that Iranian oil
might be off the global market, and prepare - we have been here before with
the Iranian embargo of 1979 - for colossal gasoline price hikes. This should
also be a reminder that Ahmadinejad, Saddam, Hugo Chavez, and an ascendant
and increasingly undemocratic Putin all had in common both petrodollar
largess and desperate Western, Chinese, and Indian importers willing to
overlook almost anything to slake their thirst. Unless we develop an energy
policy that collapses the global oil price, for the next half-century expect
every few years something far creepier than the Saudi Royals and Col.
Moammar Gadhafi to threaten the world order.
The Democratic leadership should step up to the plate and, in Truman-esque
fashion, forge a bipartisan front to confront Iran and make the most of
their multilateral moment. If the Democrats feel they have lost the public's
confidence in their stewardship of national security, then the threat of
Iran offers a Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, or John Kerry an opportunity to
get out front now and pledge support for a united effort - attacking Bush
from the right about too tepid a stance rather from the predictable left
that we are "hegemonic" and "imperialistic" every time we use force abroad.
Finally, the public must be warned that dealing with a nuclear Iran is not a
matter of a good versus a bad choice, but between a very bad one now and
something far, far worse to come.
Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the
author, most recently, of A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and
Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War