May 29, 2003

May 29, 2003 | Commentary on Middle East

Sending a Strong Message to Iran

"Iran … said today it has arrested several suspected members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network," reads a recent wire service article. Unfortunately for the regime in Tehran, this may be a classic case of Too Little, Too Late.

If any nation is a poster child for the Axis of Evil, it's Iran. Its government combines repressive Islamic fundamentalism with chemical and biological weapons and robust support for some of the world's worst terrorist groups, including senior al Qaeda operatives responsible for the Saudi Arabia bombings.

It's no wonder the White House recently broke off political-military talks with Tehran and has been debating how best to handle this nefarious regime.

This re-evaluation of U.S. policy makes sense. We're dealing, after all, with a country officially labeled by the State Department as "the most active state sponsor of terrorism" in the world. Worse, the CIA says Iran is the country most actively pursuing weapons of mass destruction today. According to the Bush administration, Tehran could become a nuclear power within five years.

Nearly 25 years after Iranians seized the American embassy and started exporting fundamentalist Islam, it's time we persuaded Iran to change course.

Many U.S. officials consider Iran's religious leaders the founding fathers of modern Islamic terrorism. According to the State Department, they've been arming Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestine Islamic Jihad for years, as well as training them and giving them sanctuary. Continued support for these groups is sure to undermine hopes for the just initiated Middle East "road map."

Though these groups focus much of their evil energy on Israel, they've also attacked American interests repeatedly. The bombings of the marine barracks in Lebanon, the American embassy in Beirut and the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia -- all killed Americans.

Today, U.S. officials say, Iran harbors members of al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden's son, Saad, and the masterminds of the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Iran also may have trained al Qaeda operatives now active in Sudan.

Yes, Iran has signed the Biological Weapons Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But that hasn't stopped it from pursuing the very weapons these agreements ban. One CIA report says Iran "has stockpiled blister, blood and choking agents." And, U.S. officials report, it has begun accelerating its nuclear weapons program at its clandestine uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. The CIA says its ballistic missile arsenal is among the largest in the Middle East, and missiles with intercontinental range are on the drawing board.

In short, the linkage between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (and the means to deliver them) is irrefutable in Iran.

There is a glimmer of hope. Almost two-thirds of Iran's 65 million people are under 30. With unemployment reaching 25 percent and inflation at 20 percent, many of these young people want reform and already have held protests demanding it. They want real democracy and ties with the United States. Iran's president and parliament are "democratically elected" but with one tiny proviso: The mullahs have the final say in all matters of governance -- meaning reform is tossed aside as a threat to the religious leaders' rule.

True, there are fissures in the regime's fundamentalist facade. But can we afford to wait idly, merely hoping the regime will reform itself, cast off terror and disarm? Probably not.

We should pressure the regime, just like we're doing with North Korea and Syria. The U.N. Security Council should rule that Iran is violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and consider sanctions. Washington should urge nations that work with Iran (especially those in Europe) to insist that Iran halt its support for terror and destroy banned weapons. We also should support a Radio Free Iran and Iranian opposition and democratic dissident groups who can serve as agents of change from inside and outside Iran.

Iran may be the most vexing and dangerous challenge in the Axis of Evil. It borders Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Central Asia and the Caucasus -- all areas prone to instability. It's increasingly capable of causing a lot of trouble in its region and beyond. We should waste no time in sending a strong message to Iran to reform its government, renounce its support for terror and destroy its weapons of mass destruction.

Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, is a senior fellow for national security affairs at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire, Ran in the 5/14 New York Post