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Why Iran's dictators can be deterred

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By Fareed Zakaria
Monday, February 22, 2010

Sarah Palin has a suggestion for how Barack Obama can save his presidency. "Say he decided to declare war on Iran," she said on Fox News this month. "I think people would perhaps shift their thinking a little bit and decide, well, maybe he's tougher than we think he is today." Such talk is in the air again. Palin was picking up the idea from Daniel Pipes, a neoconservative Middle East expert who suggested a strike would reverse Obama's political fortunes. (Actually, Palin attributed the idea to Patrick Buchanan, but she obviously entirely misread Buchanan's column, which opposed Pipes's suggestion. It's getting tiresome to keep pointing out her serial gaffes, but Palin does appear to be running for president.)

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The International Atomic Energy Agency warned last week of its "concerns" that the Iranian regime was moving to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability, not just nuclear energy. But this does not change the powerful calculus against a military strike, which would most likely delay the Iranian program by only a few years. And then there are the political consequences. The regime would gain support as ordinary Iranians rally around the flag. The opposition would be forced to support a government under attack from abroad. The regime would foment and fund violence from Afghanistan to Iraq and across the Persian Gulf. The price of oil would skyrocket -- which, ironically, would help Tehran pay for all these operations.

It is important to recognize the magnitude of what people like Palin are advocating. The United States is being asked to launch a military invasion of a state that poses no imminent threat to America, without sanction from any international body and with few governments willing to publicly endorse such an action. Al-Qaeda and its ilk would present it as the third American invasion of a Muslim nation in a decade, proof positive that the United States is engaged in a war of civilizations. Moderate Arab states and Muslim governments everywhere would be on the defensive. And as Washington has surely come to realize, wars unleash forces that cannot be predicted or controlled.

An Iran with nuclear weapons would be dangerous and destabilizing, though I am not as convinced as some that it would automatically force Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey to go nuclear as well. If Israel's large nuclear arsenal has not made Egypt seek its own nukes -- even though that country has fought and lost three wars with Israel -- it is unclear to me why an Iranian bomb would.

The United States should use the latest IAEA report to bolster a robust containment strategy against Iran, bringing together the moderate Arab states and Israel in a tacit alliance, asking European states to go further in their actions, and pushing Russia and China to endorse sanctions. Former secretary of state James Baker suggested to me on CNN that the United States could extend its nuclear umbrella to Israel, Egypt and the Gulf states -- something that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has hinted at as well.

At the same time, Washington should back the "Green Movement" in Iran, which ultimately holds out the greatest hope for a change in the basic orientation of Iran's foreign policy. It remains unclear how broad or well-organized this opposition movement is, but as a long-term strategy we should support groups that want a more modern and open Iran.

Can we live with a nuclear Iran? Well, we're living with a nuclear North Korea (boxed in and contained by its neighbors). And we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union and Communist China.

Iran, we're told, is different. The country cannot be deterred by America's vast arsenal of nukes because it is run by a bunch of mystic mullahs who aren't rational, embrace death and have millenarian fantasies. But this isn't and never was an accurate description of Iran's canny (and ruthlessly pragmatic) clerical elite.

The most significant recent development in Iran has been the displacement of the clerical elite by the Revolutionary Guards, a military organization that is now the center of power. Clinton confirmed this when she warned of an emerging "military dictatorship" there. I'm not sure which is worse for the Iranian people: rule by nasty mullahs or by thuggish soldiers. But we know this: Military regimes are calculating. They act in ways that keep themselves in power. That instinct for self-preservation is what will make a containment strategy work.

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International. His e-mail address is comments@fareedzakaria.com.


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