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Boxing the Mullahs

Paul wrote yesterday, on the subject of Iran:

There are only two horses in this race — a nuclear Iran and an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Those who back a third horse — be it U.N. involvement or “tough” sanctions — are engaging in a Clinton-style evasion.

I don’t disagree with this, but I would go farther. One option–the most aggressive one that anyone is discussing, as far as I know–is, as Paul says, a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. But suppose such an attack is successful, and assume that it sets back Iran’s nuclear program by five to ten years. The mullahs, on that scenario, are still in power. And the theory behind the surgical strike option is, presumably, that their continuation in power is acceptable.

But how is this different from our policy toward Iraq between 1991 and 2001? The debate, as to Iraq, was between those who believed that regime change was necessary, and those who thought we could “keep Saddam in a box” through no-fly zones, sanctions, U.N. inspections, and so on. What happened in practice was that the U.S. government proclaimed a policy of regime change, but settled for the box. This changed, however, after September 11. The Bush administration concluded that the box strategy was no longer adequate, in large part because of the threat that Saddam’s regime might supply WMDs to a terrorist organization.

How is this different from Iran in the aftermath of a military strike? Indeed, the situation in Iran will be much worse: no no-fly zones; likely no sanctions; and no U.N. inspections. As far as I know, Iran has concentrated to date on nuclear, not chemical or biological, weapons. But those weapons are far easier to make. If we bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, but leave its regime in place, isn’t the risk of Iran’s equipping terrorist organizations (several of which they sponsor) with chemical or biological weaons at least as great as it was in the case of Iraq? If it wasn’t acceptable to try to keep Saddam in a box after September 11, why would it be acceptable to pursue the same strategy with respect to Iran?

It seems to me that the case for military action against Iran, designed not just to set back its nuclear program but to change its form of government, is at least as strong as it was with regard to Iraq. But it appears equally clear that the American people have no appetite for the sort of conflict it would require to bring about regime change there. So, by default, we seem destined–at best–for a policy toward Iran substantially similar to the “box” strategy that was deemed insufficient when applied to Iraq.

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