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On Point

The Mullah's Quest, The Mullah's Fear


by Austin Bay
January 3, 2006

Pity the United Nations and the European Union. The militant theocrats running Iran have ignored their pleas, protests, promises of aid and finger-wagging threats of economic sanction.

Tehran's mullahs want nuclear weapons. Money, media appeals and political yammering -- the arsenal of so-called "soft power" -- have so far failed to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions.

As 2006 begins, it appears Iran's decade of atomic fan dancing with "the international community" is approaching a dangerous finale. One hopes the latest gesture doesn't prove to be another hollow jest. Moscow has offered to enrich Iranian uranium in Russian facilities. It's an interesting diplomatic gambit, one that means Iran's jig may continue for several more months.

Iran insists that the Russian proposal, if accepted, would be "supplementary" and not a "final plan." One senior Iranian official cautioned that any proposal that limited uranium enrichment "to Russian soil only" wouldn't do at all.

At some point in time, Iran's radical mullahs and aging Islamic revolutionaries will have enough nuclear material to make a nuclear weapon.

Those who think the current Iranian leaders' pursuit of nuclear weaponry is a theatrical performance (primarily designed to solidify domestic political support or shake down Arab and European governments for loans and aid) should consider the rhetoric of Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier -- he calls Hitler's mass murder of European Jews a "myth." On a regular basis, Ahmadinejad and his cohorts enthusiastically tout the capabilities of Iranian ballistic missiles. Unfortunately, unchecked fanatics like Ahmadinejad have a tendency to move from words to war.

Note that Israeli cities aren't the only targets within range. In the 1990s, the Iranians and the United Arab Emirates quarreled over islands in the Persian Gulf, but that was lightweight sparring. Still, Iran with a nuclear weapon threatens every Arab nation on the Arabian Peninsula.

An Iranian nuke also threatens Iraq. Saddam's gone, and with good reason Iranians despised him. Saddam attacked Iran and started the Iran-Iraq War. Iraqi forces used chemical weapons on Iranian troops. However, the rise of Iraqi democracy puts Iran's autocrats in a political and cultural bind.

Iran begins the 21st century as a profoundly divided country. One of the key divisions is age. Most Iranians under the age of 40 have no truck with the ruling mullahs. To describe the clerics' economy as "stagnant" is a multi-decade understatement. Iran's young don't remember the Shah, and Khomeini's revolution is ancient history. The Council of Guardians' brutality is current news, however. The cultural straightjacket of clerical puritanism chafes, and the mullahs' hypocrisy and corruption are self-evident.

In some ways, the thief in religious robes is even more repugnant than the usual greased-palm bureaucrat. Democracy may not be a panacea, but Iranian youth see it as a source of political and economic opportunity. Now, "the Arabs" (in this case, the Iraqis, considered by many Iranians to be cultural inferiors) are building a new society, while Iran continues to rot.

Ahmandinejad and his clique may believe a nuke will help restore their "balance of prestige" vis a vis Baghdad.

With a fanatic like Ahmadinejad in charge, Iran will ultimately go nuclear.

In 1981, Israeli air attacks destroyed Saddam's Osirak nuclear reactor, and everyone in the Middle East (including Iran) sighed with relief. The "hard power" of U.S. and Israeli military capabilities has always been the big stick behind EU and U.N. anti-proliferation diplomacy. However, the rumor mill says Iran has hardened and dispersed its nuclear sites. As it is, airstrikes and special forces attacks are never "sure things."

The real solution is regime change in Tehran. The EU and the United States have talked about supporting the mullahs' political opponents, but they have not walked that walk with sufficient financial aid, political support, media support and -- yes, it may be necessary -- weapons. Iran's tyrants believe they can finesse diplomatic discourse and ride out a military strike. They fear they cannot quell a popular, pro-democracy rebellion.

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