November 5, 2007

Iran: The new focus of 2008?

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Iran: The new focus of 2008?
As the election year looms closer, new foreign threats emerge

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst

Not a day goes by without some story about Iran in the headlines: Tehran’s nuclear issue with the United Nations and the West, Iran’s support of terrorist organizations from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Shiite militias in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan, its militarization program of advanced conventional weapons and longer-range ballistic missiles, its threats against Israel, reactions to possible economic sanctions — it’s always something.

As we gear up for the 2008 elections, Iran is emerging as one of the key issues and it should be that way.

Since the fall of the shah, the advent of the Islamic republic and the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran more than 25 years ago, Iran has been a thorn in the side of American foreign policymakers. For years, many Middle East analysts have believed that at some point, the issue of Iran would have to be squarely addressed. It appears that time is rapidly approaching and the confluence of events is being driven by the Iranians.

One could make the argument that the Iranians are looking for a showdown with the West, or more particularly with the United States. I am not sure what has emboldened the Iranian leadership. It may be the increasing price of oil and the resultant revenue bonanza; the perception that the United States and its allies are either bogged down or over-committed in Iraq and Afghanistan and do not have the stomach for another crisis; the belief that their militarization programs have given them enough military power to survive a regional confrontation with the United States; or the belief that their “friends in the United Nations,” China and Russia will protect them from further economic sanctions.

Whatever the calculus is in Tehran, the leadership, more specifically President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appears to want a confrontation. We should not dismiss the words of Ahmadinejad lightly. Although as president he does not control the nuclear program, the army or the intelligence services, he would not be allowed to make his outrageous statements without the acquiescence of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who does control the elements of power in the country.

The key issue, the long-term strategic issue, is the Iranian nuclear program. The Bush administration has made clear its position on the suspected weapons development effort. The latest reiteration of that stance was made by Vice President Dick Cheney last week: “We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapons program.” There does not seem to be much room for alternate interpretation there. President Bush seemed to lower the threshold of tolerating Iranian nuclear weapons research, saying that Iran even having “the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon” could lead to World War III.

In any case, the choices of what to do about the Iranians are fairly limited. Diplomacy hasn’t worked for us in the past with the Iranians, and it does not appear to be working for the Europeans now. Many of the 2008 presidential candidates favor “aggressive diplomacy.” But a presidential figure can only negotiate with people who will negotiate in good faith. We have not seen that thus far from the Iranians.

Will the Iranians negotiate? Sure, the Iranians will come to the table, but will it be in good faith? The American ambassador in Iraq has twice met with Iranian officials to discuss the situation in that country. Nothing has changed — Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers are still funding, training and equipping Shiite militias in Iraq —militias that are killing American soldiers.

The Europeans and the United Nations have been talking to the Iranians for years about their refusal to adhere to Security Council resolutions on their nuclear program. Every time stronger sanctions are about to be imposed, Iran makes some conciliatory gesture to stall the proceedings. More talks are scheduled and nothing happens.

It is in Iran’s interest to keep the negotiations open and moving at a snail’s pace. Every day, every week, every month that talks continue, the centrifuges at Natanz continue to spin, enriching uranium. Iran’s strategy is simple: Keep the world talking while we keep enriching uranium, then present the world with a nuclear device and we win.

They want a nuclear weapon. Are we prepared to live with that?

Before I cast a vote for president, I want to know the candidate’s answer to that question. I want to know what he or she is prepared to do about the problem. I need to hear something more than diplomacy, aggressive or otherwise. That’s nothing but a license for Iran to build a nuclear weapon.

© 2007 MSNBC Interactive