Wall Street Journal – By Robert McFarlane: One casualty of the Iraq war has been the confusion among politicians about the proper place of democracy promotion in American foreign policy. Iran's recent election — which evoked a very vocal, frustrated opposition — brings into sharp focus the urgent need for clarity concerning this issue.
The Wall Street Journal
The president's new foreign policy will be judged on this crisis.
By ROBERT MCFARLANE
One casualty of the Iraq war has been the confusion among politicians about the proper place of democracy promotion in American foreign policy. Iran's recent election — which evoked a very vocal, frustrated opposition — brings into sharp focus the urgent need for clarity concerning this issue. Do we support those seeking freedom from oppression? And if so, how? It may do well to recall how we got into this confused state.
Sixteen or so years ago a small circle of cold warriors, flush with victory, concluded that with the dissolution of the Soviet Union democracy and free enterprise had been vindicated. To these neoconservatives, the task of future American presidents would be to spread the gospel of democracy — using force if necessary — so that governments everywhere would become accountable to their people and thus less likely to wage war. In 2003, it was arguably democracy promotion, rather than the threat of weapons of mass destruction, which triggered the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Throughout his two terms in office, President George W. Bush was an indefatigable advocate of democracy, even when it resulted in the victories of such un-Jeffersonian parties as Hezbollah and Hamas. Thus began the neocon versus realist battle. The current situation in Iran offers an opportunity to turn this debate in a less doctrinaire, more coherent direction.
To oversimplify, in Iran, the wrong man may have won. Yet a strong, vibrant opposition exists there that ought to be nurtured. Ilan Berman, a vice president at the American Foreign Policy Council, is one the best analysts of Iranian politics today. Mr. Berman explains the reasons for this opposition:
"Iran is a country in the grip of massive socio-economic malaise. Inflation . . . stands at nearly 30 percent. Unemployment is rampant, officially pegged at over 10 percent but unofficially estimated to be as much as two-and-a-half times that figure. Nearly a quarter of the Iranian population now lives under the poverty line, and both prostitution and drug addiction are rampant. Add to these Ahmadinejad's gross mismanagement of the national economy over the past four years, and it is easy to see why Iran's leaders fear that outrage over a stolen election could spiral into something more."
But will it? What is to become of the aspirations and lives of the hundreds of thousands of Iranian dissidents who are braving police brutality in the name of freedom and accountability? The reason we should care goes well beyond perpetuating Wilsonian principles. It involves upholding realist principles too.
Iran poses a formidable threat to U.S. and allied interests for three principal reasons. Tehran's illegal drive to become a nuclear-weapons state is well underway. The country's 7,000 centrifuges are enriching uranium that could produce enough weapons-grade material for one or more bombs within a year. If Iran continues down that path, whether successfully or not, other Middle Eastern nations will be eager to move forward with their own deterrent nuclear programs. A proliferation cascade would then ensue among countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and perhaps Jordan. Before long, matters will have gone beyond the ability of institutions or statecraft to control.
The very existence of Iran's nuclear program is seen to pose an existential threat to Israel. Even an undeclared yet plausible Iranian nuclear threat gives the country an enormous amount of political leverage in its relationships throughout the region. Its ability to coerce neighbors over any disagreement would rise exponentially.
Another issue is Iran's sponsorship and support of terrorist groups — Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestinian areas, and less prominently, Islamic Jihad and the Muslim Brotherhood. Unless Iran ends its support for these organizations, they will ultimately destroy Israel, not to mention their own host countries.
Denying Israel's very right to exist, while openly arming terrorist groups bent on destroying Israel, constitutes aggression by any standard of international law. These deeds ought to be a matter of formal sanction.
President Barack Obama has made clear his wish to engage Iran's government. But he ignores a fundamental question. What, beyond conversation, does engagement mean?
Dealing with Iran, the president needs to use all the tools of diplomacy at his disposal. First, the president needs to strengthen our position by adding partners. Mr. Obama should sit down with moderate Arab states. He should listen to their views and forge an agreed regional security strategy. Such a strategy should include a vigorous program of support for the Iranian opposition, based on a well-funded program of broadcasts and other communications into Iran. This would help the opposition become better organized and grow. Recent surveys reflect that Iran is the most "wired" nation in the Middle East. Nearly 35% of its population is connected to the Internet.
Further, Mr. Obama must raise awareness among our European and Asian allies of how serious a threat to regional peace Iran has become. He should then launch an effort at the United Nations Security Council to impose strong sanctions on anyone supplying gasoline to Iran. This will underline what should be our commitment to defang Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Barack Obama is seeking to craft a doctrine of effective realism, a doctrine that advances our own interests and those of democratic aspirants throughout the world. It will stand or fall on his actions toward Iran in the weeks and months ahead.
Mr. McFarlane, who served as President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser (1983-85), is a senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.