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To strike or not to strike Iran

5/7/03 Complete coverage of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) conference on Iran!
Source: The National Iranian American Council (

NIAC's mission is to promote Iranian-American participation in civic life. Iranians-Americans deserve to make informed decisions on matters that affect them, and NIAC aims to facilitate this by bringing transparency to these debates. Our intent is to report on policy conferences as objectively as possible. NIAC has itself, as an organization, no position on these debates. Our function is to provide Iranian-Americans with the necessary know-how and tools in order for them to be able to participate in the decision making according to their own views.


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Washington DC, May 6, 2003. The second panel at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) conference dealt with the future of Iran and featured Reuel Marc Gerecht, a resident scholar at AEI and a former CIA specialist on the Middle East, Professor Bernard Hourcade, the head of the Paris-based research team Monde Iranien, and a recipient of the Cultural Research Award of the Iranian Ministry of Islamic Guidance, Morris Amitay, the vice chairman of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and a former Executive Director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and Rob Sobhani, the President of Caspian Energy Consulting and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.


Is the regime about to fall?


Michael Ledeen, the influential conservative pundit and moderator of the panel, opened the discussion by sharing his assertion that Iran resembles a country that is experiencing the final stage of its ruling government. Gerecht disagreed on this assertion and maintained that the Iranian regime would not fall anytime soon. A revolution would require a series of events and not a mere spontaneous uprising. As an example, Gerecht mentioned that the 1999 students uprisings were "peanuts" compared to the demonstrations of 1979. Moreover, US meddling in Iran is not helpful, according to Gerecht, who pointed out that "everyone in Iran hates the regime, including the regime itself!"


On the issue of weapons of mass destruction, Gerecht pointed out that Iran's nuclear policy has widespread support in Iranian society and described a nuclear Iran as an inevitability. Although a targeted military strike against Iran could work, it wouldn't work well since the CIA's intelligence (Gerecht's former employer) is not sufficiently reliable, i.e. chances of missing the targets are considerable. Currently, Iran's program can be best checked through Israel, in Gerecht's view.


Nonetheless, Gerecht maintained that a nuclear Iran would be "strategically manageable," although he would personally prefer a US military strike against Iran over inaction.


Amitay: State Department has no moral clarity


Morris Amitay was introduced by the moderator as the "Godfather" of AIPAC, but Amitai emphasized that his views were his alone and not necessarily those of JINSA or any other group. JINSA is a think tank close to the neo-conservative circles in Washington, and considered to be hawkish on foreign policy issues.


Amitay's presentation focused largely on possible US responses to developments in Iran, as well as the power struggle in Washington on Iran. The Washington veteran argued that with the 2004 Presidential elections looming around the corner, the White House's options on Iran may quickly fade away as reelection is deemed more important than Iran. Amitay was fiercely critical of the State Department and even characterized Newt Gingrich's recent blistering attack on Colin Powell as "not tough enough."


Whereas the Department of State values "process, politeness and accommodation", the Department of Defense acts with moral clarity, Amitay argued. For instance, the Pentagon reacted strongly to Iranian interference in Iraq, while the State Department stated that their "impression was that they [Iran] are behaving fairly well so far." Colin Powell characterized Iran's behavior on meet the Press as "inappropriate", and not "unacceptable", as Amitay would have preferred.


Congress, on the other hand, is accountable, even though some Senators, such as Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee share the State Department's flawed view on foreign policy, according to Amitay. If all these Senators shared Senator Brownback's moral clarity, the legislation to fund the Iranian opposition would pass. Amitay also declared that he had together with Rob Sobhani and Michael Ledeen recently set up the Center for Democracy in Iran (CDI).


Hourcade: Too much American wishful thinking on Iran


Professor Hourcade was very critical of the title of the panel as well as the "simplicity" of the discourse at the AEI conference. He rejected the notion that the Iranian people's choice lied between Freedom vs Mullocracy and urged for a more serious debate and less "wishful thinking."


The French Iran specialist pointed out that Iran is a unique country in many senses. First of all, it is the only country that actually has experienced political Islam, unlike Turkey and the Arab countries. And in Hourcade's view, Islam in Iran is as strong as nationalism -the people's overwhelming opposition to the current regime does not necessarily translate into simple policy options of how to get rid of the mullahs. The picture is more complicated than that, according to Hourcade, who also questioned the idea that the Iranian people turns to Western based radios and TV channels for political news. 


Most panelist, including Hourcade, ascertained that there is a consensus in Iran on the nuclear issue. However, Hourcade also argued that the mullah's incompetence and mismanagement is the key factor preventing Iran from producing a nuclear bomb. Thus, Iran would actually go nuclear much faster if a regime change took place in Iran, Hourcade explained.


Overall, the French analyst challenged the panel's dismissal of political Islam as a factor in Iran's future, and emphasized the reduction in Iran's revolutionary fervor. For instance, Iran does not, according to Hourcade, aim to export its revolution through terrorism anymore, and he also put Iran's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon in the early 1980's within the context of the Iraq-Iran war.


Hourcade concluded by stressing that Iran is currently a very scared country that tries to avoid any confrontation with America. The Iranian people do not want another revolution and bloodshed, and they view Reza Pahlavi and the monarchy as they view Cyrus the Great and Darius - ancient history. The people of Iran "want to find their own way, and they want the time to be able to do it," Hourcade contended.


Hourcade was challenged on his characterization of Reza Pahlavi by the audience during the Q&A, but maintained that any talk of monarchy is "wishful thinking."



Sobhani: We can make the revolution happen!


Rob Sobhani opened his presentation by sharing his conversation with his relatives in Southern Tehran earlier the same day. According to Sobhani, his relatives "cursed" Syria and North Korea since they were now "ahead of Iran in being liberated." The frequent commentator on Fox News pointed out a key distinction between the US and the Iranian system: There is today a "30-something" Iranian-American female Assistant Secretary of Education in the US, and that same women would have to prostitute herself in Iran to make ends meet, Sobhani explained.


Sobhani dissented with the panel on the inevitability of a nuclear Iran and exclaimed "God help us if Iran gets its fingers on nukes." The Energy consultant argued that Iran does not need nuclear energy and that a democratic Iran would have an open debate on how to use its resources. Sobhani also claimed that if President Bush held the hands of activists such as "Reza Pahlavi or Mrs. Zand" on the White House lawn and backed the liberation of Iran, he would "bet his life" that there would be a revolution in Iran the next day.


But in order for this to happen, the US needs to have much more "chutzpah" (a Jiddish term that loosely can be translated as "boldness" or "guts") in its foreign policy, Sobhani argued. The Georgetown professor also made a blistering attack on Islam as a form of government, arguing that "Islam cannot put food on the table, it cannot build airplanes, it can only hijack them."


Sobhani concluded by painting the picture of one million Iranians chanting "Death to the Islamic Republic" on Al-Jazeera and CNN. We can do this, Sobhani promised the audience, "we just need more chutzpah!" His key point was that the people in Iran need help in form of a catalyst from the outside to rid themselves of the current regime.


A heated Q&A


Ledeen opened the Q&A session by arguing that the idea of "gradual change" in Iran no longer has any support. "Revolutions don't happen by themselves," Ledeen explained, "people make them happen." No one in Iran can stand up and take a leadership role, so they need actors from the outside, Ledeen argued.


The Q&A occasionally got quite heated. Some members of audience particularly took issue with Professor Hourcade's presentation, forcing Ledeen to calm the audience and emphasize that the seminar was not a "political rally." Another member of the audience challenged Hourcade on the Iranian elections and pointed out that participation was catastrophic in the recent elections.


Another audience member questioned the Sobhani's assumption that the people in Iran would welcome foreign intervention, to which Sobhani retorted that he US intervention is not necessarily what the people in Iran wants, but is what lies in the interest of the United states.


The day-long seminar ended with the showing of two movies about Iran.




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