AS IRAN SIMMERS: Is Dick Cheney Right for a Change?

Did George Kennan (left) formulate the best plan to deal with Iran's despots?
There are a million reasons to dismiss Dick Cheney’s advice when it comes to foreign policy. Other than Henry Kissinger and Dr. Strangelove I can’t think of two scarier policy planners than Cheney. (I always thought he wanted Saddam Hussein eliminated so he could be top despot.) As much as it pains me to say it, though, Cheney is right to charge that President Obama’s willingness to open talks with Iran is naïve.

Iran’s weekend “election” made the Bush installation of 2000 look honest by comparison. If you believe that incumbent President Ahmadinejad (Ahm-friggin’-mad) got nearly 70% of the vote in a nation in which the median age is 26.4, the literacy rate is 80%, and 67% of the population lives in urban areas you know nothing about politics, human nature, or common sense. Nobody, anywhere gets 70% in a truly democratic election. Iranian dissidents have called the elections a “coup d’état” and they are correct. Any way the Obama administration tries to parse (Parsi?) it, opening talks with Ahmadinejad legitimizes a farce.

In the realm of realpolitiks, of course, the U.S. routinely parlays with unspeakably awful people. (Don’t be fooled, Ahmadinejad is a truly reprehensible and dangerous individual. The sole reason Obama wishes to hold discussions with him is in the vain hope that Iran will withhold aid to Shiite terrorists in Iraq. If Cheney and the mad bombers of Team Bush had left Saddam in power, he’d have taken care of that.) A wiser course would be to let Ahmadinejad rant in isolation. Foreign policy wonks love to make analogies, so let’s make one: Eastern Europe. The United States, Western Europe, and Israel should do everything in their power to isolate Iran and then ignore it, like they did in the waning days of the Cold War. If they resist the temptation either to legitimate Ahmadinejad’s coup or to be seen as outside contaminants of Iran’s political evolution, Ahmadinejad and the fanatical ayatollahs that control Iran will fall just as surely as the communist apparatchiks of Eastern Europe fossilized themselves into extinction.

Islamic rule is not popular among Iran’s business class, urban dwellers, or pop culture-weaned youth. Nearly one quarter of Iran’s population is under the age of 14 and the vast bulk of the populace wasn’t even an itch under their mothers’ hejabs when Iran’s Islamic revolution took place in 1979. Those numbers alone dictate that the revolution will yield to youthful evolution, if the West leaves well enough alone. And if Iran’s Muslim neighbors embark on economic development schemes that leave Iran mired in the past, the ayatollahs will become religious apparatchiks without a base.

At some point in the near future Turkey will become the European Union’s first Muslim-majority member. A westernized, modernized, rationalized, and secularized Turkey on Iran’s doorstep will be an irresistible model for stifled Iranian young people. If Kazakhstan follows Turkey’s lead— and with its large underdeveloped oil reserves there are millions of Euros-worth of reasons for Kazaks to look to the West—the pressure on Iran will be even greater.

A sagacious policy would be to act as if Iran is irrelevant, a medieval throwback. The U.S. should ratchet closed-door diplomatic pressure on its allies to increase Iran’s isolation, and that includes China, which needs to be told privately that it can increase market shares in the U.S. or underwrite Iran’s oil industry, but it can’t do both. The key, however, is to avoid provocation toward Iran. Don’t react to Ahmadinejad’s threats, avoid comment on Iranian internal matters, and, above all, stop the flow of outside capital to Tehran. (The latter has the advantage of making it hard for Iran to sustain its bloated military budget.) Remove the West as a viable Satan substitute and let Iran choke on its own backwardness and poverty. As we saw in Eastern Europe, once the West stopped rattling its sabers restive peoples began pointing theirs at their own leaders. Back in 1946 George Kennan counseled patience, not aggression or legitimization, in dealing with the Soviet Union. That advice was good enough to bring down the Soviet Union and it’s plenty good enough to topple a madman like Ahmadinejad.

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