JERUSALEM — Iran is not our enemy. The regime that enriches itself while murdering, oppressing and impoverishing ordinary Iranians, the regime that incites genocide against Israel, threatens its neighbors in the Persian Gulf and vows to bring about a "world without America" — that is our enemy.
This was one of the key points driven home by a trio of extraordinary individuals gathered for a dinner in Tel Aviv last week.
At the table were Bernard Lewis, for my money the greatest living historian of the Middle East; Uri Lubrani, Israel's envoy to Iran prior to the fall of the Shah and an adviser to leaders of the Jewish state ever since; and Meir Dagan, a retired paratrooper, commando and general who was recruited in 2002 by Prime Minster Ariel Sharon to rebuild the Mossad as an intelligence agency "with a knife in its teeth." A small group of American national security professionals — from the Hill, the Defense Department, Homeland Security, even the D.C. police department — broke pita with them.
None of the three minimizes how dire will be the consequences should Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's finger come to rest on a nuclear trigger. The Iranian president subscribes to an extremist school of Shia theology that, Dagan explained, looks forward to an apocalyptic war that would "hasten the arrival of the Mahdi," mankind's ultimate savior. But he thinks Ahmadinejad and his associates are not as close as many analysts believe to acquiring a nuclear capability. "Two years to have such a weapon, in my estimation," he said.
If that is correct — a big if — it means we have a little time to find out whether tough measures short of military force can be effective. Dagan notes, too, that bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would not end the regime's pursuit of nuclear weapons: It will only delay it by perhaps two or three years. The technology, the expertise and the components are all-too-easily available.
The larger point is this: Guns don't kill people; people kill people. It is the regime that rules Iran, more than weapons or the facilities in which they are produced, that constitutes the real problem. From that it follows that changing the regime — not destroying its hardware — is the higher goal.
Lubrani, who predicted Iran's 1979 revolution — when then-President Jimmy Carter, among others, saw Iran "an island of stability" — believes regime change is a realistic goal. Indeed, he is convinced there will be another Iranian revolution and that it can come about sooner rather than later — soon enough rather than too late.
Which raises the question: Based on the analyses of the historian, the diplomat and the spy can a coherent strategy be constructed? I'd argue that it might begin with four specific policies:
1. Tighten the sanctions noose to maximally increase pressure on the Iranian economy. Sanctions can work if we focus on reducing oil revenues to Iran. European countries should impose an embargo on purchases. Other countries should drive for discounts. The fewer the number of buyers, the higher the discounts — and the lower Iran's oil revenue.
2. The threat of force must be credible. Iran's rulers should lose sleep over the possibility that a military strike — against their nuclear facilities or against them more directly — may be seen by Americans and/or Israelis as the least bad option.
3. Help Syria break free of Iran. Under Bashar al-Assad, Syria has been Iran's bridge into the Arab and Sunni worlds. An incredibly brave Syrian opposition is attempting to bring down the dynasty. The loss of Syria would be a heavy blow to the Tehran regime. America and the West should do all they can to support the rebels.
4. Iran's anti-regime opposition also deserves moral support and material assistance. That should have begun in 2009 when, in the wake of blatantly fraudulent elections, mass protests broke out in Tehran. Lewis lamented: "We have not done a ... thing to help them. It's a mind-boggling absurdity."
Finally, take into account the context: In what has been misperceived as an "Arab Spring," the downtrodden masses in Egypt and elsewhere may be coming to the conclusion that "Islam is the answer." Iranians, having tested that proposition over decades, know it is the wrong answer. Rule by mullahs has made them less free and poorer then they ever were under the Shah.
These disenchanted Iranians, Lewis, Lubrani and Dagan agree, may offer the best hope for the Muslim world — and for winding down the global war against the West.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org