"I certainly do not see Iran as a threat."
These words are destined for the history books.
They were uttered by Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, during a recent visit to Tehran.
Other than such brilliant luminaries as Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, and North Korea’s new strongman, Kim Jong Un, few world leaders today would echo Davutoglu’s views.
But then again, as chief architect of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy, he also got Syria wrong. With his encouragement, and as a 2010 Congressional Research Service report documented, the Turkish government moved closer to Assad, conducting joint military exercises, lifting visa requirements, and creating a bilateral strategic council, led by its prime ministers.
Only after Assad brutalized protesters, killing, imprisoning, and torturing with abandon, did Turkey reverse course. That the Syrian leader’s true nature should never have been in doubt obviously escaped Davutoglu.
Pace Davutoglu, Iran is a serious threat – and getting more so.
It has declared a readiness to close the Strait of Hormuz, which, in 2011, accounted for an estimated 35 percent of oil worldwide transported by tankers, demanding the U.S. naval fleet not reenter the waterway.
It openly defies the UN Security Council, not to mention the International Atomic Energy Agency, with its nuclear program.
It menaces neighboring Arab countries, some of which have bluntly called for an iron-fist response to Iran’s belligerence.
It has been accused by the Obama administration of collaborating with Mexican drug cartels to plan the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
It calls for a world without Israel.
Its defense minister is wanted by Argentine authorities, and the subject of an Interpol “red notice,” for his complicity in terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires that killed 115 people and injured hundreds.
It supports Assad’s crackdown in Syria that has resulted in well over 5,000 deaths to date, and arms Hezbollah, which undermines Lebanese sovereignty by creating a state within a state.
And it stomps on the rights of its own people, as evidenced by the massive repression of those challenging the rigged June 2009 elections.
Now imagine this regime with nuclear-weapons capability. And remember that the power of the bomb comes not just from its use, but also from its mere possession.
The looming question is what to do about the Iranian threat.
Well, it would be nice to think that talks could dissuade Tehran from moving ahead, and, yes, the door should always be ajar, but, frankly, a serious deal is hardly in the offing.
For one thing, negotiations have been tried before by the major countries, to no avail, while Iran has bought precious time for its nuclear program.
And for another, Iran has doubtless learned something from two countries in particular.
The first is North Korea.
Having the bomb and keeping everyone guessing about what it’s capable of doing has gained Pyongyang negotiating room. Despite critical statements from Western capitals, the fact is that everyone is tiptoeing, at times kowtowing, for fear that the North Koreans might actually unleash havoc against Japan, South Korea, or U.S. troops stationed in the area.
The lesson for Tehran? Having the bomb offers unique leverage and power.
The second is Libya.
If Muammar Gaddafi had not yielded to the Bush administration in 2003 and abandoned its nuclear program, he might still be in control today. Would NATO forces have attacked Libya in 2011 were he in possession of a fearsome retaliatory capacity? Doubtful.
The lesson for Tehran? Give up your nuclear program and you may end up like Gaddafi.
So what to do?
First, keep all options on the table – and mean it.
Iran must be convinced that when the U.S. and others say it, they’re not bluffing. Indeed, it’s the very possibility of conflict that may be the most effective recipe for avoiding it.
Second, continue to ratchet up the sanctions against Iran, especially where it hurts most – banking and energy. And keep pressing major nations like China, India, and Russia to exercise global responsibility by not undercutting the measures adopted by the U.S., Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan, and others.
Yes, we may feel some economic pinch as sanctions increase and energy prices temporarily rise, but if we’re not prepared to pay any price for stopping the Iranian bomb, how serious are we?
(Apropos, if the Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz is not a wake-up call to Americans to get really serious – and fast – about our own energy security, what is?)
Meanwhile, the impact of existing sanctions is already being felt by the Iranian economy, as the precipitous drop in the value of the Iranian rial suggests.
Third, whoever is engaged in the stealth campaign to slow down the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile programs, please don’t stop.
You have had some spectacular successes, and I’m sure we don’t know the half of it. Iran has had to deal with repeated mysterious industrial accidents, faulty equipment, disappearing scientists, and computer viruses. It has also had to shift more of its finite resources simply to protecting its assets, while some may be wondering if it’s worth the risk to life and limb to continue their nuclear work.
Fourth, let’s recall that the “Arab Spring” began in a non-Arab country, Iran, in 2009.
Though the regime may have suppressed popular protests, there remains widespread opposition to a government that has delivered little on the “promise” of the Iranian revolution.
Tapping into the regime’s lack of legitimacy should be an element in the effort to stop Iran in its tracks.
And fifth, turn Iran into a political pariah.
Its leaders shouldn’t have the luxury of traveling abroad so easily. Why aren’t more countries downgrading their diplomatic ties with Iran? Let’s shout from the rooftops those countries and companies continuing to conduct business as usual with Iran, exactly the kind of publicity they don’t want.
There may be no foolproof way of stopping Iran, but more can be done.
Surely history has taught us that when repressive regimes believe they have the tide of history, airtight ideology, and higher authority on their side, they shouldn’t be underestimated.
The Turkish foreign minister might, but the rest of us must not.