Question: What's the most dangerous geopolitical development in the 21st century? Answer: Iran's emergence as the Middle East regional superpower. Why? Because it places the center of the world's increasingly stretched energy resources more and more under the influence of an oil-rich, fundamentalist, pro-terrorist, anti-Semitic regime that has not only nuclear ambitions but the means to realize them.
Iran's malign hand now reaches directly into southern Iraq, to Syria, to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Hamas in the West Bank, and to the shores of the Mediterranean. Iran's long shadow now casts a deepening pall over the Sunni Arab countries of the region, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. All the Sunni gulf states have sizable Shiite populations, which Iran could turn against them. And what once promised to be a seed for democracy in the despotic Middle East, a new free state of Iraq, has betrayed every hope in an increasingly violent religious schism aggravated by Iranian meddling. The elections in Iraq led not to collaboration between different ethnic and religious groups but to a Shiite majority with a mandate to introduce what is, in effect, a radical Islamic republic. The south of Iraq is now an Iranian quasi protectorate, with police and local militias controlled by Tehran. No longer a traditional bulwark against Iranian expansion and influence, Iraq is in a dizzying downward spiral that has left Iran the undisputed champion of political Islam.
In Iraq, Iranian agents back the anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr. His ambition is to take over from the moderate Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is suffering from heart trouble, and to swing the Shiites fully behind Iran and the Iranian-backed terrorists in Iraq. Now there is talk of negotiating with Iran (and Syria) to join us in creating stability in Iraq. We should expect little help from them.
Death and destruction. Look at the nature of the beast. It has hardly been talking peace. It has intensified its murderous anti-Semitic, anti-Israel rhetoric and reiterated its long-held position that the Middle East should be entirely Islamic, stripped of all western influence.
The clock of military danger is superfast digital; the clock of diplomacy is 20th-century analog. All the West's diplomatic efforts have failed to induce Iran to refrain from developing nuclear weapons, which it contends utterly unconvincingly that it is not doing. Europe has been supportive, but Russia and China are playing both sides at the United Nations. Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, gleefully heaps scorn on the world body: "We are guided by what the Hidden Imam tells us, not by what you dictate in your resolutions."
Some say we should accept that Iran will become a nuclear power and seek consolation in the doctrine of mutual deterrence that worked in the Cold War. Such advice fails to account for the vehemence of the religious and ideological fanaticism that motivates Iran. Think of a country where thousands of young Iranian Shiites volunteered in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) to charge across Iraqi minefields, knowing they would die. There may be hundreds of thousands even millions willing to join suicide brigades. The fundamental assumption of mutual deterrence that both sides value their lives simply doesn't apply here.
So, clearly, we must stop Iran from going further down the road toward nuclear weapons. It has already secured from North Korea long-range missiles that can cover Europe with a range of 1,600 to 2,200 miles. Ahmadinejad boasts that the Hidden Imam (an Islamic messiah) gave him the presidency to provoke a "clash of civilizations" in which the Muslim world, led by Iran, takes on the "infidel" West, using hundreds of millions of Muslim ghazis, or holy raiders, keen to become martyrs while their opponents love life, fear death, and hate to fight. Hot air? We can hardly count on it. The leading opponent in this epic battle, by the way, would be none other than the United States.
The Bush administration is correct when it asserts that only the threat of serious military action and serious sanctions may deter the Iranians. But American public opinion will not lightly accept another war, given the calamity now playing out in Iraq and the fear of being bogged down in another endless war of attrition. "We know how to be patient," the Iranians like to say. "We have been weaving carpets for thousands of years."
There is no magic bullet here, of course, but we cannot just sit back. We must find a way and the will to show the mullahs we are deadly serious, or we will face the worst crisis in international relations since the Cuban missile crisis.
The West will have to decide what is more dangerous to attack the infrastructure of the Iranians sooner rather than later or to deal with an Iranian nuclear capability after the fact. The choices are not between good and bad but between bad and worse and the longer we delay, the more dire those bad and worse choices will become.