Washington, DC, Dec. 17, 1996 - Now that Saudi Arabia is completing its investigation into the June 25 bombing at the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, which claimed the lives of 19 U.S. servicemen, the Clinton administration is faced with the unenviable decision of how it will respond. According to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times [Dec. 12], administration officials are contemplating a military response, possibly against targets inside Iran.
Not retaliating forcefully against those responsible for having taken American lives will project an image of weakness to America's adversaries, which inevitably leads to more terrorist attacks. But a direct strike against Iran at this moment would be counterproductive as it would galvanize the Iranian people behind a ruling regime that, in recent months, has been steadily losing support. If the Iranian intelligence services were behind the bombing, as recent news reports allege, calls for retaliation against Iran are sure to be heard from the U.S. congress, where sympathies for the current Islamic regime have never been high.
Aware of these pressures, the Pentagon has been busily upgrading its target sets, according to reports in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, to include eleven training campsb eing operated outside of Tehran and Qom by the Iranian intelligence services for foreign terrorist groups, including those who allegedly carried out the Dhahran bombing. After all, if it can be established that the terrorists who hit Dhahran were actually trained in these Iranian camps, they would be a singularly appropriate target. According to the Washington Post, the Pentagon has also developed contingency plans to knock out Iran's main oil export terminal on Kharg Island and destroy major oil refineries.
Reactions such as these are understandable, but they are ultimately counter-productive to long-term American goals for a number of reasons.
On December 2, anti-regime riots broke out in Iran's western province of Kermanshah. The government-controlled press in Tehran announced that five persons had been killed, including a colonel in the security forces who was beaten to death by angry demonstrators after he shot three persons to death. Unofficial death tolls range from two dozen, to several hundred dead and wounded.
Reports I have received from Army officers in Tehran, which have been confirmed by Western diplomats in Iran, describe how the commander of the regular Army, General Ahmad Dadbin, took the risk of issuing a written order to all regular Army units throughout the country, barring them from taking part in military action against the demonstrators. Press reports on the demonstrations and the regime's response concur that the massacre of civilians was solely carried out by the Revolutionary Guards and the riot squads of the Law Enforcement Forces, units which are closely tied to the regime. This has potentially driven a wedge between these forces and the regular army which could be critical if opposition to the regime intensifies.
At the same time, as their revolutionary message loses its appeal, the ruling clerics in Tehran have increasingly sounded nationalistic themes to drum up popular support for their cause. A U.S. military attack against Iran - even if the only casualties were foreign terrorists - would play right into their hands, encouraging Iranians to rally to the regime. There is simply no way the United States could counter the anti-American and anti-imperialist vitriol we could expect from the state-controlled media in Tehran. Even if the U.S. had rock-solid evidence of Iranian government involvement in the Dhahran bombing - not a sure thing, in any terrorism case - it would never be able to present it to the court of public opinion in Iran. Worse, such an attack would also be likely to antagonize Iranians living inside Iran and overseas who would normally see themselves as America's friends.
Instead, if the evidence is firm, the United States should hit the clerical regime where it hurts the most: at the sources of revenue that fuel its terrorist operations. The Saudis have hinted that they might be willing to take their case to the United Nations, and call for an international economic embargo on the Islamic regime in Tehran, such as the embargo that was imposed on Libya for its role in the Pan Am 103 bombing.
Critics of embargoes argue that they are ineffective at best, and seldom work. They cite the UN embargoes against Libya and Iraq, or the unilateral U.S. ban on trade with Cuba, as cases proving the point that dictators do not respond to economic pain.
But the recent riots in Western Iran - which are not the first, by any means - demonstrate that there is real popular discontent inside Iran. The state-controlled Iranian media is full of complaints from ordinary citizens about government waste, corruption, and mismanagement of the economy. An international trade embargo on Iran would cripple Iran's already troubled economy overnight by preventing Iran from selling oil, which accounts for 90% of its hard currency earnings. This would send an unmistakeable message to ordinary Iranians that the West had finally had enough of a regime that uses terror as its foreign policy tool of choice. Furthermore, an embargo would help to delegitimize a regime that has consistently used its presence in international institutions such as the United Nations to cloak its terrorist deeds, and has used access to its market to gain political favors, as with Germany and France, the Islamic regime's biggest apologists today. And it would provide a glimmer of hope to Iranian democrats who have been excluded from the political process and even imprisoned. Opposition leaders such as Darioush Forouhar, who heads the outlawed but tolerated Iran Nation's Party in Tehran, or Khosrow Akmal, the secretary general of the Constitutionalists Movement of Iran, a pro-monarchist group in exile, have for years been seeking precisely this kind of support from the West in their struggle to bring freedom and democracy to Iran.
Certainly, the United States should take other measures as well. If the intelligence is solid, the U.S. military could target the specific Iranian Revolutionary Guards headquarters, barracks, and outposts in Lebanon that were used by the Saudi Shiite terrorists and their Iranian intelligence officers to plan the Dhahran attack. The United States would be justified in attacking such targets under the United Nations charter, which allows nations the right of self-defense. Indeed, the French bombed similar targets in 1983 in retaliation for an Iranian-backed truck bomb attack on French peacekeepers in Beirut that killed 58 French marines. Putting the Islamic Republic Guards Corps out of business in Lebanon would be doing everyone a service.
And the U.S. should also launch a more aggressive campaign of public diplomacy in support of democratic change in Iran, including the use of surrogate broadcasting. The U.S. Congress should pass the bill that it is currently considering that would fund broadcasts of dissident Iranians, instead of Americans, into Iranian territory. The tremendous success enjoyed by Radio Free Europe, and its contribution to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, show that such broadcasting provides hope and encouragement to democratic forces living in repressive states.
It is also essential that the administration state in public that the use of terrorism as a tool of foreign policy is regime-specific. The U.S.'s quarrel is with the Islamic regime, not with the Iranian people. As eight years of rule by the "moderate" President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani has shown, there are no "moderates" within the regime who are capable of reigning in this type of behavior. The Islamic Republic will continue to attack U.S. interests around the globe, assassinate political dissidents, and subvert neighboring pro-Western governments, no matter which cleric is in charge.
Instead of seeking a change of behavior on the part of the regime - which is current U.S. policy - we should encourage Iranians from the democratic opposition to change the regime. The ability of the U.S. to help bring about this change is limited. But by stating that the U.S. supports the sovereign right of the Iranian people to choose their government by democratic means - which no administration has ever said until now - the U.S. government will give those democrats the moral support and legitimacy they have long sought. After all, a strong, free, and democratic Iran is in America's long-term strategic interest.