Washington, DC, Dec. 17, 1996 - Now that Saudi Arabia is completingits investigation into the June 25 bombing at the Khobar Towers in Dhahran,which claimed the lives of 19 U.S. servicemen, the Clinton administrationis faced with the unenviable decision of how it will respond. Accordingto a recent report in the Los Angeles Times [Dec. 12], administration officialsare contemplating a military response, possibly against targets insideIran.
Not retaliating forcefully against those responsible for having takenAmerican lives will project an image of weakness to America's adversaries,which inevitably leads to more terrorist attacks. But a direct strike againstIran at this moment would be counterproductive as it would galvanize theIranian people behind a ruling regime that, in recent months, has beensteadily losing support. If the Iranian intelligence services were behindthe bombing, as recent news reports allege, calls for retaliation againstIran are sure to be heard from the U.S. congress, where sympathies forthe current Islamic regime have never been high.
Aware of these pressures, the Pentagon has been busily upgrading itstarget sets, according to reports in the Los Angeles Times and the WashingtonPost, to include eleven training campsb eing operated outside of Tehranand 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 actuallytrained in these Iranian camps, they would be a singularly appropriatetarget. According to the Washington Post, the Pentagon has also developedcontingency plans to knock out Iran's main oil export terminal on KhargIsland and destroy major oil refineries.
Reactions such as these are understandable, but they are ultimatelycounter-productive to long-term American goals for a number of reasons.
On December 2, anti-regime riots broke out in Iran's western provinceof Kermanshah. The government-controlled press in Tehran announced thatfive persons had been killed, including a colonel in the security forceswho was beaten to death by angry demonstrators after he shot three personsto death. Unofficial death tolls range from two dozen, to several hundreddead and wounded.
Reports I have received from Army officers in Tehran, which have beenconfirmed by Western diplomats in Iran, describe how the commander of theregular Army, General Ahmad Dadbin, took the risk of issuing a writtenorder to all regular Army units throughout the country, barring them fromtaking part in military action against the demonstrators. Press reportson the demonstrations and the regime's response concur that the massacreof civilians was solely carried out by the Revolutionary Guards and theriot squads of the Law Enforcement Forces, units which are closely tiedto the regime. This has potentially driven a wedge between these forcesand the regular army which could be critical if opposition to the regimeintensifies.
At the same time, as their revolutionary message loses its appeal, theruling clerics in Tehran have increasingly sounded nationalistic themesto drum up popular support for their cause. A U.S. military attack againstIran - even if the only casualties were foreign terrorists - would playright into their hands, encouraging Iranians to rally to the regime. Thereis simply no way the United States could counter the anti-American andanti-imperialist vitriol we could expect from the state-controlled mediain Tehran. Even if the U.S. had rock-solid evidence of Iranian governmentinvolvement in the Dhahran bombing - not a sure thing, in any terrorismcase - it would never be able to present it to the court of public opinionin Iran. Worse, such an attack would also be likely to antagonize Iraniansliving inside Iran and overseas who would normally see themselves as America'sfriends.
Instead, if the evidence is firm, the United States should hit the clericalregime where it hurts the most: at the sources of revenue that fuel itsterrorist operations. The Saudis have hinted that they might be willingto take their case to the United Nations, and call for an internationaleconomic embargo on the Islamic regime in Tehran, such as the embargo thatwas imposed on Libya for its role in the Pan Am 103 bombing.
Critics of embargoes argue that they are ineffective at best, and seldomwork. They cite the UN embargoes against Libya and Iraq, or the unilateralU.S. ban on trade with Cuba, as cases proving the point that dictatorsdo not respond to economic pain.
But the recent riots in Western Iran - which are not the first, by anymeans - demonstrate that there is real popular discontent inside Iran.The state-controlled Iranian media is full of complaints from ordinarycitizens about government waste, corruption, and mismanagement of the economy.An international trade embargo on Iran would cripple Iran's already troubledeconomy overnight by preventing Iran from selling oil, which accounts for90% of its hard currency earnings. This would send an unmistakeable messageto ordinary Iranians that the West had finally had enough of a regime thatuses terror as its foreign policy tool of choice. Furthermore, an embargowould help to delegitimize a regime that has consistently used its presencein international institutions such as the United Nations to cloak its terroristdeeds, and has used access to its market to gain political favors, as withGermany and France, the Islamic regime's biggest apologists today. Andit would provide a glimmer of hope to Iranian democrats who have been excludedfrom the political process and even imprisoned. Opposition leaders suchas Darioush Forouhar, who heads the outlawed but tolerated Iran Nation'sParty in Tehran, or Khosrow Akmal, the secretary general of the ConstitutionalistsMovement of Iran, a pro-monarchist group in exile, have for years beenseeking precisely this kind of support from the West in their struggleto bring freedom and democracy to Iran.
Certainly, the United States should take other measures as well. Ifthe intelligence is solid, the U.S. military could target the specificIranian Revolutionary Guards headquarters, barracks, and outposts in Lebanonthat were used by the Saudi Shiite terrorists and their Iranian intelligenceofficers to plan the Dhahran attack. The United States would be justifiedin attacking such targets under the United Nations charter, which allowsnations the right of self-defense. Indeed, the French bombed similar targetsin 1983 in retaliation for an Iranian-backed truck bomb attack on Frenchpeacekeepers in Beirut that killed 58 French marines. Putting the IslamicRepublic Guards Corps out of business in Lebanon would be doing everyonea service.
And the U.S. should also launch a more aggressive campaign of publicdiplomacy in support of democratic change in Iran, including the use ofsurrogate broadcasting. The U.S. Congress should pass the bill that itis currently considering that would fund broadcasts of dissident Iranians,instead of Americans, into Iranian territory. The tremendous success enjoyedby Radio Free Europe, and its contribution to the fall of the Berlin Wallin 1989, show that such broadcasting provides hope and encouragement todemocratic forces living in repressive states.
It is also essential that the administration state in public that theuse of terrorism as a tool of foreign policy is regime-specific. The U.S.'squarrel is with the Islamic regime, not with the Iranian people. As eightyears of rule by the "moderate" President Ali Akbar Rafsanjanihas shown, there are no "moderates" within the regime who arecapable of reigning in this type of behavior. The Islamic Republic willcontinue to attack U.S. interests around the globe, assassinate politicaldissidents, and subvert neighboring pro-Western governments, no matterwhich 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 democraticopposition to change the regime. The ability of the U.S. to help bringabout this change is limited. But by stating that the U.S. supports thesovereign right of the Iranian people to choose their government by democraticmeans - which no administration has ever said until now - the U.S. governmentwill give those democrats the moral support and legitimacy they have longsought. After all, a strong, free, and democratic Iran is in America'slong-term strategic interest.