The Senate's Churchill?

By Kenneth R. Timmerman | 8/2/2007

Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl has taken a lot of knocks recently from conservatives for having teamed up with Teddy Kennedy to front for the administration’s failed immigration scheme.

But when it comes to the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran, few members of the U.S. Senate – or of any branch of the U.S. government, for that matter – have understood or articulated the stakes so well.

Kyl believes that the United States faces no greater challenge from any single country today than from Iran. And yet, he noted in a presentation last week to the American Enterprise Institute, “Western nations react as if a nuclear armed Iran is no big deal.”

History provides a stark choice for how we can choose to deal with the Iranian threat, Kyl said. It’s either the 1930s, or the 1980s.

“During the run up to World War II, Europe failed to heed the warnings” coming from Germany and from Western leaders such as Winston Churchill, Kyl reminded AEI.

Hitler was explicit about his intentions. So are Iran’s current leaders.

As Churchill wrote later, recalling Europe’s failures to stop the explicit Nazi threat in the 1930s, “there never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action.”

Alternately, the United States could chose to follow Ronald Reagan’s example in the 1980s, when he confronted the Soviet Union and brought the Cold War to an end.

“Natan Sharansky knew we would win when he read Ronald Reagan’s characterization of the USSR as the evil empire,” Kyl said, referring to the then-emprisoned Soviet refusnik, who went on to become an Israeli cabinet minister.

“Once you understand your enemy, you can defeat him. If you have the will!” Kyl added.

The Arizona Republican made no bones that he preferred the Reagan option. Appeasing Iran – talking to Iran’s leaders, negotiating through the IAEA, allowing them to buy more time to complete their nuclear weapons program – would have “disastrous consequences.”

Recognized in Congress as a clear thinker, the soft-spoken Senator from Arizona doesn’t seek the limelight for his foreign policy views. But over the past few years, he has spoken out repeatedly on the threat from Iran.

With Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, he co-chairs the Committee on the Present Danger, a bipartisan group dedicated to raising public awareness of the threat from Islamic Iran.

In a speech to CPD last year, he outlined seven policy concepts he felt should guide U.S. and international policy toward the Tehran regime. Last week at AEI he went much further, and detailed specific vulnerabilities of the regime he believes present opportunities the U.S. can exploit to achieve our policy goals, without resorting to military action.

Iranian public opinion

Two recent opinion polls show that Iranians are well-disposed toward America and want democracy, Kyl noted.

“61% of Iranians were willing to tell pollsters – over the phone, no less – that they oppose the current Iranian system of government,” he said, referring to a survey conducted between June 5 to June 18, 2007 by Terror Free Tomorrow.

“More telling, over 79% of Iranians support a democratic system” instead of the current system of absolute clerical rule.

The polls also showed that concerns about the poor state of Iran’s economy was the “number one issue of concern for Iranians of every age, region, education level and class,” with 80% of Iranians expressing the opinion that the present economic situation was either fair or poor, a stunning disavowal of President Ahmadinejad.

After reading these poll results, Kyl said he was reminded of a comment made by Iran’s Supreme Leader in December 2005. “What destroys regimes is the people’s resistance, their determination, and their struggle.”

Ahmadinejad’s domestic troubles

The economy wasn’t Ahmadinejad’s only worry, Kyl reminded his audience.

Last December’s municipal elections were a “profound humiliation,” where “90% of his allies lost.”

More recently, the Supreme Leader appears to have “given a green light to parliament to criticize” Ahmadinejad’s performance. This led to a showdown meeting with 57 Iranian economists in July, who told him to his face that his economic policies were “inexpert” and lacked “any basis in science,” according to AFP.

The five and a half hour July meeting came after the same economists sent the boy president a letter, urging him to shift economic gears. According to my sources, Ahmadinejad responded by sweeping aside the criticism and expressing his faith that the 12th Imam would soon return, making economic policy irrelevant.

Iran’s Weak Economy

Iran’s economy has taken a beating since Ahmadinejad took over, and constitutes the third weakness highlighted by Kyl.

By the Iranian government’s own statistics, unemployment reached 11.5% for the year ending in March, and inflation in some areas topped 25%.

“This economic deterioration has occurred in spite of a 37% increase in Iran’s hard currency earnings, derived mainly from oil,” Kyl added

So where was all the money going? “Much is being spent on a WMD program, on Hezbollah and on insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Kyl said. This has created serious discontent inside Iran, he added.

Gasoline shortages

Despite the fact it is the second-biggest oil export within OPEC, Iran spent more than $7 billion last year subsidizing gasoline imports for Iranian consumers.

Subsidies now consume a huge percentage of the national income. Gas rationing recently has led to riots, as I pointed out in these pages recently.

“It is clear that all is not well in Iran,” Kyl said. “So we must now determine, what are the steps we can use to take the opportunities we have been presented.”

Plenty of options short of force

Kyl believes the United States has plenty of options short of military action to exploit Iran’s weaknesses.

“Through a careful strategy of divestment, smart sanctions and asset freezing, international trade limits, and better targeting of Iran’s leaders, we can follow up on the existing discontent on the street,” he said.

While no one can predict the ultimate results, Kyl believed that tough sanctions and divestment, coupled with a better targeted public diplomacy campaign aimed at supporting the pro-democracy movement inside Iran, could have dramatic effects.

“The eventual result could be regime change,” he said. “Nearer term, pressure could cause policy shifts with the existing regime.”

Kyl blamed the Clinton administration for a mistaken policy of making concessions to Iranian elites, noting that a 1998 decision to allow the import of pistachios, rugs and caviar benefitted “the family of the former President,” Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who has built a “fiefdom” in the pistachio trade.

He urged the Bush administration to reimpose a total trade embargo, including on luxury imports from Iran – a move that has been supported by Democrats such as Rep. Brad Sherman, who also addressed the AEI conference on divestment.

He also said that he favored more sweeping divestment laws that those currently under discussion in the various states, which focus narrowly on the energy sector.

Kyl was critical of the Bush administration for failing to take advantage of Iran’s weaknesses, and in particular, the overwhelming pro-American sentiment of the Iranian street.

“To put it simply, Iran today is one of the few places in the greater Middle East where the regime is anti-American, but the people are not,” he said. And yet, “instead of challenging the lies and propaganda of Ahmadinejad and the mullahocracy, we have a public diplomacy effort that gives them Britney Spears.”

While noting that “force is not the best policy” toward Iran, Kyl warned that “failure to take advantage of some or all of these tools only serves to make it more likely that force may be used,” a theme readers have heard me sound in this pages frequently.

Ronald Reagan once observed that “history teaches that war begins when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap,” Kyl concluded. For Iran’s ruling clerics, “the price of their aggression has been too cheap for too long.”

While Kyl is too modest to throw himself into the presidential sweepstakes, his wisdom is valuable and deserves greater attention from the White House and Foggy Bottom.

Kenneth R. Timmerman was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along with John Bolton for his work on Iran. He is Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum: 2005).