Religious Liberalism
Thursday, December 21, 2006
I had the opportunity to discuss the Baker proposal with a friend of a friend who knew people on the commission. As a general rule – it is far easier to tear down than to build up. We need constructive advice now – and so I did my best.
Here are my comments:

First off, I'm not criticizing Baker's thoughtfulness or thoroughness. When you define your intellectual approach to a problem - from the very start - you prejudice the result. In essence, you can box yourself in simply by defining yourself as a realist.

Let me lay out my intellectual approach to this issue. First, I absolutely agree that diplomacy is critical. But with certain people, it will be ineffective and that must be understood from the get-go. That doesn't mean there aren't other, positive effects.

The comparison is often made with the situation in North Korea. There, we have actively considered only diplomacy. Quite frankly, there is absolutely nothing militarily we can do with Kim Jong Il. Of course, knowing that the key to his power and longevity is nuclear weaponry, Kim Jong Il has never negotiated in good faith. He has a target, he is paranoid, and nothing we can offer him will deter him. Have the talks thus been useless? In fact, they haven't. We've forged much stronger partnerships and levels of understanding with South Korea, Japan and even China. Long term, China is the solution to the problem. They alone can eliminate the regime and threat of Kim Jong Il. For now, North Korea is a problem because they want it to be. Diplomacy can alleviate their need to have a foil in the region. In reality, we are negotiating with the Chinese.

Looking at Iran, we have another group that will never negotiate in good faith. We can offer Kim Jong Il food and fuel. But Iran's economy, while weak, is far stronger than North Korea's. They won't be deterred by economic measures short of a blockade.
I believe that within the Iranian regime there are two groups.

1) Those who use Islam as an excuse and mechanism for power. They have supported nuclear weapons research because, like Kim Jong Il, they see it as key to their own longevity. They are realists - much like the 'communist' leadership of the later days of the USSR. It is highly unlikely they would use such weapons against other countries.

2) The true believers. They would willingly destroy Israel and are doing everything in their power to create popular support for that position - in order to force the realists to go along with them. It is their holy mission.

So how do we tackle this situation? There are several possible methods:

1) Diplomacy.

It is, I believe, almost a non-starter as far as being a cure.
The other side, whether realist or Islamist, aren't negotiating in good faith. The bomb is absolutely critical to them. Diplomacy is, nonetheless, an opportunity to strengthen our other alliances. If we do negotiate with them, we shouldn't seek their acquiescence. Rather, we should have multi-party talks, with Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Gulf States etc... We can use negotiations to strengthen our position with these parties - and even more critically, give them an opportunity to find common ground on Iran with one another. Israel is especially important here. It is a chance to get Israel off the agenda – and they are the most threatened of all.

So, diplomacy is useful, but not a cure for the problem. Note, we shouldn't be talking about Iraq. Iran and the bomb are the issue - we know they have been funding terrorism in Iraq. The Shia groups in Iraq are to Iran what North Korea is to China - a thorn in our side. We need that funding to dry up, and Iran won't agree to that. It isn't in their interest.

2) Do we accept the realists getting the bomb, in the hope that the Islamists won't get power down the line?

That seems like an extremely dangerous position - especially since the Islamists are the ones in power now and don't look (yesterday's elections notwithstanding) like they will be backing down any time soon.

3) Do we pursue all-out-war?

I think this is a non-starter as well. Iraq is a far better place to fight than Iran. The territory favors us greatly. And if attacked, Iranian nationalism will make our lives very difficult. Unlike Iraq, they have a true and long-standing nationalist tradition. So boots on the ground or even air force action won't do us any good. It will strengthen those perceived to be standing up to us.

4) Do we try to close the borders with Iran?

This is nearly impossible - and more critically - does nothing about the bomb.

5) Support revolutionary groups?

This is absolutely critical. And I have very good sources telling me we are doing a pathetic job of this. This is the ideal solution. In effect, it is negotiating with the Iranian people and not the 'leadership.' They are certainly trying it with us (letters to the American people, their allies like Chavez talking to our people etc...) It is a very very important path to pursue.

6) Blockade?

If the revolutionary approach doesn't work, we need to blockade them. It may not make many friends in Iran - but it WILL fix up Iraq, Lebanon and Syria due to the lack of Iranian cash. With weaker Shia groups, we can get the Saudis to dial back the Sunni groups. This will also free up our military resources. It could have positive impact on the nuke issue too. The realists may like their power, but they also like the luxuries that come with it. And there are enough of them that they might actually need a partially functional economy to maintain those luxuries (unlike North Korea). If this works as a tool to get them to slap the Islamists down, then we will have not only won a temporary reprieve - we will have established a mechanism for reward and punishment in the future.

So, my recommendation is start multi-party diplomacy, support revolution and blockade as a last resort. If Iraq is our first concern, and not the bomb, then blockade earlier rather than later - and clearly connect that action with Iranian action in Iraq. This will dampen nationalist backlash - as we are only doing the blockade in reaction to foreign adventures.

As a final area, it is easy to say support revolution. But actually doing it is another issue. In Iran there are a number of major issues:

1) The Iranian revolutionary groups are widely seen as incompetent and as busy tearing into each other as the regime. They would make great political parties in a post-revolutionary era - but they are not an effective revolutionary force at this point.

2) The Islamist brownshirts permanently maim those who dare to protest. And they do not mind fighting a losing battle or hurting innocent civilians. That said, they too have to eat - and a lack of oil revenues can make that difficult (blockade might help revolution).

3) The Iranian people don't seem to care. Again, this is an issue a blockade and monetary issue *could* help fix. To get a democratic and liberal revolution you need mass support.

On the other side, there are some tremendously positive factors:

1) The regime is widely hated.

2) The mainline Iranian army itself is a threat to the regime. They are not trusted by the regime, and they are already somewhat equipped with arms. They can give us a tool to physically support any revolt and handle the aftermath.

3) There is a strong pre-Islamic nationalist tradition. People continue with the fire festivals, despite them being totally illegal.

4) Of course, oil is a weak spot economically.

To me, this points to a revolutionary effort driven not by this group or that group (although we should be funding them all). Rather it points to an effort driven by the U.S. using one of our greatest skills - marketing and propaganda. As a multi-point plan, by order of execution, we can:

1) Hearken back to the roots of Persian tradition in propaganda films, satellite news services, our radio services etc... No more playing pop hits, play Persian music - perhaps updated by exiled musicians - but music banned by the regime. Add in the ideas of religious liberalism in good measure.

2) Pursuing contacts (and buying them) with the mid-level leadership of the army. Just funding this guys can make their lives and their soldiers lives much easier. The added necessity of hiding their newfound wealth can further distance them from the regime. Work with the Mossad on this - they have better Persian contacts than we do - and they are liked far more than the British (who used to have great contacts).

3) Fund revolutionary groups and insert them into the country (like Lenin was injected) to cause trouble)

4) Blockade, but at the same time very clearly push the idea that this is limited to the Islamic regime and we respect and support Persia

5) Create an official policy of removing the senior leadership as Israel did with Hamas. This is to force them into hiding and weaken their ability to stay in front of things.

6) Wait. Never fly a single plane over Iran, never move a single soldier in. Maintain clearly that Iran is off-limits for our military - although assassins might still work there, they are not there to establish control – and they should probably be Persian themselves.

It is aggressive, but it is not quite war. And I think it is the best chance we have of fomenting revolt and resolving this issue to our own advantage and the advantage of the world as a whole.


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A religious liberal is committed both to his or her religion and to the belief that governments are established primarily for the protection of individual liberty and human rights.

Chana is the academic who wrote Liberty, G-d's Gift to Humanity, Joseph relates the ideas to current events and discussions.

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