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October 19, 2007

Middle East scholar discusses “Preventing a Nuclear Iran”

by Claire McNear

News Contributor

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and member of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, spoke Tuesday at an event sponsored by the Chicago Friends of Israel entitled “Preventing a Nuclear Iran.”

Rubin, who has a Ph.D. in history from Yale University and has spent a number of years working in the Middle East, began by describing two scenarios that could arise from the present situation in Iran: first, that Iran will develop nuclear weapons; or second, that military action will be used against Iran to prevent its nuclear development. Both of these possibilities, said Rubin, who is strongly opposed to offensive military action against Iran, could have devastating effects on the world and global economy.

“Iranians are fiercely nationalistic and have always rallied around the flag,” so an attack on Iran by a foreign power would cause a great surge in nationalism, Rubin said. In 2005, he co-wrote a book on this subject with Patrick Clawson, senior editor of Middle East Quarterly, of which Rubin is also an editor. “The last thing you want to do as a U.S. policy maker is put troops in harm’s way,” said Rubin.

An attack on Iran would, according to Rubin, leave already overstretched American troops vulnerable to attack throughout the Middle East. Additionally, he said, there is a significant economic fear that Iran would disrupt oil sales and cause the price-per-barrel to skyrocket. And even with a successful attack, “you couldn’t eradicate the knowledge” of how to construct nuclear weapons, said Rubin.

Iran and its uranium enrichment program have been sources of worry for world leaders in recent years as international concerns that Tehran may be able to use its technology to produce nuclear weapons has grown. Although Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows nations the use and development of peaceful nuclear energy, Western leaders have controversially attempted to block the development of Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

In December and again in March, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran aimed at halting this development.

The U.S. government has made repeated accusations that Iran may be working to develop a nuclear arsenal, perhaps most notably in President Bush’s 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech, in which he stated that “Iran aggressively pursues these weapons [of mass destruction] and exports terror.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has denied this claim and has demanded that other countries recognize his nation’s right to nuclear power.

“If sanctions are ineffective,” asked Rubin, “if diplomacy is not enough, and if military action is not an option, what other options are there to put pressure on a regime?”

Rubin criticized the sanctions imposed on Iran, saying that sanctions never work quickly, and, with current estimates predicting that Iran could possess nuclear weapons within 5 or 10 years, time is crucial. He also criticized the interpretive nature of these sanctions: “Leaders need to be able to decide when a red line is crossed,” he said.

During his talk, Rubin argued against the diplomatic strategy that argues that a nation in conflict with the United States must either engage in diplomacy or be faced with war. “There is no magic formula [for success] right now,” said Rubin. The solution, he said, must come from an internal shift among the people, most likely via grassroots democracy-oriented programs like the recent union of Iranian bus drivers, the first union of its kind in Iran.

The Union of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, established in 1968, has been under siege by the Iranian government for years. Despite laws against unions in Iran, more than 17,000 laborers are now part of the union, which staged a much-publicized strike in January of 2006.

Whether the U.S. should support such programs is another source of debate. Rubin advocated the practice, saying that the government should allocate funds to support things like labor movements in Iran. “The people are generally apathetic [about the government],” he said. “In a theocratic government, you’re going to oppose any reform movement or democratic trend that might undercut your authority… [and] nuclear weapons give you a shield. You can have 12, 13, 14, 15 Tiananmen Squares and there’s nothing anybody can do.”

Until democratic movements take hold Rubin said, the world simply has to wait.