Today's date:
Spring 2005

Expect a Split With Europe Over Iran

RICHARD PERLE, one of America's most prominent neo-conservative policy intellectuals, headed the Pentagon's influential Defense Policy Board until March 2003 and was an assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration. He spoke with NPQ for our weekly Global Viewpoint column as President Bush visited Europe.

NPQ | Jean Daniel, co-founder of the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur and a pillar of the French left, has said "the election in Iraq changes everything" and now it is time to make sure democracy works there. The impression left by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's and President Bush's recent visit to Europe is that the split over the Iraq war has been patched up and now it is time to move on.

Is this more rhetoric or reality?

RICHARD PERLE | I'm very skeptical of the European performance-by that I mean France and Germany. I hope all the niceties were meaningful, but I have the strong suspicion that there are important elements in France and Germany that don't want the United States policy to succeed in Iraq.

Whether they supported the war or not, most of the rest of Europe now wants the Iraqis to succeed. The UK under Tony Blair, Denmark under (Anders Fogh) Rasmussen, Italy under (Silvio) Berlusconi, Poland under ( Aleksander) Kwasniewski and many others have supported the US policy in Iraq, but more to the point, they have supported the Iraqi effort to rebuild their country along democratic lines. France and Germany have not. They still do not grasp the historic significance of what is going on in Iraq.

NPQ | Did the elections in Iraq vindicate Bush's "transformational" foreign policy-even though no weapons of mass destruction were found?

PERLE | Absolutely. We will look back on the liberation of Iraq and the subsequent establishment of a decent, humane government there as a turning point in history. The attitude in France and Germany today is reminiscent of their attitude toward Ronald Reagan's policy to end the Cold War. They were terribly shortsighted and missed the big picture.

Though (former French President Francois) Mitterrand embraced our specific policy of deploying intermediate-range missiles (ss20s), the French and Germans recoiled from almost everything we said. History proved them wrong then and will do so again. Their underestimation of and hostility to Bush and his policies are as misguided as they were with Reagan.

NPQ | The new Iraqi government will be heavily Shiite influenced. Can such a government reliably protect US interests in the region-that is, be pro-Israel, anti-Iran and a secure supplier of oil?

PERLE | It would be too much to hope that any independent government-whether Sunni, Kurd or Shiite-would support the US on every issue. I know President Bush is committed to an independent, self-governing Iraq even if our interests are not always in concert. I expect there will be conflicts and differences from time to time.

NPQ | Do you think the democratic process going on in Iraq will have a positive influence on the democratic aspirations in neighboring Iran?

PERLE | Yes, I do. Not only in Iran, but in the whole region. Al-Jazeera's coverage of the elections in Iraq went into living rooms across the entire Middle East. If you believe, as I do, that all people want to live without fear and don't like to be dictated to, then those images of people freely criticizing their government, choosing new leaders and turning out others resonated deeply in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt and in Jordan as well as Iran. The Iraqi example will be transformational for all surrounding nations.

NPQ | What should the US and the rest of the West be doing both to stop the Iranians from obtaining a nuclear bomb and to help democracy develop there?

PERLE | These are two issues, but a single policy toward Iran would advance both purposes. That policy would be to give real support-political, moral and material-to those Iranians who want to see a regime change. We should do the same thing for the Iranian democrats that we've done in Ukraine, in Serbia and the former Yugoslavia more recently or earlier in Spain under Franco or Portugal under Salazar-that is, strong political support for those who want to change the regime.

Beyond that political stance, we should find ways-covert and overt-to help build the democratic movement in Iran.

I hope the Iraqis will set up an Iraqi broadcasting system that will beam into Iran and show them what real politics is about. The conventional wisdom among European officials-including in this case even the UK-is that any Iranian government, not just the mullahs, would pursue nuclear weapons.

How do they know that? Have there been opinion polls in a country where people can speak freely? What is an Iranian shopkeeper willing to pay to have a nuclear bomb? Will he pay higher taxes? Will he give up personal freedom? There is no real debate about the costs to an Iran under sanctions and international isolation of pursuing a weapon. If the public has no voice in a debate, how do we know this conventional wisdom is right? It is pure speculation in a country where personal income is half of what it was under the Shah.

A democratic Iran is less likely, in my view, to make developing nuclear weapons a priority. There is a long list of things Iranians would like to see happen, and I doubt nuclear weapons is anywhere near the top of that list.

NPQ | Are the European negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program a waste of time?

PERLE | Well, it is a step you have to go through, I suppose, so that people accept you tried to do it the easy way. But I doubt negotiations will work because the Iranians can't be trusted. In fact, it seems quite clear to me the regime is determined to acquire a nuclear weapon and no one is going to talk them out of it. As for the Europeans, it is only a matter of time before the French and the Germans start blaming the US for not bringing the Iranians around. They will say it is us who spoiled the deal they were about to make.

We will see the same split here as we saw over the Iraq war. Europe does not view Iran as a threat; the US does. They are not threatened by an Iranian nuclear weapon the way the US is. They are not threatened in the same way as the US by Iranian support for terrorism.

If the only way we can prevent the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear weapon is to take military action against their production facilities, then the US must do so.

NPQ | German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has called for a reevaluation of NATO's role because it was no longer the main transatlantic forum. There is not a place there to discuss critical issues like the Israeli-Palestinian peace process or Iran. What do you make of his suggestion?

PERLE | The only reason there is no place in NATO to talk about these issues is because the French and Germans won't talk about it there. In a sense, Schroeder was being truthful. Perhaps in a backhanded way, he noted something of immense importance: The French-led policy of attempting to marginalize the US in Europe by marginalizing NATO-which the Germans have pretty much gone along with-is working.

NATO has always been the central focus of the transatlantic relationship. The French want to change that and make it the EU, which is not an alliance. If the EU becomes the principal interlocutor between the US and Europe, then there is no transatlantic alliance.