The World After Sharon: What to Do About Iran?

Ariel Sharon pauses at the gate of life and death. Is there such a thing as Sharonism that will outlast him? Do leaders make history, or are they made by the flow of events?

No one in Israeli politics seemed less like the blunt general than Shimon Peres, dove for all seasons. Yet when Mr. Sharon formed his new centrist party, Kadima, to fight the upcoming election, Mr. Peres joined it—because he and Mr. Sharon had a friendship that was old as dirt. Chalk that up to the personal. With Mr. Sharon out of the picture, where will Mr. Peres—and everyone else in Kadima—go?

Yet the reason Mr. Sharon formed a new party is that he had set Israel on a new policy—one he felt dictated by the shape of things. The Oslo process, begun by Yitzak Rabin, another willful general, had ended in failure. Israel could not negotiate a peace with the Palestinians, because anyone they dealt with was either murderous and corrupt, like Yassir Arafat, or incompetent, like Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Sharon decided it was time to stop trying; so he built a security fence, chucked Gaza and was evidently prepared to cede much of the West Bank (except for the good parts). All he was saying was, give despair a chance. You might have to be a bold ex–tank commander to formulate such a policy, but you could be all sorts of people to carry it on, especially if a plurality of Israelis remains willing to try it.

More interesting to us is the effect of Mr. Sharon’s absence on Iran’s quest for an atom bomb. Recalling Israel’s successful air strike against Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in 1981, some of us wondered whether Israel might do the world’s dirty work again by decapitating the Iranian program. Others of us pointed out that the job would be much harder this time, given the greater distances, the mountainous terrain of Iran and the dispersal of its nuclear sites. Still others of us pointed out that it might not have to be done by air strikes, or by air strikes alone, if Israel had agents on the ground; perhaps they are on the ground already. A Kabuki of official denial made all of us even more interested. Were denials just another form of warning?

“That’s a nice little atomic program you have there, Mr. Mullah. It would be a shame if something bad was to happen to it …. ”

Now we ask: Will Israel be up for such a feat of derring-do without Sharon at the helm?

The question has been promoted from the realm of idle speculation to that of idle life-and-death speculation by the behavior of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This man is the id of the theocracy, the return of the not-very-heavily repressed. Not since the fatwa against Salman Rushdie have the Iranians spoken with such purity of heart and devotion to truth. President Ahmadinejad rang out the old year by calling the Holocaust a “myth”—a myth whose purpose was to unload Europe’s Jews into the Middle East. He also called said Jews, a.k.a. Israel, a “disgraceful blot” that should be “wiped off the face of the earth.”

In other words, the Holocaust never happened; that’s why we have to do it right this time around.

Iran rushes up into the rearview mirror just as Iraq seems to be settling into a steady course. With the dead still coming home and their deaths filling the front pages, that seems like a satire, but it’s true. Three elections in the last year—Iraq’s first free elections since the 1950’s—show a political future like a three-legged stool: Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. A rough equilibrium of interests can produce a reasonably stable and free country, not unlike Lebanon and its permanent factions (whenever the Syrians are not in possession). Such a welcome result would be due to the aspirations, and the horse-trading, of the Iraqis themselves, and to the intelligence and courage of the American military. Col. John Murtha (USMCR, Ret.) may think that no one should enlist in the military these days, but it is at least as competent as when he served.

The United States was embroiled with Iran and Iraq long before the Terror War, from the hostage crisis in 1979 to the Gulf War in 1991. But 9/11 changed our stance to Islamic rogue states. The blows we suffered came from terrorists, but we now had to be mindful of the countries that love them. These formed a varied list; some were avowed enemies, others were supposedly our friends. Pakistan’s military and intelligence were riddled with Islamists, and its nuclear program was selling technology out the back door. Saudi Arabia was exporting its malcontents, and allowing wealthy hobbyists to fund them, so long as they did their mischief elsewhere. Libya, Iraq and Iran all had grudges against us; the latter two were skilled at projecting their influence by means of terrorists (an Iraqi agent was instrumental in the 1993 plot to blow up the World Trade Center). Afghanistan was the launch pad for the jihadist caliphate.

In four years and four months, we have cleared the board of a number of pieces. Afghanistan and Iraq have been freed; Saudi Arabia and Pakistan say they are trying to clean up their acts, and Pakistan may actually mean it; Libya has rendered the tribute that self-love pays to fear. That leaves Iran, which leaves us—where?

Iran’s goal is clear: to have bombs and missiles capable of threatening the hated Israel (and, incidentally, much of Europe); to have bombs, dirty or otherwise, that might be slipped to friends worldwide. Could Iran be deterred as the Soviet Union—and we—were during 40 years of the Cold War? Could we assure them that any explosion anywhere would mean the incineration of Tehran? This might be a moral threat to make; could it ever be a moral action? (Ronald Reagan thought not, when he carried the football.) Iran has stirrings of secularism and reform, yet they never seem to stir up. Where does that leave us?

Five years of George W. Bush feel like 10 years of any other combination of Presidencies. He has had more history than anyone bargained for. It is lucky that he is like Ariel Sharon—a tough son of a bitch who just keeps going.