- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 30, 2006

Iran’s maverick President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad admitted a few weeks ago the Islamic Republic was enriching uranium. And the world took notice. Yet far more dangerous, says a member of the Iranian opposition, Iran is also “enriching Islamic fundamentalism.” And yet few are doing anything about it.

“A nuclear weapon does not have as much power as fundamental Islam,” Nasser Rashidi, executive director of the National Coalition of pro-Democracy Advocates, an Iranian umbrella group opposed to the regime of the ayatollahs, told United Press International last Wednesday.

A bomb is bomb, but “radical Islam is a philosophy. It is far more powerful,” said Mr. Rashidi.

The Iranian dissident was speaking just as the U.S. House approved a bipartisan legislation — The Iran Freedom Support Act — that tightens existing sanctions on Iran, urges American divestment from companies investing in Iran’s petroleum sector, and supports aiding democratic forces in Iran. The bill passed 397-21. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Florida Republican, and Tom Lantos, California Democrat, who were instrumental in getting the bill passed, now hope for similar legislation from the Senate, where the issue is under consideration. Before the bill can become law, it needs to be approved by the Senate and signed by the president. The Bush administration, however, is not too hot on the bill.

H.R. 282 supporters say the bill will help choke off funds the Islamic republic could use to build nuclear weapons because it tightens existing sanctions against Iran, ensuring companies no longer can skirt the system by investing in Iran’s energy sector through offshore subsidiaries.

However, the bill’s opponents argue sanctions will be counterproductive. They will serve to unite the Iranian people — including those long vehemently opposed to the ayatollahs — and rally them around the leadership, as Iranians have consistently done in times of crisis when national pride overrides political differences. Sanctions will only hurt the innocent and those without ample means to buy their way around the items restricted by sanctions, while sparing the leadership and those with money who will be able to circumnavigate the sanctions. Eight years of a vicious war with Iraq during which sanctions were imposed on both protagonists, had little, if any, effect on the ayatollahs.

Trita Parsi, a spokesman with the National Iranian American Council, told UPI voters on the NIAC Web site were 82 percent against sanctions being imposed, while those in favor were only 17 percent.

Opponents of the bill argued it would undermine diplomatic efforts to curb the Iranian nuclear threat. Iran has already said that if attacked it will continue to build its bomb.

“This bill limits the administration’s flexibility to pursue diplomacy without providing them any tools not already at their disposal,” said Earl Blumenauer, Oregon Democrat. A similar measure — S 333 — was introduced in the Senate in February 2005 by Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, but has yet to be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Chairman Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, has indicated he does not at present support additional sanctions against Iran.

One fear from opponents of sanctions is that the suffering and deaths caused by sanctions withholding food products and medicine will only create hardships for the people of Iran and will result in even greater animosity against the United States, whom they will blame for their ills.

Meanwhile, Iran continues to say it will persevere with its uranium project, come what may. If attacked by the United States, Iran said it will strike back at U.S. interests around the world. (Possibly starting in Iraq, where the U.S. has about 130,000 troops.) And, say the Iranians, they will rebuild their nuclear-producing facilities deeper and in greater secret.

President Bush has indicated “all options remain on the table” in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. While he did not say it in so many words, those options would include military action to take out Iran’s facilities.

Mr. Rashidi, the opposition official, believes the mullahs governing Iran “would love to be bombed. It would give them an excuse for a war. They need an external excuse in order to put more pressure on the Iranian people,” said Mr. Rashidi.

“Why is Iran building a bomb today? Iran doesn’t want money, they don’t want guns,” says Mr. Rashidi, “they want recognition,” and they believe a nuclear bomb will give them just that.

What is needed here is not more threats against the Islamic republic, which only serve to reinforce the mullahs, nor sanctions, which again, will end up working in favor of the regime. What is needed is new thinking from outside the box.

The current regime thrives on crisis. The larger the crisis, the stronger they become. Sanctions will not address the “Islamist threat.” Indeed, it will help strengthen the Islamic republic, as it will gain the immediate sympathy of the Arab and Muslim world.

Perhaps a more intelligent approach would deny them grounds for a crisis.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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