Alter: Before We Bomb Iran …

Debra Burlingame says there's got to be a better way to confront Iran. Her brother Charles F. (Chic) Burlingame was the captain of American Airlines Flight 77, the airliner hijacked and flown into the Pentagon on 9/11. Since then, Ms. Burlingame can't get over our failure to fight a smarter war on terror, a war that wouldn't get more people killed. "We should be using all the tools we have—including our enormous wealth—to prevent our enemies from coming after us," she says. So she, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Sam Brownback, among others at the state and local level, have identified a powerful tool—a grass-roots and bipartisan campaign to "divest" from Iran, just as the international community divested from South Africa's apartheid regime in the 1970s and '80s.

This time, the stakes are higher. In last week's presidential debate in Detroit, John McCain said offhandedly that military action is "closer to reality than we're discussing today." While Condi Rice and Bob Gates seem to have prevailed for now in urging caution, Dick Cheney is not yet down for the count; bombing Iran is still an option. Norman Podhoretz, Rudy Giuliani's wise man on foreign policy, recently met with President Bush and strongly argued for war. The relative silence that greeted the recent Israeli bombing of suspected nuclear sites in Syria has only emboldened the superhawks.

But shouldn't we give peace a chance? Frank Gaffney thinks so. For two decades, it was impossible to out-hawk this guy on anything. Gaffney is still a bellicose Reaganite, but the "bomb now" crowd is apparently giving even some neocons serious pause. "We know there's broad and deep popular support for our side in Iran," Gaffney says. Bombing dispersed and deeply buried nuclear sites not only isn't practical, it "would almost certainly drive the population into the arms of the [radical] mullahs." To try something else first—something that Gaffney concedes might not work— his Center for Security Policy began agitating after 9/11 to "divest terror."

Its first important convert was Missouri State Treasurer Sarah Steelman, a Republican elected in 2004. When Steelman assumed supervision of the state pension funds, she learned that Missouri parked a large chunk of its assets with BNP Paribus, a French bank that floated billions in loans to Iran, and that the Show Me State invested its pension funds in dozens of European and Asian companies that effectively helped prop up murderous regimes. (North Korea, Syria, Sudan and, until recently, Libya are the other governments cited for sponsoring terrorism and targeted for divestment.) The pension funds don't like to be told what to do, and they claimed divestment would bring heavy losses. Wrong. Steelman's "terror-free" fund returned 29 percent in the last 12 months, 4 percent higher than the benchmark.

The Bush administration supports "sustained economic pressure" on Iran but won't commit to backing full divestment, apparently for fear of offending allies. Steelman has a more brutal explanation for the resistance: "It's no surprise that politicians would rather put men and women in harm's way than to stand up to powerful corporate interests."

To date, 12 other states have divestment bills that are either pending or passed. Schwarzenegger has signed one in California that divested as much as $24 billion in massive pension-fund assets, though the bill was limited to energy and defense companies doing business with Iran. The same goes for the Obama-Brownback bill (which is being held up by one, anonymous senator, per the Senate's idiotic rules). But arguably, other companies in Iran should also be forced to divest. Telephone companies, for instance, provide "dual use" technology that can be used in Iranian defense systems. And even mullahs like their creature comforts. Serious diplomacy will only work when they feel the heat.

As the antiapartheid movement found, divestment helps put more starch in government sanctions. If the 400 or so European and Asian companies doing business in Iran were forced by global investors to withdraw, they would be upset about it, but less motivated to weaken sanctions imposed by their own countries. Isolation and the threat of economic collapse wouldn't necessarily drive the regime from power, as Gaffney thinks, but it could strengthen the opposition in ways that angry rhetoric from Washington won't.

How can Americans help encourage this movement? It isn't easy. (So far, there's only one self-described "terror free" mutual fund, the Roosevelt Anti-Terror Multi-Cap Fund). But divestment has the feeling of a movement whose time has come, if for no other reason than the alternative—war—will send oil over $100 a barrel and get a lot of Iranians (and, soon enough, Americans) killed.

Cheney & Co. have 15 months to persuade Bush to attack Iran, presumably because the next president will be too wimpy to do so. To stop them, the debate must shift from "bomb or do nothing" to a series of interim options. Divestment, Burlingame says, can be seen as both "putting the squeeze" on Iran and as a "peace initiative." That's why it appeals to both right and left, and fits the pragmatic spirit missing from so much of our reaction to 9/11.