Few prospects are more disturbing than an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to New York did nothing to allay our concerns, despite his insistence that his country is interested in nuclear power only for electrical generation.
President Bush has been clear on this point: The United States will use any means necessary to prevent Iran’s development of a nuclear arsenal. Since no options are “off the table,” the military option is definitely “on.” In fact, war is in the air.
Recently the hawkish Charles Krauthammer connected Iran to ominous circumstances all across the Middle East, including Israel’s mysterious Sept. 6 air strike in Syria, which, Krauthammer suggests, might have been against a North Korean nuclear facility. Ultimately, Krauthammer calls merely for strong sanctions against Iran, but he ends his column with the evocative and wistful image of Iran’s “Islamic republic buried under the ash.”
Others mince no words: Last November, Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, began an op-ed column with the dramatic lead, “We MUST bomb Iran.” Despite the “MUST,” the real emphasis is on “bomb,” since our war in Iraq has exhausted our capacity to do anything else militarily.
Our bombing capacity is still immense, but other experts point out that although Iran has many potential targets, they are diffuse and “hardened,” and an air attack is unlikely to do more than slow down Iran’s nuclear effort while strengthening that country’s resolve. Furthermore, generally our “smart” bombs aren’t as smart as we think they are; significant civilian casualties would be inevitable.
For complicated questions like this one, I like to turn to real experts. Scott D. Sagan, a political scientist at Stanford University who has written extensively on nuclear proliferation, discounts the potential effectiveness of a pre-emptive attack on Iran, to say nothing of the morality. In the September/October 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, he suggests two gradually developing policy errors regarding Iran — a “creeping fatalism” about the U.S. ability to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and an unwarranted and excessive optimism about our ability to contain Iran if it does obtain the bomb.
The second point undercuts Gen. John Abizaid’s recent suggestion that nuclear deterrence allowed us to co-exist in the past with nuclear powers like the U.S.S.R. and China, and that we may have to get used to the idea of living with a nuclear Iran. Sagan argues, however, that even though mutually assured destruction seems to have worked in the past, the circumstances with Iran will be considerably different and much more dangerous.
Far better, Sagan argues, to find a way to prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the first place, and he believes that this can still be accomplished through diplomacy.
He turns to history to argue convincingly that nations typically seek nuclear weapons for one of three reasons: to avert an external security threat, to satisfy domestic interests or to acquire a status symbol. In the case of Iran, Sagan emphasizes the first of these three, and it’s not hard to see why Iran would feel threatened.
The world’s only superpower, which avidly covets its oil, is firmly entrenched on Iran’s border with a major troop presence, and giving no signs of going home soon in large numbers, while warships cruise in the Persian Gulf.
Furthermore, the U.S. government, with a long history of interference in Iranian affairs, has openly advocated regime change, flippantly suggesting that Iran would be “next,” back when it looked like Iraq was going to go well.
Sagan argues that our best option is to reach deep into our “diplomatic toolbox” and work with other world players to reduce the perceived threat to Iran, thereby going a long way toward eliminating Iran’s motivation to acquire nuclear weapons. Security guarantees, he says, will work better than sanctions or war.
Of course, this is the sort of thinking that invites accusations of naivete and appeasement. But if there’s anything we should learn from Iraq, it’s that our diplomats are too timid and our war hawks too bold. Unfortunately, the only good thing that will come out of a war with Iran is that, at last, the neo-conservatives will have found a way to make Iraq look like a “cakewalk.”