How to Eliminate Iran's Nuclear Weapons: A Symposium
In August 2002, an exiled Iranian opposition group produced evidence that the Islamic Republic of Iran had managed, for the previous 17 years, to conceal from the world a nuclear weapons project. In June 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified the group's claims, declaring Iran in violation of its commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That September, the U.S. called for Iran's referral to the U.N. Security Council. But in the event, the Bush Administration agreed to defer to a coalition comprising the United Kingdom, France, and Germany (the "E.U.-3"), which sought through a variety of political, economic, and technological concessions to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
In December 2003, Iran confessed to the IAEA its years of clandestine nuclear experiments, claiming that they were designed for peaceful civilian purposes. That month, Iran signed an agreement with the foreign ministers of the E.U.-3 to suspend the country's uranium enrichment—but in June 2004 was caught by the IAEA in violation. E.U.-Iran talks resumed in November 2004, leading to an agreement in which Iran promised, once more, to suspend its program. But Iran reneged and threatened to withdraw from the negotiations unless various concessions were made—which Iran won.
In June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former commander in Iran's Revolutionary Guard, was elected president. "The wave of the Islamic revolution will soon reach the entire world," he declared, and in September 2005, indicated that Iran was willing to transfer nuclear technology to other Islamic nations. The next month, Ahmadinejad declared that Israel must be "wiped off the map," a slogan subsequently seen adorning Iranian missiles during parades.
In January 2006, defying Western warnings, Iran broke the U.N. seals at its Natanz uranium enrichment plant. The E.U.-3 suspended negotiations and recommended that the matter be referred to the Security Council. On February 17, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy declared, "No civilian nuclear program can explain the Iranian nuclear program. It is a clandestine military nuclear program." The same day, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of Iran's ruling Guardian Council, warned: "Nuclear technology is our red line and we will never abandon our legitimate right to this technology. They are trying to terrify us with a scarecrow called the Security Council. We are not scared.... They will be harmed more than Iran if they act unwisely."
On March 7, shortly before this issue went to press, Vice President Dick Cheney told an audience, "The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose meaningful consequences. For our part, the United States is keeping all options on the table in addressing the irresponsible conduct of the regime…. We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon." The next day, in Vienna, the IAEA concluded that after nearly three years of inconclusive inspections, it would finally refer the matter to the Security Council—30 months after America's initial call to do so. In response, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's envoy to the IAEA, said: "The United States has the power to cause harm and pain, but the United States is also susceptible to harm and pain. So if that is the path that the U.S. wishes to choose, let the ball roll out." (Iran also threatened to curtail oil production.) On March 9, before a Senate committee, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of Iran, "We may face no greater challenge from a single country."
The Claremont Review of Books asked seven leading thinkers to reflect on our political and military options in eliminating Iran's nuclear capability. READ MORE
There is an emerging global consensus that Iran's nuclear ambitions represent a grave, growing threat to international peace and security. Yet the degree to which Iran's atomic advances also challenge American objectives in the greater Middle East is less well appreciated. A nuclear Iran can be expected to alter profoundly the United States's strategic calculations in the War on Terror. The U.S. should soon expect to confront six dangerous regional developments.
The first is growing Iranian influence, as countries in the region attempt to establish some sort of modus vivendi with a nuclear (or nearly nuclear) Iran. More likely than not, this trend will include a drift away from cooperation with the West, making the already problematic Persian Gulf increasingly inhospitable for U.S. and coalition forces.
The second is a new arms race, as certain states ramp up their own strategic programs in an effort to counterbalance the Iranian bomb. Already, both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have begun to exhibit telltale signs of such efforts, and other countries, e.g., Iraq and Turkey, could soon follow suit.
The third is expanded proliferation, as Iran's nuclear know-how becomes an export commodity. Iran is already a major "secondary proliferator" of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and worse is still to come because its radical new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has publicly signaled his willingness to provide nuclear assistance to other Muslim states.
The fourth is increased terrorism, as an emboldened Tehran expands its use of radical groups as a strategic tool against Western interests abroad. Just as importantly, a nuclear Iran is bound to enjoy greater freedom to export its Islamist revolutionary principles.
The fifth is strategic blackmail, as Iran exploits its strategic location in the Persian Gulf to threaten the safety of American forces operating in the region, as well as the security of global energy supplies.
The sixth, and arguably the most important, trend will be greater longevity for Tehran's ruling regime. A nuclear capability will provide the Iranian government much greater latitude in suppressing, without fear of international consequences, the widespread dissent now visible on the Iranian "street." The likely outcome? A death knell for Iranian democracy and a new lease on life for the Islamic Republic.
There is no shortage of policy options available to the U.S., but the utility of each depends on an accurate understanding of Tehran's ideology. Twenty-six years after its founding, the Islamic Republic of Iran remains a revolutionary state. In fact, thanks to the rise of a new cadre of regime hard-liners, the Ayatollah Khomeini's vision for Islamic revolution at home and abroad has greater resonance in Tehran today than at any time since his death in 1989. Not surprisingly, the radicals have learned to love the bomb, seeing it as the key to regime stability—and to preempting "preemption" by the U.S.
Diplomacy, therefore, may delay and complicate Iran's quest but cannot alter it. Tehran has made a clear strategic choice in favor of possessing nuclear weapons by any means necessary. Economic sanctions will be problematic. Thanks to its oil and natural gas wealth and its emerging energy alliances with customers such as China, Kazakhstan, and India, Iran is far less vulnerable to fiscal pressure today than it was in the past.
Containment is possible but difficult. At a minimum, a new containment regime will need to reinforce Iran's vulnerable regional neighbors, roll back Tehran's military advances, and curb Iranian access to critical WMD technologies. And if the U.S. contents itself with containment alone, it will send a clear message that it accepts a nuclear Iran--a message that will weaken our regional alliances.
Nor is deterrence alone a viable solution. Iran is not monolithic; some segments of the Iranian government are rational and capable of being deterred. But others, including the country's new president and his coterie, share an apocalyptic religious worldview that demands a crisis with the West.
Finally, preemptive military action against Iran, either by the U.S. or its allies, should be strictly a last resort. For while technically possible, preemption may prove in the long run to be counterproductive. The Iranian people and government have little in common, but they agree (although for vastly different reasons) that nuclear weapons are a top national priority. Any external action to take away that capability is likely to cause ordinary Iranians to rally round the flag, substantially prolonging the current regime's life.
Accordingly, the U.S.'s goal should not be simply to contain and deter a nuclear Iran. It should be to create the necessary conditions for a fundamental political change within that country.
Ilan Berman is Vice President for Policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington and the author of Tehran Rising: Iran's Challenge to the United States (Rowman & Littlefield). This article is adapted from Mr. Berman's February 1st testimony before the Committee on Armed Services of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Too much of the discussion over Iran's nuclear program is concentrated on the extreme responses: either attack or appease. There is a wide range of intermediate policy options that hold much more promise.
To influence Iran, the U.S. needs instruments of persuasion and dissuasion. Most of the former proposed by Europe have been economic agreements that smell like disguised bribes. Since Iran is flush with oil income (its foreign exchange reserves total over $30 billion) it has dismissed these offers. A better approach is to concentrate on security measures in order to redress the argument that Iran needs nuclear weapons because it has real security needs. There are many confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs) and arms-control measures that would be advantageous for both Iran and the West. Examples of CSBMs would be an exchange of observers for military exercises in and near Iran, or an incidents-at-sea agreement to prevent unintended naval confrontations. Besides the impact they might have on Iran, offers of CSBMs could impress Europe and Russia with America's reasonableness.
As for instruments of dissuasion, economic sanctions, if imposed while oil markets are so tight, would be ineffective and inflict too much damage on Western economies. Much more useful would be measures to emphasize Iran's isolation over the nuclear issue. In several cases recently, the United Nations Security Council has imposed targeted sanctions, such as banning travel by key individuals, to drive home the high political price of unacceptable actions. In both Serbia and South Africa, the sanction felt most keenly by the public was the ban on international sporting competition. If young Iranians learn that their country's participation in the June 2006 soccer World Cup is dependent on resolving the nuclear issue, there will be a dramatic increase in their interest in the negotiations.
Deterrence and containment measures, similar to those of the Cold War, would show Iran that its security will be hurt if it continues with its nuclear program. And they would put the West in a better position to use military force if the need arose. One step in this direction would be to sell Arab states in the Persian Gulf more advanced anti-missile and air defense systems. Raising doubts in the minds of Iranian decision-makers about the country's ability to reliably deliver its nuclear weapons could make their use prohibitively risky in all but the direst circumstances. In addition, Iranian leaders regularly threaten to disrupt shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. An exercise to protect the Strait with minesweepers and so on, if conducted in the near future, would signal Iran that the West is willing to use force to protect its vital interests in the Gulf, yet without suggesting that the West is preparing to attack Iran itself.
But all such measures to press Iran and to deter it are stalling tactics. So long as the country is an Islamic Republic, it will have a nuclear weapons program, at least clandestinely. The key issue, therefore, is: how long will the present Iranian regime last? It is clear that the Iranian people detest the present system. America has an important interest, both strategic and moral, in supporting Iran's pro-democratic forces. It would be a grave setback to Washington's democratizing agenda in the region if the U.S. were perceived as selling out Iran's beleaguered reformers by concluding a deal with the autocrats. Besides, the reigning mullahs would almost certainly cheat on any deal, as they did during the Iran-Contra affair when they released some hostages only to take others. The only sure route is the best moral route: supporting Iranian democrats with such modest aid from Washington as more television and radio broadcasts.
Patrick Clawson is the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His most recent book (with Michael Rubin) is Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave Books).
Angelo M. Codevilla
Soon Iran will have nuclear weapons. You and I wish it were not so. But making those nukes go away will take forceful, costly acts of war that would surely disrupt, and likely endanger, our own lives. But you don't want to disrupt your life, to set in motion lethal events the end of which you cannot foresee? Then make the best plans you can for living with nuclear weapons in the hands of our Iranian enemies—and the other enemies who, with Iran's help, will likely follow its example.
You say it is unacceptable to choose between such alternatives. There must be a moderate, middle way to oppose Iranian nukes. What about diplomacy? sanctions? confidence- and security-building measures? The short answer is no. You are simply postponing the real choices, and effectively choosing something worse than either.
Diplomacy conveys reality: either you are willing to force the other party to act against its will, or you are not. European diplomacy, to which the Bush Administration has conjoined America, conveys the reality that no one is willing to overpower the Iranian government. The ultimate "stick" of this diplomacy, referral to the U.N. Security Council, is really the prospect of more talk. That is because Russia is playing vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear program roughly the same game that China plays with respect to North Korea's—gaining leverage against America. In Washington as in Paris, there is hardly appetite for anything but kicking the diplomatic can farther down the road. Hence the end of such diplomacy can only be diplomacy without end—an ever more ruinous advertisement of our own fecklessness.
Faith in so called confidence-building measures is based mostly on the dubious proposition that benign procedures can override malign intentions—the same faith that has tranquilized the losing parties in the modern world's "peace processes." The other basis for that faith is that time itself will make the problem go away.
But what about sanctions? Can't the Security Council impose them? Sure. In fact, any sovereign nation can impose any restriction it wants on its dealings with others. The real question is: how serious, how coercive would sanctions be? Between 1990 and 2003, the U.N. sanctions on Iraq taught the age-old lesson that economic strictures are blunt instruments. Because economic goods are fungible, partial sanctions—exempting food and medicine, as with Iraq, or oil, as with Italy in 1935—simply raise the overall price level. They also offer opportunities for manipulation and corruption that strengthen authoritarian governments. Just like endless diplomacy, they convey the un-coercive message: we are doing inconclusive things because we dare not do conclusive ones.
Are there not economic sanctions as coercive as war? Yes, indeed! Total economic sanctions can be deadlier than atom bombs. Were Europe and America to impose a total trade embargo on Iran—and enforce it by including any third party that trades with Iran—the Iranians would quickly be forced to choose between nukes and starvation. But this embargo would be war, not just against Iran but potentially against Russia and any other country forced to choose sides. Such a war is surely as winnable as it would be costly.
Isn't covert action an option between doing nothing and sending the Marines? Beware of the illusion that big results can come on the cheap. Sure, many Iranians are ready, willing, and able to begin a coup against the current regime. But could they finish it, alive? We could encourage them to try. But neither covertly nor overtly is it possible for small numbers of foreigners to tip the political scales in a country of 70 million. To ensure that an internal struggle turned out right, we would have to enter a civil war promptly and massively.
Nor should we doubt that "surgical strikes" on Iran's nuclear sites would constitute war itself. It would be a foolish war, because its premise would be that the nuclear technology is our enemy. Nonsense. Our enemies are not things, but specific people. If we are to shoot, let us not do so as in Iraq, against no one in particular while trying to remake the entire country according to abstract principles. Rather, let us make war against a regime, knowing that this will empower its opponents. Though costly, a real war would yield the desired results.
The alternative of peace with a nuclear armed Iran should not be discounted. Cheerful acceptance of Iran's nuclear armament would obviate war's pains and hazards. It offers possible advantages, too. First, in a relaxed international atmosphere, the ongoing struggles within Iran may change the regime all by themselves. Then we might not have to fear its armaments. Second, absent Western pressures, Iran would be less tempted by a relationship with Russia that benefits only the latter. Since Iran's long-term interests are with the West, the more relationships its people have with us the more constrained the government will be in the use of its weapons. Friendly relations with Iran would reduce its incentives for exhibiting our impotence by threatening us with high oil prices. Of course, these advantages might not be realized, at least not soon.
Third, abandoning the illusion that cheap talk, pro forma procedures, and token sanctions can exorcise Iran's nuclear force would inject seriousness into the rest of American foreign and defense policy. The current make-believe approach to U.S. missile defense, as well as the dysfunctional abstraction called "war on terrorism," would have to be replaced with something like the 1950s' "containment." A serious combination of accommodation and defense is not a strategy for victory. Nonetheless, it beats talking offensively while acting impotently.
The point here is that while war against Iran and cheerful acceptance of its nuclear ambitions each implies mixtures of costs and benefits, the hybrid course we have been following and are likely to pursue (albeit with cosmetic variations) is pregnant with all the disadvantages of war as well as of peace, while lacking the advantages of either. Hectoring Iran and perhaps inconveniencing its people while doing nothing decisive amounts to what Theodore Roosevelt used to call "peace with insult"—the worst of practices—and is reminiscent of U.S. policy toward Japan in the 1930s.
Making sure that means and ends match one another, meaning that the actions we take actually produce the ends we profess, has ever been the essence of prudence. Machiavelli taught that enemies are to be caressed or extinguished. But it seems that our ruling geniuses read lesser textbooks.
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor of international relations at Boston University, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, and the author most recently of No Victory, No Peace (Rowman & Littlefield).
For more than a decade and a half, Iran has confronted the free Western world with a combination of challenges: state terror perpetrated on foreign soil, ranging from Buenos Aires to Paris and London; the arming and maintenance of paramilitary forces in foreign countries, e.g., Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, which confronts the Israel Defense Forces along Israel's northern border; the promotion of Muslim activism in parts of former Yugoslavia; and not least, its decades-long determination to obtain or develop a nuclear weapons capability. It has openly championed the destruction of Israel, and has repeatedly defied the United States from the day it stormed the Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Over 50 hostages were held for 444 days before they were liberated in a deal that released $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets and gave Iran immunity from any legal action. In Beirut on October 23, 1983, an Iranian-sponsored terrorist attack claimed the lives of 241 Americans, mostly Marines. Iran paid no price for these acts, and in Tehran's eyes they were both outstanding successes.
Iran's political system is, by Middle Eastern standards, relatively democratic; its extremist President Ahmadinejad was elected to his post by a free popular vote. Thus the Bush Doctrine of introducing democracy into the region is not applicable to the Iranian dilemma.
The free world's policy vis-à-vis Tehran over the past 17 years has been ineffective. Undeterred by President George W. Bush's declaring it a member of his axis of evil, Iran has pursued its policies with determination and impunity. It has assumed that it could get away with all that it has done and has been proved right. It has been consistently devious and unreliable in honoring its international commitments. These must be our points of departure.
In looking to the future, due weight must be given to the limitations that American commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere are placing on its capacities and freedom of action. An Iraq-type solution to the Iranian issue cannot be contemplated at present without the renewal of the draft; this does not appear imminent. Surgical operations might have limited and important effects, but could also go wrong; consider the fate of the 1979 hostage rescue effort.
In these circumstances, the following measures should be contemplated: First, a major effort should be mounted to develop and produce defenses against Iranian offensive missile and air capabilities; anti-ballistic missile and anti-aircraft systems must be given the highest priority in order to protect the air and outer space of nations under threat. Other means of warfare must be researched and developed to counter Iranian capabilities. Much has been and can still be done in this direction.
Second, the Iranian threat must be treated and viewed in its entirety and Iranian vulnerabilities must be sought and found. A possible candidate for such an approach is the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, which faces a complex situation after Syria's partial withdrawal from Beirut. A blow to Hezbollah through military or diplomatic means could severely damage Iranian prestige in the region and reverberate in Tehran. There are other vulnerabilities that should be exploited to the full.
Third, a concerted campaign, partly overt and partly covert, should be initiated to encourage the silent, moderate majority in Iran to begin rising against the Ayatollahs. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent request that Congress approve a $75 million budget to encourage democracy in Iran is a major first step in this direction; an element, one hopes, in an overall strategy designed to promote regime change in Iran. A full-blown propaganda campaign should be mounted and sustained over a long period. The best brainpower available must be recruited for this formidable mission.
Fourth, the present diplomatic efforts at the U.N. Security Council must be pursued to their conclusion. If it proves impossible to sanction Iran, perhaps due to Russian or Chinese objection, unilateral action to damage Iranian economic and business interests should be contemplated. Whether or not sanctions are ultimately imposed, groups of countries led by the U.S. can decide to boycott any international gathering attended by Iran and thus begin a campaign to isolate Tehran and diminish its prestige in the Middle East and throughout the world.
Fifth, the nature of the Iranian threat in all its dimensions is such that only a regime change can provide a genuine solution to the problem. In order to achieve this, "command structures" must be constituted to oversee and conduct the combined effort against present-day Iran. Such structures must enjoy the support of the "political masters" in Washington and elsewhere, and must deal with the entire gamut of issues pertaining to Tehran. The struggle must be waged simultaneously and in a coordinated manner on all fronts.
Finally, thought must be given to the possibility that all measures will fail and Iran will succeed in obtaining nuclear capabilities. Should this happen, the leaders in Tehran must be given to understand, loud and clear, that were they to use their weaponry, the price could well be the complete destruction of their country and nation. Nothing less than such a credible and terrible threat will deter them.
Efraim Halevy directed the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, from 1998 to 2002 and served as national security advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2002-2003. He now heads the Center for Strategic and Policy Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is the author of Man in the Shadows: Inside the Middle East Crisis with a Man who Led the Mossad (St. Martin's Press).
Victor Davis Hanson
"Bad and worse" is now the conventional wisdom regarding our choices in dealing with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's efforts to obtain the bomb. We are told that Western air strikes will lead to violent reactions in the Islamic world; increase terrorism; empower the Iraqi Shiite obstructionists; destroy the much ballyhooed but little heard from Iranian opposition; and that even after days of bombing, we will be unable to level all Iran's nuclear facilities. That's the "bad" option we face.
Apparently no one believes that stopping the Iranian bomb would humiliate the mullahs and teach others in the region not to try something similar—even though Libya gave up its WMD arsenal, by its own admission, only because Muammar al-Qadhafi feared the fate of Saddam Hussein.
"Worse" means they get the bomb—which results in a nuclear Iran threatening Israel, U.S. troops in the Middle East, neighboring Arab oil exporters, and European capitals, even as Western liberals bicker over whether Ahmadinejad seeks merely status, high oil prices, greater power over a restless populace—or paradise as his reward for destroying the Jewish state. This is a leader who listens to voices in a well, dreams about the missing 12th imam, claims his audiences can't blink while he talks, and may have been one of the terrorists who stormed the U.S. embassy in 1979—adding messianic nihilism to the tinderbox of petrodollars, nukes, and terrorism.
In response, Zen-like, the United States keeps silent in the background. The Europeans' vaunted multicultural dialogue goes nowhere, earning them Iranian contempt rather than gratitude. The United Nations is, well, the United Nations, and more likely to obsess over Israel's half-century-old arsenal than worry about a new nuclear theocracy. The Arab autocracies, meanwhile, don't seem too worried about a Persian-Israeli conflagration that might cripple both traditional enemies, if it transpired without raining too much fallout on the West Bank.
China and Russia want either Iranian oil or petrodollars, and seem to enjoy the West's anxiety, confident that in the worst-case scenario a nuclear Iran would probably point its missiles and terrorists at someone else. Russia promises oversight of Iranian enrichment, a fox-in-the-henhouse scenario since it sold the mullahs most of the requisite nuclear technology in the first place. The Israelis are stymied, at least temporarily. The fear of a second Holocaust will make them act at the eleventh hour, though they know that most of the world would sigh in relief—and damn them in the morning papers.
Stung over the perception that senior Democrats can't be trusted with national security, Senators John Kerry and Hillary Clinton deplore the "outsourcing" of American responsibility in dealing with Iran—though of course they would be the first to condemn Bush cowboyism, once CNN got going with its live feed of collateral damage on about, oh, day 3 of any air campaign.
Former President Bill Clinton last year apologized to the Iranian mullocracy for American support for the Shah 30 years ago and CIA espionage a half century past, but not to the American people for allowing Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea to begin in earnest their nuclear acquisition programs on his watch. Jimmy Carter should turn up soon, calling for sensitive understanding of Iran's unique security needs; indeed, the closer Iran gets to the bomb, the more the Left will say that we can live with it.
So for now, American policy seems to have established a window of restraint for about a year or so, until intelligence confirms that the Iranians are months away from arming their warheads. Then there will probably be a messy, incomplete air campaign that will set back the Iranian nuclear program for perhaps five years and send gas prices sky-high. We will hope that some fissionable material is not already in the hands of Hezbollah, and trust that anti-American global protests will be no worse than the lunacy toward the Danes. Israel will brace for a more horrific terrorist campaign, and we will pray that the Iraqi Shiites are more Iraqi than Shiite.
All that has changed in the past six months is the growing Western realization that radical Islam thrives on appeasement, and really does mean what it says. Once elected, Hamas, despite Western money and support, did not budge from its charter's promise to destroy Israel. Far from withdrawing his pledge to wipe Israel out, President Ahmadinejad doubled-down on the boast by organizing formal Holocaust-denial conferences, the prerequisite for any Jew-hater who wishes to move from rhetoric to action. Unlike Hitler, however, Ahmadinejad outlined in advance not merely the intent but the method of his intended follow-up to the Holocaust.
The burning and killing over the Danish cartoons—coming on the heels of the French riots, the bombings in Madrid and London, and Theo van Gogh's murder in Holland—have shaken the very foundations of Europe. Perhaps the European Union will realize that its 450 million citizens cannot tolerate living in range of radical Islam's missiles, with Ahmadinejad's finger on the button. Thus Holland increased its troop deployment in Afghanistan. Many European newspapers reprinted the cartoons in a show of solidarity. Germany's Angela Merkel compared the Iranian President to Hitler. And even earlier, Jacques Chirac talked of using his country's nukes against state sponsors of terrorism. We are coming to a showdown where the headshaking over "bad or worse" is no longer an excuse for inaction, but a tragic acceptance that there is still a bad choice, after all.
Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow in military history and classics at the Hoover Institution, and the author most recently of A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War (Random House).
Even were one to believe that, despite its low and stagnant per capita GNP and the world's second-largest reserves of petroleum and natural gas, Iran would invest uneconomically in nuclear power generation, one would also have to disbelieve that it wanted nuclear weapons. But with an intermediate-range strategic nuclear capacity it could deter American intervention, reign over the Gulf, further separate Europe from American Middle East policy, correct a nuclear imbalance with Pakistan, lead and perhaps unify the Islamic world, and thus create the chance to end Western dominance of the Middle East and with a single shot destroy Israel.
Iran's claim of innocuous nuclear ambitions comports both with the Islamic doctrine of taqqiya (literal truth need not be conveyed to infidels) and the Western doctrine of state secrecy (the same thing), and is part of a strategy of deception and false compromise deployed to buy time. After almost three years, the administration has maneuvered the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Iran to the Security Council, where it will fall under the protection of Russia and China, who will make any resolution meaningless or veto it outright. In the event of sanctions, Iran can sell oil to China in exchange for all the manufactures it might need, trade on the black market, and eventually reenter the world economy after the inevitable unveiling of Iranian nuclear weapons stimulates the resignation of the West.
Were Russia not playing a double game, it would not have agreed last December to upgrade the Iranian Air Force and sell Iran 29 SA-15 surface-to-air missiles for the protection of key facilities. Russia and China can operate in contradiction of what many assume to be their self-interest because they have always had a different appreciation of and doctrine relating to nuclear weapons, they are willing to live dangerously, they are the least likely targets, and the agitation they support roils the smooth surface of the Pax Americana to their maximum opportunity and relief. For example, chaos in the Middle East makes Russia in comparison a stable supplier of energy and shifts European resources and dependency to Russia's advantage.
Other than the likely nothing, what will the U.S. have done in the months and years ahead to prepare for the failure of diplomacy and sanctions? The obvious option is an aerial campaign to divest Iran of its nuclear potential, i.e., clear the Gulf of Iranian naval forces, scrub anti-ship missiles from the shore, and lay open anti-aircraft-free corridors to each target. With the furious capacity of its new weapons, the U.S. can accomplish this readily. Were the targets effectively hidden or buried, Iran could be shut down, coerced, and perhaps revolutionized by the assured rapid destruction of its oil production and transport. The Iranians know their obvious vulnerabilities, but are we aware of ours?
In this war with a newly revived militant Islam, we think systematically and they think imaginatively. As we strain to bring the genius of imagination to our systems, they attempt to bring systematic discipline to their imagination, and neither of us is precluded from success. Despite our superior power, its diminution by geography, over-commitment, and politics means that they might confound us. And because they believe absolutely in the miraculous, one must credit their stated aim to defeat us in the short term by hurling our armies from the Middle East and in the long term by collapsing Western civilization.
If like his predecessors Salah-a-Din, the Mahdi, and Nasser, Mr. Ahmadinejad goes for the long shot, he may have in mind to draw out and damage any American onslaught with his thousands of surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns, by a concentrated air and naval attack to sink one or more major American warships, and to mobilize the Iraqi Shia in a general uprising, with aid from infiltrated Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard) and conventional elements, that would threaten U.S. forces in Iraq and sever their lines of supply. This by itself would be a victory for those who see in the colors of martyrdom, but if he could knock us back and put enough of our blood in the water, the real prize might come into reach. That is, to make such a fury in the Islamic world that, as it has done before and not long ago, it would throw over caution in favor of jihad. As simply as it can be said, were Egypt to close the canal, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to lock up their airspace—which with their combined modern air forces they could—the American military in Iraq and the Gulf, bereft of adequate supply, would be beleaguered and imperiled.
In trying to push the Iraqi snake by its tail, we have lost sight of the larger strategic picture, of which such events, though very unlikely, may become a part. But because the Iranian drive for deployable nuclear weapons will likely take years, we have a period of grace. In that time, we would do well to strengthen—in numbers and mass as well as quality—the means with which we fight, to reinforce the fleet train with which to supply the fighting lines, to press forward with ballistic missile defense against sea-launched intermediate range missiles, and to plan for a land route from the Mediterranean across Israel and Jordan to the Tigris and Euphrates. And even if we cannot extricate ourselves from nation-building and counterinsurgency in Iraq, we must have a plan for remounting the army there so that it can fight and maneuver as it was born to do.
To make these provisions will secure our flanks and give us a freer hand in the potentially difficult project of denying to a rogue nation of 68 million people, with a well developed military and a penchant for rash action, the nuclear weapons it is bent on acquiring and rushing to construct. Our problem in Iraq has been delusion and lack of foresight. Iran is bigger and more powerful. What a pity it would be either to do nothing or once again to lurch forward with neither strategy nor thought.
Mark Helprin, whose novels include Winter's Tale and A Soldier of the Great War, is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He served in the Israeli army and Air Force, and was Adviser in Defense and Foreign Relations to Republican presidential nominee Robert Dole.
There is a good chance that not so far into the future, historians will look back on the foreign policy of George W. Bush and pronounce him the worst president since James Madison. What, Madison, the Founding Father? He was, of course, a great man, but he also presided over America's most foolish war, the War of 1812, in the course of which the British burned down half of Washington. It was foolish to take on the mightiest sea power on earth—and while Britain was fighting for its survival against Napoleon. And so Jefferson warned: it was not in the U.S. interest "that all of Europe should be reduced to a single monarchy. Surely none of us wish to see Bonaparte conquer Russia and lay thus at his feet the whole continent of Europe. This done, England would be but a breakfast…." And, one might add, America a lunch.
The War of 1812 was the wrong war against the wrong foe at the wrong time—and so is Iraq. Never mind that the WMDs and the terror connection didn't exist, and that democracy is just as lofty a goal in 2003 as the freedom of the seas was in 1812. But unlike the War of 1812, the one in Iraq was a strategic blunder worthy of General Custer.
America's real foe has been revolutionary Iran ever since the Khomeinists took power in 1979. Their terror-sponsoring arm extends from Berlin to Beirut, from Kiryat Shmona in Northern Israel to Gaza-by-the-Sea. Iran's nuclear weapons program goes back to the days of the Shah, but it went into high speed during the 1990s while Washington was indulging its obsession with a weak and isolated Saddam. Today, Tehran is the single most powerful threat to American interests in the Middle East, and a threat to the stability of this tinderbox to boot.
How did this come to pass? The U.S. targeted the wrong enemy in its quest to make the world safe through democracy. Pursuing the lofty goal of regime change, the Bush Administration failed wretchedly to calculate the strategic consequences, the first commandment of statecraft. Imagine how overjoyed the Khomeinists must have been when U.S. forces marched into Baghdad! Here the Great Satan had done them a triple favor: He eliminated their worst rival (Iraq) from the board and so overturned whatever regional balance of power there was. He liberated the oppressed Shia majority and handed Iran's comrades-in-faith preeminence in Iraqi politics. And he entangled himself in a costly, inconclusive insurgency war that Tehran could manipulate at will.
As a result, the strategic position of the Iranians has never been better, and they know it. First, Tehran told the Europeans to go fly a kite; no, Iran would not abandon the road to nuclear weapons. Then they repeated the message to the rest of the world, including the Russians and Chinese. Then they started waving the oil weapon, while threatening Israel with extinction.
And well they might. They know that the U.S. will not launch another war while the one in Iraq is not exactly proceeding on schedule. Should the U.S. do so anyway, Iran will unleash its terror armies throughout the region and hit tanker traffic in the Gulf. One tanker will be enough to double the price of oil. Or put it this way: how much punch can diplomacy deliver when it is disjoined from the credible threat of force?
Are there no options? Our neocon friends who gave us the war in Iraq now mumble about Iranian regime change from within. Yet the days of Mossadeq, when Americans and Britons could mastermind a coup, are over. There is neither an army nor a potent opposition that can be turned against the Khomeinists, for the first thing a totalitarian regime does is to eliminate all competing centers of power.
Or does anybody believe that the denial of visas or landing rights throughout the West can stay the hand that grasps for the bomb? The most effective counter is to stop the passage of oil out of Iran, and the flow of refined products in. But who will join such a double-embargo when oil fetches $65 per barrel?
This is Cold War II, in that it must be fought without recourse to arms. The prescription is the same: deterrence and alliance-building—or in George F. Kennan's immortal words, "long-term, patient, but firm and vigilant containment of [Iranian] expansive tendencies," which will lead to the "break-up" or "mellowing" of Khomeinist power.
Now, imagine an America not entangled in the 2003 Iraq war—its reputation boosted by the quick victory in Afghanistan, its troops free to pounce, its alliances undiminished by the intra-Western family fight over the war. Iran's President Ahmadinejad may be crazy, but he is not stupid. He would know a giant when he saw one—rather than poke at what he thinks are its feet of clay.
Josef Joffe is publisher-editor of Die Zeit (Germany), adjunct professor of political science at Stanford, and Abramowitz Fellow in International Relations at the Hoover Institution. His book, Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America (W.W. Norton & Co.), will be published in June.