Options Nobody Likes

Sunday, April 30, 2006
© REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazi

What to do about Iran’s nuclear ambitions is a problem whose complexity we are all busy admiring. It is already clear that no approach to the problem comes without significant costs and, besides which, offers no guarantee of success. And if there are any optimists out there, as there were before the Iraq war, I haven’t run into them.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: If it’s “unacceptable” for Iran to get a nuclear weapon, or to be no more than the turn of a screwdriver away from one, and if at the same time the Iranian regime is determined to obtain one or to get that close under cover of the nonproliferation treaty’s terms for “peaceful” nuclear programs, then you have to (1) change Tehran’s mind, (2) rescind your view and accept a nuclear Iran, or (3) stop the program by force.

No one likes those choices. Writing in the Washington Post, Ivo Daalder and Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institution set out a proposal for hardcore sanctions involving an oil embargo and a ban on foreign investment in Iran. If Russia, China, and India won’t go along, they say, the United States and Europe still have the capacity to turn Iran into an isolated North Korea–like pariah state.

At the end of the day, that is option 2: accepting a nuclear Iran if it comes to that. I still don’t like that option. The question remains: Can we tolerate those weapons in the hands of that particular regime? The “pariah” option is a better (though not good) option for North Korea because it was a pariah going in. Iran has far more friends in its neighborhood, including some truly dangerous characters.

What about option 3, force? I’m not willing to say that’s where we should be going. But we should scrutinize the case against the use of force as thoroughly as the case in favor. Daalder and Gordon’s summary of the argument is a good place to start.

They say that “U.S. air strikes probably could destroy Iran’s critical nuclear facilities, at least those we know about. But our intelligence is hardly perfect, so we would not really know if Tehran’s nuclear program was in fact destroyed.” That’s true, and nobody should be casual about the limitations of our intelligence capabilities. But destruction of known facilities would have an effect on Iran’s ability to proceed. How great an effect? How much time do you buy? And how much harder (or easier) is it for Iran to rebuild afterward? Do other countries become more wary about dealing with Iran because of the demonstrated seriousness of the U.S. position? Or do they energize covert efforts to assist Iran to try to balance the United States?

“A military attack against Iran would also undoubtedly generate strong public support among Iranians for an otherwise unpopular regime.” That seems plausible. But to what extent is the regime in Iran actually influenced by public opinion one way or another? Public opinion in favor of a more liberal state seems, under current conditions, thoroughly suppressed. We would all like a “people power” revolution, but the prospect does not currently seem likely.

“Any lingering doubt that they needed a nuclear deterrent would be erased.” Perhaps. But our problem is that not much in the way of doubt is currently lingering, at least as far as this regime goes. How likely is it that current “lingering doubt” will produce a change of policy under any circumstances?

“And are we prepared for what Iran could do in return? Through its Shiite partners in Iraq and Afghanistan, it could wreak havoc on our forces and undermine our efforts to stabilize both countries.” My problem here is that I don’t understand why Iran would not now be doing everything it could along those lines covertly. After a U.S.-led military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, perhaps such efforts would become more open. On the other hand, such a strike would clearly cause serious internal trouble for the regime.

If there are any optimists out there with respect to Iran, I haven’t run into them.

<“It could threaten oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, through which more than one-third of the world’s oil flows.” Yes. But there are also many parties with strong incentives to keep that oil flowing, sellers and buyers both. How long term a disruption should we anticipate?

“[A]nd urge its terrorist friends to launch retaliatory strikes against our allies and us.” I am less concerned about what Iran urges—which lately includes the destruction of Israel and so on—than with what Iran can empower. Of course a military strike invites retaliation against us. But to what extent are we currently the beneficiaries of Iranian noncooperation with terrorists who would like to strike us? And to what extent would a higher degree of motivation on Iran’s part to help terrorists hit us be efficacious?

We would all like a “people power” revolution in Iran, but the prospect does not currently seem likely.

The prima facie case against force is good. But it needs to be thoroughly challenged, not least because its risks must be weighed against the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

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