Policy of Restraint Offers Best Payoff

January 24, 2006 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Baltimore Sun, January 24, 2006

Iran would be at or near the top of the list of countries Americans would least like to see have nuclear weapons, and the reason for apprehension has deepened dramatically in recent months.

Iran under the mullahs has always been a weird and ominous country. With the advent of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, however, the weirdness quotient has reached new levels. Iran is now headed by an individual who expresses the hope that Israel be wiped off the map and denies that the Holocaust ever occurred.

If one could wave a magic wand and eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, all responsible governments would be grasping for that wand. Alas, in the real word such magical solutions do not exist. US. policymakers have only a choice among ugly options.

The most popular (and therefore most likely) option is to refer the matter to the UN. Security Council for possible economic sanctions against Tehran. Even if a resolution incorporating sanctions escaped a Chinese or Russian veto (which is far from certain), there is little likelihood that such a course would produce a successful outcome. Sanctions historically have had an unimpressive record and, given that crude oil prices are already over $60 a barrel, even under a sanctions regime, Iran’s oil will not fail to find its way to market.

A more drastic option is to use military force to take out Iran’s nuclear sites. Proponents cite the successful Israeli strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 as a model, there are numerous problems with that course. Osirak was one easily identified, above‐​ground site. There are well over a dozen nuclear‐​related sites in Iran. And those are only the ones we know about Tiiere could be several other covert facilities. Tehran has had nearly three decades to pursue its nuclear activities.

Worst of all, some of the installations may be in reinforced, underground locations beneath major population centers. Taking out such sites with conventional weapons would be problematic at best Although some ultra‐​hawkish types have mused about using nuclear bunker busters for the required strikes, crossing the nuclear threshold could come back to haunt the United States.

Even launching conventional strikes would be extremely dangerous.

At the very least, Tehran would be tempted to cause as much trouble as possible for US. and British occupation forces in Iraq. The infiltration of a few thousand dedicated Revolutionary Guards could accomplish that goal.

Iran also would be tempted to unleash its terrorist ally, Hezbollah, on U.S. targets throughout the Middle East And there is always the risk that an attacked and humiliated Iran might do something incredibly rash, such as closing the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf or launching attacks against Israel, triggering a massive regional crisis.

Since sanctions almost certainly won’t work and military strikes .are much too dangerous, we must consider a third option, as unpalatable as it might seem. That is to accept the emergence of Iran as a member of the global nuclear weapons club in the next few years and have confidence that the vast U.S. nuclear arsenal will deter Iran as it deters other nuclear powers.

Admittedly, the advent of Mr. Ahmadinejad makes that option more nerve‐ wracking. It is worth remembering, though, that Iran’s political system is fairly diffuse and that Mr. Ahmadinejad is only one actor among many.

Indeed, despite his lofty title of president, he held to submit several candidates before he induced the parliament to approve his nominee for oil minister. Iran, under Mr. Ahmadinejad, is not a tightly centralized system like Germany under Hitler and the Soviet Union under Stalin, where one man’s decision could plunge the nation into war.

Washington’s experience with China in the 1960s and early 1970s is perhaps even more pertinent China became a nuclear power under Mao Tse‐​tung, a leader whose views on nuclear warfare were alarming in the extreme. His boast that China could outlast the United States in a nuclear war of attrition so alarmed China’s ally, Moscow, that Soviet leaders hastened to assure their US. counterparts that such thinking in no way reflected the Kremlin’s views.

China also emerged as a nuclear power on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. China during that orgasm of fanaticism makes today’s Iran look like a normal, even sedate, country. US. policymakers were understandably very uneasy about China joining the ranks of nuclear weapons states.

Yet they rejected the advice of those inside and outside government who advocated military action to take out Beijing’s nuclear program. Given the constructive changes that have taken place in China in the past three decades, history has vindicated a policy of restraint

A similar policy of caution and deterrence may also pay off with Irzin. It is not an easy or comfortable course to advocate. It is merely more realistic and less dangerous than the other available options.

About the Author