What to Do Before Tehran Gets the Bomb

October 25, 2006 • Commentary
This article appeared on SFGate​.com on October 25, 2006.

Few Americans want Iran to get nuclear weapons, but as European Union leader Javier Solana conceded, the European‐​led negotiations to stop it are going nowhere fast. Unless there is an unexpected breakthrough — and soon — our leaders face a set of highly imperfect options. The best by far is to try to strike a grand bargain with Iran.

Washington should offer to normalize diplomatic and economic relations with Iran, and pledge to refrain from efforts at forcible regime change. In exchange, Tehran would be expected to open its nuclear program to rigorous, on‐​demand international inspections to guarantee that no nuclear material was diverted from peaceful purposes.

We have little to lose by proposing a deal — unless we let negotiations drag on endlessly. Making an offer to Tehran and indicating that it would remain on the table for a maximum of six months would have no significant downside. If the Iranians rejected the proposal — or if they simply stalled — all other options would still be available. If they accepted the agreement, we would have a reliable way to prevent Iran from joining the ranks of the nuclear‐​weapons powers.

Consider the alternatives. The use of pre‐​emptive air strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations is the worst, most dangerous strategy. Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol lobbies for such strikes with an almost unfathomable disregard for their likely consequences. “Yes, there would be repercussions,” writes Kristol, “and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.”

Yet even fellow hawk Charles Krauthammer admits that attacking Iran would have highly unpleasant results. According to Krauthammer, the costs of such an attack “will be terrible.” He predicts that oil prices would spike to at least $100 and possibly as much as $150 a barrel, triggering a global economic recession “perhaps as deep as the one triggered by the Iranian revolution of 1979.”

At most, such strikes would delay, not eliminate, Tehran’s program, and at the cost of thousands of Iranian civilian casualties. There is also a grave risk that Iran would retaliate with terrorist attacks and perhaps even more drastic measures, such as trying to close the Strait of Hormuz to shipping altogether, preventing any Persian Gulf oil from getting through.

Attacking Iran would also further alienate Muslim populations around the world, creating the very real prospect of a war of civilizations. If the United States attacks yet another Islamic country, most Muslims from Morocco to Malaysia will be convinced that Washington is out to destroy their way of life.

Another alternative is to intensify efforts to subvert Iran’s clerical regime. The United States already has a modest program designed to do that, embodied in the Iran Freedom Support Act, but Americans who assume that the clerical government can be easily dislodged from power are indulging in the same fantasy they embraced about the supposed ease of nation‐​building in Iraq. We should not repeat that folly.

According to enthusiastic proponents of regime change, such as American Enterprise Institute activist Michael Ledeen, Iranian public opposition to the mullahs is so strong that a U.S. propaganda offensive combined with financial and logistical assistance to prospective insurgents would topple the regime. Ledeen boasts, “Give me $20 million and you’ll have your revolution.”

Iranian dissidents themselves, while hardly enamored of the theocracy, are also wary of a U.S. political embrace. Iranian human rights activist Emad Baghi complained recently: “We are under pressure from both the hardliners [in Iran’s judiciary] and that stupid George Bush.”

A U.S. subversion program would have unintended negative consequences, undermining the domestic legitimacy of the Iranian dissidents who might otherwise gain power some day. And even if the effort to topple the mullahs somehow succeeded, there is no certainty that a democratic Iran would choose to remain non‐​nuclear. The threat of further proliferation in the volatile Persian Gulf region would remain.

The Bush administration’s most likely initial response will be to seek a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing economic sanctions on Tehran. But as we’ve seen in Iraq, North Korea and elsewhere, sanctions have a poor record of getting regimes to abandon high‐​priority policies. Even if Russia and China could be induced to overcome their reluctance to endorse meaningful sanctions, such measures are unlikely to halt Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.

If all else fails, the choice remains to accept reluctantly Iran as a member of the global nuclear weapons club and rely on the deterrent power of America’s vast nuclear arsenal. While that strategy is not without risk, the United States has successfully deterred other volatile and unsavory regimes, most notably Maoist China during the Cultural Revolution. That course, however, could not prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the Middle East. Iran’s neighbors would seek to counter Tehran’s new capability in kind, and Washington would clearly like to avoid that outcome.

Alas, U.S. policymakers have no silver bullet. They have only a choice among problematic options. Some choices, though, are clearly better than others. Pursuing a grand bargain is the best option available, and we should at least give it a shot.

About the Author