In a rare U.S. appearance, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the United Nations yesterday in New York. Beyond the novelty of the visit, though, and amid the European Union's claims of progress in negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, Americans no doubt have a sense of déjà vu.
A rogue state in a critical region, weapons of mass destruction, inspections, negotiations, the threat of sanctions, indecisive multilateral bodies - haven't we seen it all before? Iran's nuclear efforts understandably make us nervous, but there is no need to panic. We still have enormous power to deter Iranian aggression, and as we've learned in Iraq, the risks of inaction are preferable to the catastrophe of starting a war.
The bulk of the evidence indicates that Iran is years away from being able to build nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence agencies maintain that Iran will not have such a capability for another five to 10 years, and prominent independent experts agree.
A report by the GOP-dominated staff of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence late last month cast doubt on the conclusions of the intelligence community but offered little more than innuendo and unsubstantiated assertions to make its case. Indeed, even the Israeli government, which has an obvious interest in presenting a worst-case scenario of the Iranian nuclear threat, concedes that Tehran will not be able to build such weapons for at least three years.
Even three years is a significant amount of time to weigh policy options. Only the most eager Iran hawks argue that the danger is imminent. Given their record, they have little credibility. Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, for example, asserted in 1993 that Iran might well have the bomb by 2001.
Instead of adopting rash measures, the United States should patiently offer a grand bargain to Iran. That would mean giving an assurance that America will not use force against Iran the way we did against such non-nuclear adversaries as Serbia and Iraq. It would also include the restoration of diplomatic relations and normal economic relations. In return, Iran would be required to open its nuclear program to unfettered international inspections to guarantee that the program is used solely for peaceful power-generation purposes.
Offering a grand bargain has no significant downside. If Iran rejected the proposal, all other policy options still would be available. If the clerical regime accepted the offer, we would have found an effective, peaceful way to prevent Iran from barging into the global nuclear weapons club. At the very least, putting the proposal on the table would force the hand of the Iranian regime. We would soon learn whether Iran is unalterably determined to build a nuclear arsenal or whether it might be willing to give up that ambition for sufficient carrots. All we have now is sheer speculation about Tehran's motives and goals.
Given the record of faulty, alarmist speculations about Iran's nuclear program, we should nonetheless be extremely skeptical of new predictions that Tehran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear weapons power. When a potential threat is measured in years, policymakers can consider strategies carefully rather than taking precipitous action.
If Iran turns down the proposal for a grand bargain, Washington's fallback position should be to rely on deterrence. As we learned in the Cold War and in our continued containment of Libya and North Korea, we have time and an abiding ability to wait out even the most odious enemies. U.S. leaders should bear that in mind before they proceed down the dubious path of sanctions against Iran. They should take heed of it before they embrace reckless suggestions to launch preventive airstrikes against Iran's nuclear installations - a move that could easily plunge the Persian Gulf region into a general war.
It would be tragic enough if we were compelled to take such a risk to neutralize an imminent threat to our security. It would be doubly tragic if we ignited a terrible war merely to thwart a remote, hypothetical threat.