From The Wall Street Journal, 14 Nov 2011:
The International Atomic Energy Agency this week released its most detailed assessment to date about Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons ...It lays to rest the fantasies that an Iranian bomb is many years off, or that the intelligence is riddled with holes and doubts, or that the regime's intentions can't be guessed by their activities.
So much, then, for the December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which asserted "with high confidence" that Iran had abandoned its nuclear-weapons work in 2003 and ended any chance that the Bush Administration would take action against Iran. So much, too, for the Obama Administration's attempts to move Iran away from its nuclear course, first with diplomatic offers and then with sanctions and covert operations.
The serious choice now before the Administration is between military strikes and more of the same. As the IAEA report makes painfully clear, more of the same means a nuclear Iran, possibly within a year.
It's time, then, to consider carefully what that choice means for the United States. In the run-up to the war in Iraq, we wrote that "the law of unintended consequences hasn't been repealed," and that "no war ever goes precisely as planned." That was obviously true of a boots-on-the-ground invasion, but it would also be true of an aerial campaign to demolish or substantially degrade Iran's nuclear facilities.
Planes could be shot down and airmen taken prisoner. Iran could close the Straits of Hormuz, sending energy prices upward. It could conduct a campaign of terror throughout the world, or attack shipping in the Persian Gulf, or fire missiles against U.S. military installations in the region, or spark a war with Israel or another insurgency in Iraq. These are among the contingencies that military planners would have to anticipate, though Iranian leaders would also have to think twice before responding to a strike with attacks that could mean further escalation.
Yet these risks need to be weighed against the consequences of a nuclear Iran. This is a regime that took 52 American diplomats hostage and dared the Carter Administration to do something about it. It used its surrogates in Beirut to kill 258 American diplomats and Marines in 1983. The FBI believes it was behind the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. airmen. It supplied IEDs to anti-American militias in Iraq, killing hundreds of U.S. soldiers. And only last month, the Obama Administration accused Iran of seeking to blow up the Saudi ambassador in a Washington, D.C., restaurant.
These acts were perpetrated by Tehran without a nuclear umbrella. What would Iran's behavior look like if it had one?
Advocates of a "containment" strategy toward a nuclear Iran argue that its behavior would differ little from what it is today. By this logic, the U.S. and its allies would warn Iran that it would face nuclear annihilation if it crossed certain red lines, such as passing a bomb to terrorists, and Iran wouldn't dare breach them.
But those red lines would be hard to credit once the U.S. squandered its credibility by allowing Iran to go nuclear after spending a decade warning that such an outcome was "unacceptable." Would the U.S. really risk nuclear war with a fanatical regime for the sake of, say, Bahrain, or even Israel? We doubt it, and so would every power in the region.
One certain result would thus be a nuclear proliferation spiral in the Middle East, in which Saudi Arabia, Turkey and probably Egypt would acquire nuclear arsenals of their own. That would be an odd outcome for an Administration that has made nuclear arms control a cornerstone of its foreign policy.
Then again, not every country in the region would have the will or wherewithal to stand up to Iran. Some could no doubt be bullied or induced to cooperate with it, especially as the U.S. presence in the region diminishes after withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. Those Iranian neighbors could fall into its orbit, thereby extending Tehran's strategic reach from Kabul to Beirut.
Containment advocates also assert that Iran would never use its nuclear weapons, since it would invite devastating reprisals. But the power of nuclear weapons lies in the fact of their possession even if they are never used. Iran could use ambiguous threats or work through proxies to both provoke and deter its adversaries in the region, including the U.S. Iran's prestige would also be immensely bolstered, both at home and abroad, by developing nuclear weapons in the teeth of international opposition.
It is perilous, in any case, to assume that Iran is a "normal" regime that wouldn't dare use nuclear weapons. Iran's regime was born in revolutionary religious fervor and routinely vows to annihilate Israel and its "Great Satan" protector, the U.S. Iran is also a regime shaped by a messianic cult of martyrdom, one that sent thousands of children to clear mine fields during the Iran-Iraq war. Sometimes such governments mean what they say even if the rest of the world won't believe it. The Nazis did.
In the case of the assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador, one plausible explanation is that the strike was ordered by a faction within the regime trying to undermine its internal rivals. What does that say about the unity of command needed to secure a nuclear arsenal?
Another argument for containment is that the Iranian regime is destined to collapse and so we can afford to wait it out. But tyrannical regimes with a fanatical will to power have a way of holding on against the odds: Look at the Kim dynasty in North Korea. Nuclear weapons would not save the mullahs from an internal uprising in the Libyan mold, though it's worth noting that Gadhafi would still be in power had he not abandoned his nuclear programs. It's also worth wondering what a regime faced with such an uprising would do with its nuclear weapons if it believed it was on the verge of collapse.
All of this adds up to far more dangerous world—in which Iran becomes a regional hegemon, Israel faces a threat to its very existence, the Middle East embarks on a nuclear arms race, America's freedom of action is curtailed, and the dangers of a nuclear exchange rise to levels above what they were even during the early Cold War.
The question for the world, and especially for the Obama Administration, is whether those dire consequences are worse than the risks of a pre-emptive strike. We think we know what the Israelis will decide, especially if they conclude that President Obama stays on his current course.
Opponents of a pre-emptive strike say it would do no more than delay Iran's programs by a few years. But something similar was said after Israel's strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981, without which the U.S. could never have stood up to Saddam after his invasion of Kuwait. In life as in politics, nothing is forever. But a strike that sets Iran's nuclear programs back by several years at least offers the opportunity for Iran's democratic forces to topple the regime without risking a wider conflagration.
No U.S. President could undertake a strike on Iran except as a last resort, and Mr. Obama can fairly say that he has given every resort short of war an honest try. At the same time, no U.S. President should leave his successor with the catastrophe that would be a nuclear Iran.
A nuclear Iran on Mr. Obama's watch would be fatal to more than his legacy.