Is 2012 the year of war with Iran? Some would say the war has already begun: assassinations, explosions, and cyberattacks occur daily. Tehran has said it will regard imminent sanctions targeted against its central bank as an act of war causing it to close the strait of Hormuz. The U.S. Navy promises to keep it open. Miscalculation and escalation could become inevitable. Attacks on the Iranian mainland could follow quickly. Once that starts, bombing of the Iranian nuclear sites becomes the logical next step.
Tom Pickering and Bill Luers argue that we should recommit ourselves unconditionally to the diplomatic track:
The United States must set out on a relentless search for a better way to get at this seemingly unknowable regional power.
Trita Parsi argues that negotiations are still possible but require dropping pressure on Iran. The evidence points in the other direction: it is precisely when pressure on Iran builds that Tehran looks to diplomacy for a way out. Or more likely, for a way to buy more time. There would really be no reason at all for Tehran to come to the negotiating table, or to answer the tough questions the International Atomic Energy Agency is posing, if the pressure were not there.
But pressure is not an end but a means. As Walter Russell Mead notes, talk of red lines and willingness to use force paints the Administration into a corner. Eventually, we may have to do what we threaten, with highly uncertain results.
What, realistically, can diplomacy achieve at this point? I fear the best we can hope for at this point is for Iran to stop its nuclear program at the virtual stage: it would gain little from testing a nuclear weapon and nothing from arming its missiles with them. So long as it has all the technology required–high explosive as well as nuclear–it can gain the prestige benefits nuclear capacity provides without the downside of being targeted for “launch on warning” by the Israelis.
The theocratic regime can also hope that a virtual nuclear weapon will forestall any American plans for invasion or for covert action to bring about regime change. American anxiety that the North Korean succession proceed in an orderly fashion, and that Pakistan not come flying apart, would be enough to convince anyone that nuclear capacity gets you respect that would not otherwise be available. Qaddafi’s fate confirms that view.
This is a Faustian bargain: we agree that people who oppress the vast majority of Iranians can remain in power in Tehran, they agree they won’t go that last mile to weaponize their nuclear capacity. There are many countries around the world that are in this virtual nuclear power position–I suspect Brazil, Argentina, South Korea, Japan and many others maintain a level of nuclear knowledge required to reestablish a serious nuclear weapons program quickly if circumstances were to require it. The difference is that they are not sworn enemies of the United States.
It is hard for me to picture things coming out much better than this, but it is important to remember that the Iranian population is not part of the bargain. They may well return to the streets, demanding the freedoms that Tunisians, Libyans, Egyptians, Yemenis and Syrians hope for. If they do, we need to be ready to live with uncertainty as they struggle for freedom. There is no guarantee that a successful Green Revolution will foreswear nuclear weapons, but a democratic Iran might well be less threatening from the American perspective.
PS: Patrick Clawson’s very interesting and comprehensive discussion of methods to slow Iran’s progress toward “nuclear breakout” unfortunately treats diplomatic efforts as aimed principally at convincing allies that the United States is being reasonable and not at actually reaching an agreement. He never really defines “nuclear breakout” or discusses whether Iran stopping somewhere short of it should be acceptable to the U.S.