There Are Only Two Choices Left on Iran
An Israeli or U.S. military strike now, or a nuclear Tehran soon.
By ELIOT A. COHEN
Unless you are a connoisseur of small pictures of bearded, brooding fanatical clerics there is not much reason to collect Iranian currency. But I kept one bill on my desk at the State Department because of its watermark—an atom superimposed on the part of that country that harbors the Natanz nuclear site. Only the terminally innocent should have been surprised to learn that there is at least one other covert site, whose only purpose could be the production of highly enriched uranium for atom bombs.
Pressure, be it gentle or severe, will not erase that nuclear program. The choices are now what they ever were: an American or an Israeli strike, which would probably cause a substantial war, or living in a world with Iranian nuclear weapons, which may also result in war, perhaps nuclear, over a longer period of time.
Understandably, the U.S. government has hoped for a middle course of sanctions, negotiations and bargaining that would remove the problem without the ugly consequences. This is self-delusion. Yes, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy stood side by side with President Barack Obama in Pittsburgh and talked sternly about lines in the sand; and yes, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev hinted that some kind of sanctions might, conceivably, be needed. They said the same things to, and with, President George W. Bush.
Though you would not know it to listen to Sunday talk shows, a large sanctions effort against Iran has been underway for some time. It has not worked to curb Tehran's nuclear appetite, and it will not. Sooner or later the administration, whose main diplomatic initiatives thus far have been a program of apologies and a few sharp kicks to small allies' shins, will have to recognize that fact.
The Iranian regime wants nuclear weapons and has invested vast sums to get both the devices and the means to deliver them. The Russians and Chinese have made soothing murmurs of disapproval but have repeatedly made it clear that they will not go along with measures that would cripple the Iranian economy (and deprive them of markets). German and Swiss businessmen will happily sell Iran whatever goods their not very exacting governments will permit, and our terrified Arab allies have nothing like the military capability to match their own understandable fears. So let's be serious about the choice, because we have less than a year to make it.
An Israeli strike may set back the Iranian program by some short period of time. What the Israelis can do is unclear: They play their tactical cards close to their vest, and they would take different approaches, and accept different risks, than the U.S. Air Force would. No surprise there, given that they believe, with reason, that the looming issues are existential.
But even if they achieved temporary success, it would be just that, because the Iranian program is very different from the Iraqi Osirak reactor that the Israelis nailed so precisely in 1981. It is far more dispersed and protected, and is based on thousands of centrifuges rather than a single nuclear reactor. Moreover, the chances are that it would evoke outrage throughout the Middle East (although Arab governments would privately rejoice at the event), and probably provoke an Iranian reaction that could involve a very large war as the Israelis are attacked by, and retaliate against, Iran's proxies in the Levant and throughout the world.
An American attack would be more effective, but it would take longer and probably lead to real warfare in the Persian Gulf, disrupting oil supplies and producing global responses. More to the point, it is difficult to believe that the Obama administration has the stomach for war. Its appalling public case of nerves over the war in Afghanistan—a "war of necessity," as of only a few months ago—is indicative of its true temper. And if President Obama does not have the courage to accept hazards and ugly surprises, and if he cannot bring himself to deploy his rhetorical skills to the mobilization of opinion at home and abroad, he should not start a shooting war, even if the Iranians are already waging one against us.
That leaves living with an Iranian bomb. But this too has enormous hazards. It will engender—it has already quietly engendered—a nuclear arms race in the region. It will embolden the Iranian regime to make much more lethal mischief than it has even now. In a region that respects strength, it will enhance, not diminish, Iranian prestige. And it may yield the first nuclear attack since 1945 some time down the road.
At the heart of the problem is not simply the nuclear program. It is the Iranian regime, a regime that has, since 1979, relentlessly waged war against the U.S. and its allies. From Buenos Aires to Herat, from Beirut to Cairo, from Baghdad to, now, Caracas, Iranian agents have done their best to disrupt and kill. Iran is militarily weak, but it is masterful at subversive war, and at the kind of high-tech guerrilla, roadside-bomb and rocket fight that Hezbollah conducted in 2006. American military cemeteries contain the bodies of hundreds, maybe thousands, of American servicemen and servicewomen slain by Iranian technology, Iranian tactics, and in some cases, Iranian operatives.
The brutality without is more than matched by the brutality within—the rape, torture and summary execution of civilians by the tens of thousands, down, quite literally, to the present day. This is a corrupt, fanatical, ruthless and unprincipled regime—unpopular, to be sure, but willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power. With such a regime, no real negotiation, based on understandings of mutual interest and respect for undertakings is possible.
It is, therefore, in the American interest to break with past policy and actively seek the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. Not by invasion, which this administration would not contemplate and could not execute, but through every instrument of U.S. power, soft more than hard. And if, as is most likely, President Obama presides over the emergence of a nuclear Iran, he had best prepare for storms that will make the squawks of protest against his health-care plans look like the merest showers on a sunny day.
Mr. Cohen teaches at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. He served as counselor of the State Department from 2007 to 2009.