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Suppose We Just Let Iran Have the Bomb

Published: March 19, 2006


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Harry Campbell


Forum: The Middle East

Can the world learn to live with a nuclear Iran?

PRESIDENT BUSH'S message to Iran these days sounds unambiguous: The United States will do what it takes to keep the mullahs from getting the bomb. Diplomacy is vastly preferred, President Bush and his aides insist. Yet it was no accident that the just-revised National Security Strategy declares: "This diplomatic effort must succeed if confrontation is to be avoided."

To nervous allies, those words echo the run-up to the Iraq invasion, which began three years ago today. But Iran is not Iraq. And some experts in the United States — mostly outside the administration — have been thinking the unthinkable, or at least the undiscussable: If all other options are worse, could the world learn to live with a nuclear Iran?

"The reality is that most of us think the Iranians are probably going to get a weapon, or the technology to make one, sooner or later," an administration official acknowledged a few weeks ago, refusing to talk on the record because such an admission amounts to a concession that dragging Iran in front of the United Nations Security Council may prove an exercise in futility. "The optimists around here just hope we can delay the day by 10 or 20 years, and that by that time we'll have a different relationship with a different Iranian government."

A roll of the dice, for sure. Yet is the risk greater than it was when other countries — from the Soviet Union and China to India and Pakistan — defied the United States to join the nuclear club?

And could deterrence, containment and cool calculation of national interest work to restrain Iran as it worked to restrain America and its competitors during the cold war? Or is that false comfort?

"We've lived with Iran as a terror threat for a generation," says Stephen Biddle, the senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, making the case that containment could work again. "Iran has a return address, and states with a return address can be retaliated against."

As for concerns that an Iranian nuclear capability would touch off a Middle East arms race, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia trying to join the club, the West would most likely head them off, said Barry R. Posen, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a Feb. 27 article on The New York Times Op-Ed page. Israel, he said, might finally acknowledge publicly that it has nuclear weapons. But everyone already knows about this capability.

What of the fear that Iran might pass a weapon to Hezbollah or to Al Qaeda in Iraq? Those arguing for a containment strategy say Iran knows that the origins of any detonated bomb would be traced sooner or later, so the mullahs would not be foolish enough to trust proxies with such a weapon.

The Bush administration rejects all such arguments as near madness, especially since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became Iran's president.

"Accommodating a nuclear armed Iran is not in our interests," says R. Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs who will be at the Security Council today to argue for a clear warning to Iran and then a steady escalation of pressure to force it to give up any ability to enrich uranium. "Given the radical nature of Iran under Ahmadinejad and its stated wish to wipe Israel off the map of the world," Mr. Burns continued, "it is entirely unconvincing that we could or should live with a nuclear Iran."

The two views of the Iran threat boil down to this: if Iran is simply a new example of a 60-year-old problem, then classic containment should work in 2016 the way it worked in 1956. But traditional deterrence strategy will not work if Iran is one of the first nightmares of a second nuclear age — in which weapons are pieced together by agents working in the shadows and supplied by networks of private entrenpreneurs like Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear engineer who gave the Iranian nuclear program its start.

In this new era, the argument goes, the best way to head off an attack is to prevent loosely controlled (or devious) countries from acquiring the makings of nuclear bombs in the first place. If an attack is staged not from a missile silo but from a basement or a cargo container, it will take time to pinpoint who deserves the blame. By then, the human cost is already too high and retaliation is no longer certain.

The debate is likely to play out for much of the year, based on a series of guesses about Iran's true intentions, and its capabilities. The list of unknowables is long. They range from the technical to the political, from how long it will take Iran's scientists to get their centrifuges running to who will ultimately prevail in Iran's seemingly endless internal battle over its relationship to the Westernized world.

But getting this right requires projecting what happens to America, Israel and Europe, especially if Iran's power to send the price of oil skyrocketing is enhanced by the confidence that a nuclear arsenal can bring.

The Iranians know exactly what the bomb would make them: the dominant regional power in the Middle East. Iran would become, in a stroke, more powerful than the Saudis, an even greater influence than it is today over a Shiite-controlled Iraq and, arguably, as powerful as Israel. And the better Iran's missile technology becomes, the greater its influence and ability to blackmail.

Bush administration officials who have reviewed the classified assessments of Iran's next moves worry that it would not even have to build a complete bomb to gain leverage. It would just have to make a credible case that it could assemble a weapon on short notice. "For their political needs, that would be enough," said Gary Samore, who was a nonproliferation official in the Clinton administration.

That explains why the Americans have been so adamant about not allowing Iran to conduct even experimental uranium-enrichment technology on its soil, even if it has a right to do so as a signer of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It may also explain why the Iranians are so insistent that they will never give up that right.

The Iranians also know that history suggests they have a good chance of reaching their goal. This is not the first time the Americans have declared that another nation cannot be allowed to unlock the secrets of the atom — and then learned to live with the risk when it did.

In the mid-1960's, President Lyndon Johnson contemplated pre-emptive strikes against sites where China had nuclear installations. "Many today forget that Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao Zedong's China were seen as more threatening in both capabilities and intentions than are today's mullahs in Tehran," Richard K. Betts, a professor of political science at Columbia University, wrote in the most recent issue of The National Interest.

In both cases, though, what seemed at the time like a life-threatening menace morphed into a manageable threat — partly because containment worked, and partly because Soviet and Chinese leaders made shrewd assessments of their real strategic interests.

Both, however, are somewhat flawed comparisons: Iran is no superpower. The cases of Pakistan, India and North Korea may be more instructive.

When Pakistan and India set off tests and countertests in 1998, Washington tried to punish both. That effort didn't extend past 9/11. Mr. Bush needed both countries too much. Today Pakistan is a "major non-NATO ally" with a nuclear force that many in Washington still fear could fall into the wrong hands in the event of a coup. Last month, President Bush gave India the ultimate blessing, agreeing to seek an exemption from Congress that would allow the United States to sell India fuel for its civilian nuclear plants.

Even more to the point is the case of North Korea. As in the case of Iran, Mr. Bush has said the United States cannot "tolerate" North Korea as a nuclear power. But Washington is already tolerating exactly that. John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, told Congress recently that intelligence officials assume that North Korea is telling the truth when it boasts it has produced enough nuclear fuel for several weapons. But no one — least of all its closest neighbors, China and South Korea — dare push it to the brink. They have learned to live with the status quo.

The Iranians are betting that this confrontation — what Graham Allison, a nuclear expert at Harvard, calls a "slow motion Cuban missile crisis" — has a good chance of coming out the same way. If so, the problem may go beyond Iran.

"Remember, Iran is just one instance of the problem, and in Iran's case, containment might work," says Brent Scowcroft, who was the national security adviser to Mr. Bush's father. "But if that happens, I think we are on the way to a world of proliferation like we have not seen before."