Opinion: The gravest national security challenge facing the United States is clearly how to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability. It is also the most urgent.
Conciliation has failed. Diplomacy has failed. Coercion has failed. Covert action has failed. These efforts have no doubt delayed the regime in Tehran, but they have not deterred it. Iran has persisted with its two-track strategy of straight-faced denial that it is intent on becoming a nuclear-armed power and its secret determination to be one. Its stock in trade is deceit and lies.
The collapse last week of a mission of U.N. nuclear experts, after the Iranians denied them permission to inspect a military site and refused to clarify other issues, underscores the need for prompt actions. These should include more forceful sanctions, a strong reassertion of the U.S. military option, and clear moves by the administration to back up the military threat.
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The clock is running on atomic time. Iran is now about to cross the nuclear threshold. In January at its secret works beneath a mountain near the holy city of Qom, it started producing 20 percent enriched uranium. The next step is the 90 percent needed for weaponry. The Iranians have begun moving in more efficient centrifuges that are now so well protected that missile strikes may not be able to affect them.
Iran is on the verge of entering what is referred to as a zone of immunity, and it is also seen close to having the ability to prepare more than one missile-ready device within about three months of a decision to proceed. This is critical because any military operation designed to abort Iran's nuclear efforts after the main facility becomes fully operational would be meaningless or irrelevant: It would be physically impossible to destroy it or so costly as to be prohibitive. The imperative of stopping progress will run into the impossibility of doing so.
Iran's missiles can reach not only Israel but capitals in Western Europe or even Moscow....
The coolest assessment is by U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: "Iran's technical advancement, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthens our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so." At the same time, there is no "eventually" about Iran's drive for offensive missiles. Iran, says Clapper, "has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East and it is expanding the scale, reach, and sophistication of its ballistic missile force, many of which are inherently capable of carrying a nuclear payload." So what have these missiles to do with the development of nuclear power for the "peaceful" purposes Iran professes?
Iran's missiles can reach not only Israel but capitals in Western Europe or even Moscow, a capacity that would give the Jewish state between 10 and 12 minutes warning. For the last several years, the strongest, most consistent pressure on Washington to act against Iran has come from its neighbors in the Arab world. WikiLeaks revealed that America's Arab allies have been just as adamant in private for the past few years as Israel, and they want America to use all means necessary to prevent a nuclear Iran.
According to the leaked documents, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi described Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "Hitler" and said that "all hell will break loose" if Iran went nuclear. Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, was cited as conveying the message from the Saudi king that he wanted the United States to "cut off the head of the snake," referring to Iran's leadership. Further, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States told Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine in 2010 that if the United States allowed Iran to cross the nuclear threshold, the small Arab countries of the Persian Gulf region would have no choice but to leave the American orbit and align themselves with Iran out of self-protection.
Arab leaders know that if Iran succeeds, peace in the Arab world will disappear. This should cause all leaders of the free world to lose sleep, for the Iranians have demonstrated that they are, time and again, willing to pay a steep price to realize their ambitions.
Iran can transfer nuclear materials to terrorists with the same care for peace as it exhibits in supplying thousands of missiles to Hezbollah.
There is a wise axiom, "Do not take the smallest chance of a catastrophic outcome." An Iran led by fanatical, brutal, and millenarian leaders may bring about such an outcome because their radical ideology makes them impervious to any deterrence that we normally think would restrain most countries. Today's president of Iran is said to speak repeatedly about how his actions are influenced by an imam who disappeared hundreds of years ago.
Iran has been consistent in one thing. It has shown consistent hostility to the United States and its allies. It is by all accounts the world's chief sponsor of terrorism. It can transfer nuclear materials to terrorists with the same care for peace as it exhibits in supplying thousands of missiles to Hezbollah. Imagine the havoc it could create in the United States by making small nuclear "dirty" bombs and using suicide attackers to bring them into Manhattan or Los Angeles ports.
President Obama in his inaugural address offered to extend the hand of friendship to nations such as Iran if those leaders would "unclench your fist," and followed it up with a personal letter to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and an appeal on YouTube, including a salutation in Farsi. For that, he got a rant about American imperialism. It is a murderous regime unmoved by reason, resistant to goodwill. Iran was directly responsible for the deaths of many American soldiers in Iraq by supplying guerrillas with high-tech roadside bombs. It is the most implacable enemy of everything that America has tried to accomplish in the Middle East.
Listen to how the regime's founding principles have been described: "We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah," the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 revolution, has been quoted as saying, "for patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam remains triumphant in the rest of the world."
If its nuclear efforts are fulfilled in the next few months, Iran will emerge as the dominant force in the energy-rich Persian Gulf
Look at Iran's history. This was a regime that during its war with Iraq put 100,000 children at risk of death to clear the minefields. Khomeini compiled a list of 500 people to be killed. He sent a hit squad to murder exiles in Germany. The Iranians are strongly suspected of involvement in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 service members, as well as the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans.
As for the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, look to Ahmad Vahidi, who today is Iran's defense minister. Recently the Iranians tried in the clumsiest way to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. This should be a wake-up call, for it reflects that Tehran thinks it can continue to attack American interests with impunity. Iran's identity is wrapped up in its opposition to the United States to the point where Iranian leaders do not seek any accommodation with us.
If its nuclear efforts are fulfilled in the next few months, Iran will emerge as the dominant force in the energy-rich Persian Gulf, threatening to destabilize moderate Arab regimes, subvert the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, embolden radicals, and blow up the Middle East peace process, while increasing its support for terrorism and proxy warfare across the region.
What has been the response of the United States and much of the rest of the world? They have allowed Iran to cross one red line after another without consequences. As Ahmadinejad has noted, "A few years ago, they [the West] said we had to completely stop all our nuclear activities. Now, look where we are today." Every red line the United States has drawn exposes that we have been bluffing. No wonder the world sees the U.S. leadership as made up of hollow threats and a weakening will toward Iran's ambitions.
If America takes the military option off the table, no one will be able to come to terms with a nuclear Iran.
Who will trust U.S. security guarantees if America fails to stop Iran from going nuclear? Those who advise countries to wait until later may end up discovering that "later is too late," as the Israeli defense minister has put it. A nuclear Iran would be unlike any other nuclear power the world has known because it is a messianic, apocalyptic regime. A Bipartisan Policy Center report last month by former Sen. Charles Robb and retired four-star Gen. Chuck Wald noted, "Iran has advanced dramatically in its quest for a nuclear weapon." It concluded, "At this late date, it is only the threat of force, combined with sanctions, that affords any realistic hope of an acceptable diplomatic resolution."
(Disclosure: I am on the task force of the center's National Security Project, which produced the report.)
The credible threat of military action against Iran's nuclear program is the only way to pressure the regime to negotiate in good faith, and that threat can come only from the United States or Israel. If America takes the military option off the table, no one will be able to come to terms with a nuclear Iran. After all, the Bipartisan Policy Center report pointed out, it was fear of military action that led Iran to briefly halt its nuclear program after U.S. forces toppled Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 2003. But this means that the United States must reveal its willingness to use force.
The United States thus faces the paradox of the evil of two lessers: The cost and risks of military action against Iran may well be high, but not as high as the cost of a nuclear Iran. And Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have said that in the event of a disruption of Iranian oil, they will fill the gap as best they can.
The world now realizes that the Obama administration has abandoned the only strategy that would ensure the prevention of a nuclear Iran. It is merely playing a game of words. Witness the change in administration officials' language. They no longer use the word "unacceptable" as applied to Iran's program. They use the word "isolate," shifting the focus to managing rather than neutralizing the Iranian nuclear threat. This suggests they are unwilling to use military means to prevent a nuclear Iran--in other words, a policy of containment. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went out of his way on television to say that "it's not prudent at this point to attack Iran." The president's earlier pledge "to use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon" is now in the dustbin, as the United States seeks ways "to isolate" and "increase the pressure upon the Iranian regime."
The administration has not even pressed for full-fledged sanctions against Iran's central bank, a move backed by all U.S. senators. Its lack of support for a military option has undercut the ability to achieve broader international support for sanctions, such that now other countries, such as China, are undermining the impact of our sanctions. The United States is leading diplomatic processes to nowhere while the Iranians are successfully playing for time, and time is on their side. In fact, since Obama has been in office, the United States seems to have devoted more energy to pressuring Israel against contemplating a military response than to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It has publicly highlighted and privately warned Israeli leaders of the risks of an Israeli military strike, despite the concern that the window for a viable military strike could close in 2012, at which point the Iranian regime will be able to complete its nuclear program without any effective disruption and on a timetable that it chooses.
Tehran's rulers believe the United States will fail to apply adequate pressure out of concern that it would cause a spike in oil prices…and hence the forthcoming presidential election
The United States hasn't even shown the credible preparations such as military exercises and deployment in the region. Yet it is America that must act and continue to provide a security blanket to guarantee the security of our Gulf state allies including Qatar, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. This means a more extensive embargo on Iran than the one we imposed on Cuba at the time of the missile crisis. Timelines are now critical, for we will surely pass the point after which an attack could not derail Iran's nuclear capacity, given that the facilities for its so-called peaceful program are so heavily fortified.
What is at stake here is too menacing for the world to assume or delude itself that Iran will somehow change course under these conditions. The latest attempt by Iran to substitute talks for deeds is a dispatch of a 200-word letter agreeing to a renewal of talks with the major powers on its nuclear program. The talks will be a test of whether the Iranians continue their policy of substituting talks for actions so that they can keep the centrifuges spinning and complete their sprint to the finish line.
If Iran succeeds, it would expose the Obama administration to doubts about its resolve to shape events in the Middle East. The administration's only hope, and it is a slim one, is that Iran's leaders become concerned about losing political control as popular discontent increases over the sanctions' effects, and would then be willing to recalculate the costs and benefits of their nuclear activities and perhaps become receptive to negotiating constraints in exchange for the removal of sanctions. But Tehran's rulers believe the United States will fail to apply adequate pressure out of concern that it would cause a spike in oil prices that would affect the domestic U.S. economy and hence the forthcoming presidential election.
Virtually every expert on the Middle East believes that Iran will use a nuclear weapon if it is able to gain one. When historians review this period, they will compare the performance of our leadership to that of either British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who failed to confront Hitler, or his successor Winston Churchill, who saved the West when he had the courage to stand up to the fanaticism of the Nazi regime.
Mort Zuckerman's Op-ed originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune on March 2, 2012.