The “Iran problem” can be summed up as follows: The Iranians really seem to be building nuclear weapons and, while they’re not there yet (an important caveat), they have everything they need to get there soon. It would be seriously bad news if they took that final step. Yet a pre-emptive strike on their nuclear facilities would set back their program only slightly, boost popular support for their regime, and likely unleash a spree of terrorist attacks and economic retaliation with devastating effects worldwide.
So what to do if, despite all the sanctions and pressures, Iran goes ahead and builds a bomb? There’s only one option, really, and it’s worked pretty well against much mightier regimes—calm, vigorous, sustained containment.
In this case, vigorous containment might also include stepping up pressure against the Syrian regime of Bashir Assad, as the European and Arab allies are already doing. Syria is Iran’s gateway to points west in the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon. A change of regime in Damascus, fomented by powers in the region, would do a great deal to weaken Iran, both its reach and its support at home.
Let’s back up for a moment.
For those who believe the Iranians are pursuing nuclear energy strictly for electrical power, take a look at this week’s much-publicized report by the International Atomic Energy Agency—or the summary and analysis of it in plain (well, plainer) English by David Albright and his associates at the Institute for Science and International Security. A pithier précis still: This is not a repeat of the Iraqi WMD hype.
Even so, one might ask: So what? Israel possesses up to a couple hundred atomic bombs. If Iran nukes Israel, Israel can blow the place to smithereens; therefore, by this argument, Iran will be deterred, so its nuclear weapons would be useless.
The problem with this argument is that nuclear weapons are also good for brandishing. It’s extremely unlikely, for the reasons stated above, that the Iranians would launch a nuclear attack against Israel or anybody else. But they could use the nukes as a cover for stepping up other means of aggression and intimidation across the region.
Think of it this way. If Saddam Hussein had finished building a nuclear bomb before he invaded Kuwait in 1990, it is unlikely that George H.W. Bush and James Baker could have assembled or sustained the vast coalition that led to the ouster and defeat of his army. If Muammar Qaddafi had completed his nuclear-weapons project, rather than turned them over to the British and Americans, it is unlikely that NATO would have dared to pummel his ground forces, or done much to support the rebels, earlier this year.
Nuclear-deterrence theorists have phrases for this: “strategic blackmail” or “escalation dominance.” In a serious international showdown, the side that can keep threatening to escalate the conflict is the side that usually wins. Nukes not only deter countries from launching a nuclear first strike; they can also deter countries from responding to a conventional attack on (or even the intimidation of) an ally.
The way to respond to this sort of blackmail is to create the means that allow it to be ignored. For instance, if Iran does build a small nuclear arsenal, then makes demands on Israel, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, or whatever—or unleashes Hezbollah to wreak unprecedented damage—and then says, “If you don’t do what I say, I have these nuclear weapons in my pocket and I’m crazy enough to use them,” a good answer might be: “We have the 5th Fleet in Bahrain, a couple of aircraft carriers attached to Central Command, a few air bases within range, some troops and special-ops guys in Kuwait, and a big bag of neat tricks at Cyber Command—and we will not hesitate to launch air strikes against all your military targets, wreck your digital networks for years to come, and send in commandos to blow up your palaces and bunkers.”
Or something like that. (This is one good reason, by the way, to keep some troops and military infrastructure in Kuwait, as Pentagon officials have proposed, after the last brigades leave Iraq.)
In other words, we could say to Iran explicitly, and display through our presence, “Your nukes don’t give you escalation dominance.”
This doesn’t fully solve the problem, of course. Containment and deterrence worked as well as they did in the Cold War, in part, because the Soviet leaders, wretched as they were in many ways, valued stability and (especially by the time of the atomic age) were in no way messianic. This isn’t true of the current Iranian regime. Another reason containment worked is that, over the years, the two superpowers developed early-warning radar systems and coded locks on their warheads. There’s no guarantee such things will come with an Iranian arsenal. Finally, Moscow and Washington were thousands of miles apart. If the radar screwed up (on several occasions, a flock of geese was mistaken for a missile attack), the commanders had half an hour to decide what to do. Tehran and Tel Aviv are five minutes apart. A tense situation and a false warning could trigger catastrophe.
For a lot of reasons, then, it would be best if Iran could somehow be dissuaded from building nuclear weapons.
Mitt Romney, the leading Republican presidential candidate, has an op-ed article in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, “I Won’t Let Iran Get Nukes,” in which he contends that President Obama has “shredded” his credibility on this issue and “conveyed an image of American weakness.” A Romney administration, he writes, would have “a very different policy.” He would impose “a new round of far tougher economic sanctions … speak out forcefully on behalf of Iranian dissidents … back up American diplomacy with a very real and very credible military option … restore the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously … [and] increase military assistance to Israel.” These actions would “send an unequivocal signal to Iran that the United States, acting in concert with allies, will never permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.”
If that’s true, this signal has already been sent. Exactly what “tougher economic sanctions,” beyond the extensive ones that the United States and the European Union have already put in place, does Romney propose? He doesn’t say. As for Iranian dissidents, helping them covertly might be a good idea, but experience shows that speaking out “forcefully” on their behalf only winds up getting every reform advocate thrown in jail.
Finally, what is this “very real and very credible military option” of which Romney speaks, and how does it differ from options that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have already drawn up? Why do we need aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf simultaneously, when there are already two carrier groups dedicated to Central Command (well within firing range of Iran), in addition to all the other air, naval, and ground forces in the area? According to GlobalSecurity.org, the airplanes onboard one carrier have enough weapons to hit more than 1,000 targets in one collective flight. Isn’t that enough?
The Iran problem is very difficult, maybe the knottiest that the West faces today. Nobody knows what to do about it; every proposed response (including mine) carries risks and uncertainties. Romney is doing nothing but exploiting a sensitive national-security issue politically by pretending that he has some novel solution.
Some Republican should tell him that George W. Bush looked into this when he was president. Dick Cheney was pushing hard for an air strike (U.S., Israeli, or both) on the Iranian facilities. The Joint Chiefs war-gamed the scenarios. In some of them, the first couple of days looked good, then all hell broke loose, and finally the Iranians restored and repaired the damage in a couple years, with more support from other nations and their own people. Bush looked at these results and decided not to do it.
Even Romney’s op-ed piece doesn’t propose an actual attack. He doesn’t propose anything different from what we’re already doing, except for a couple of things that would make things worse or simply waste scarce resources.