The World Cannot Live With the Threat of a Nuclear Iran

Film: Atomic Jihad

By Mortimer B. Zuckerman | March 23, 2009

Iran is making fools of everyone. Even as it lies about how close it is to acquiring nuclear missiles, it continues to menace the political order throughout the Middle East, pressing on with rocketry and rearming Hamas and Hezbollah. And that mischief is nothing to what it will do if it is allowed to become a nuclear power.

Nuclear Iran will be a threat to U.S. national security, worldwide energy security, the efficacy of multilateralism, and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Having defied the world so brazenly, it might become overconfident enough to believe that its conventional or proxy forces could operate without fear of serious reprisals from the United States, Israel, or any other power. It will be emboldened to use terrorism to threaten or subvert others in the area—especially those who might be inclined to pursue peace with Israel. Pro-Western Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the gulf states sense the Iranian threat, and if Iran succeeds in going nuclear, they may decide to join Iran rather than fight it. And Iran, through its support for Hezbollah and Hamas and the Baath Party in Iraq, has the capacity to put direct pressure on Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinians, and the Iraqis. Tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands would join radical Islamist groups in the belief that Islamism is on the march.

Fundamentally, a nuclear Iran represents a unique threat. The fear of mutually assured destruction has long restrained other nuclear powers. There is a real risk that the Iranian leadership is not rational, that driven by its mad hatreds, it will act in ways that are unreasonable, even self-destructive. Anti-Americanism is a cornerstone of the ideology of this Islamic state. The virulence of Iran’s hostility is impervious to reason. “Death to America!” has provoked the Iranian street for over a quarter of a century and is the venom upon which an entire generation of Iranians has been raised. The dominant Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reiterates that Iran’s differences with America are more fundamental than political differences.

Whatever may happen to the leadership over time, the inescapable fact is that the United States just cannot take the risk of nuclear missiles in the hands of a clerical regime that preaches genocide. It is pathetic that appeasement continues to beguile.

Every U.S. administration since 1979—yes, including the past one—has reached out to the Iranians. To adopt President Obama’s inaugural metaphor, every open hand has met a clenched fist. Jimmy Carter could not obtain the release of American hostages illegally seized in Tehran. Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, failed in a secret mission to release the American hostages held by Iran’s Hezbollah agents in Beirut. Brent Scowcroft, George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser, made no progress. The Clinton administration’s dozen gestures in 1999 were spurned. Clinton even lifted some sanctions in the interest of a “grand bargain,” to be made public through an “accidental” meeting between Clinton and the Iranian president in the corridors of the United Nations, only to have it canceled at the last minute.

It is the same dismal story with five years of efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “We haven’t really moved one inch toward addressing the issues,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The lie to the Iranian pretense that this oil-rich country needs nuclear power is manifest in every action: It has refused every compromise, including Russia’s offer to provide enriched nuclear material for use in civilian nuclear plants.

It is not that the Iranians don’t want to talk—they do. That’s how they play for time. Quite simply, they seek the technical know-how that will enable them to produce nuclear weapons in a short period. They are in the midst of building stockpiles of low-enriched uranium from which they can produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear device in a matter of months—a breakout capability. They are adding centrifuges faster than the U.N. Security Council can step up the pressure and are learning about the intricate art of connecting a large number of centrifuges to a vast amount of pipe work, while maintaining everything in a vacuum. Getting centrifuges to run is not the challenge; getting them to run as a single entity is, and they are mastering it. Simultaneously, they are enhancing their ability to launch long-range ballistic missiles, a potential delivery system of nuclear weapons. Alas, this is also a living testimony to the failure of the world community to curb the trade of missile technology that Iran lacks on its own. What madness it is to empower Iran to do what it most likes to do—hold hostages, in this case, the entire region. The clock is ticking inexorably, a race against time that Iran is winning, getting nearer every day to presenting the world with an Iranian bomb as a fait accompli.

What can be done? Alas, the U.N. has failed to persuade countries like Russia and China to cooperate in a rigorous sanctions effort. Far from it, they are actually profiting from the sanctions’ policy by doing deals in the energy field and selling Iran weapons. Russia and, to a lesser extent, China have made it clear they will block meaningful sanctions by the U.N.—even though effective economic sanctions and measures to isolate the regime may make the difference between a diplomatic deal and a nuclear standoff. But, to date, neither economic distress nor additional sanctions have changed the Iranian calculation.

Fortunately, Iran has an economic Achilles’ heel: It is dependent on imported gasoline for 40 percent of its refined fuel. Furthermore, the country requires new investments in its energy industry to maintain current production. Reduced oil prices have put a great strain on its economy. Discontent is growing among a citizenry that is suffering from high inflation, unemployment, and poverty. Clearly, it makes sense to play on this fundamental weakness. We must press harder to coordinate four measures:

  • An arms embargo.
  • A ban on exports to Iran of gas and other refined products to cripple transport.
  • A global boycott of the entire banking system of Iran, instead of helping it as European banks are.
  • A prohibition on Western countries supplying spare parts to the oil industry.

The object, clearly, is not to punish the Iranian people but to force their leaders to act in the best interests of their people and of regional peace. It is the Iranian people who stand to gain the most from the cultural and economic liberations that would follow a sound agreement. And by that I mean a package deal that includes maximum safeguards and control of the nuclear program and the complete cessation of enrichment activities inside Iran: There is no combination of international inspections or co-ownership of enrichment facilities that would provide sufficient assurances that Iran is not producing weapons-grade fissile material.

Before President Obama engages in “aggressive personal diplomacy,” as he put it, he would be well advised to allow Iran’s economic crisis to take its toll, in the hopes that an economic tailspin will leave the leadership more vulnerable to economic sanctions than it has been in the past 30 years and therefore more ready to come to terms. But there is no certainty that economic sanctions will work in time, leaving us with two unacceptable options: living with a nuclear Iran or acting militarily to prevent it.

The Iranian leaders’ judgment is that the current administration is ready to let diplomacy run on and on and on…and will anyway be incapable of making a military move while wrestling with the fallout from our domestic financial collapse. For this reason, many in Iran believe that the United States may be reconciling itself to the idea of living with an Iranian nuclear missile—even though it would be in the hands of an expressly genocidal regime.

Who would have imagined that President Obama may well determine his historical legacy and reputation on the basis of the way he deals with Iran?

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