The United States must figure out and articulate its real strategic objectives with regard to the Iranian nuclear program. At present, its actions and rhetoric are often as conflicted as Iran's. At times the Bush administration has spoken as if halting Iran's nuclear program was essential to halting a global rush to nuclear arms. At the same time, however, the administration entered into a deal with India to give it all the benefits of an established nuclear power without any attempt to roll back or limit its nuclear-weapons program. At other times, the language of the administration has taken on the tone of seeking change in the Iranian regime. When backing Israel's military attack against a facility in Syria that was said to be a nuclear reactor under construction, the president declared that the attack sent "a message to Iran and the world for that matter about just how destabilizing nuclear proliferation would be in the Middle East." U.S. diplomacy has not only been silent as to how it sees Iran fitting into any type of regional-security arrangement, but it has refused to address these issues until Iran halts its uranium-enrichment program.
Will the Bush administration in the end decide to encourage and facilitate an Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities by opening a passage across Iraqi airspace and establishing a combat air-patrol barrier to any Iranian hot pursuit? Will the Bush administration calculate that, just as the McCain campaign says a terrorist attack on the United States would help their candidate, military action against Iran might provide a decisive advantage to a lagging McCain campaign? Or will President Bush-who criticized the Clinton administration for not taking decisive action against al-Qaeda and leaving the known growing threat from Osama bin Laden to the next administration-decide that he will not pass on the Iranian nuclear threat to the next administration, but will take decisive action to destroy or at least seriously disrupt it?
THE CONTEXT within which these national strategies and decisions are interacting is being reshaped by two factors. First, oil prices have exploded, greatly enriching Iran and making clear to the West the pain and destruction to their economies and political structures that could come from a serious disruption to the flow of oil from Iran. Second is Iran's belief that it has gained a strategic advantage against the United States, as a result of the United States being tied down in Iraq, and against Israel from the tactical blunting, if not defeat, of the Israeli military in Lebanon.
Politicians often have a difficult time drafting policies to deal with unpleasant events prior to their actual occurrence. Most within official Washington have echoed Senator John McCain's (R-AZ) statement to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that "Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons poses an unacceptable risk, a danger we cannot allow." While not all would agree with Senator McCain's assessment that the only thing worse than a military attack by the United States or Israel on Iran would be Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, there seem to be few in the mainstream of American politics ready to go on the record with a plan for "the day after" that does not involve military action.
In one sense this is not surprising, and even historically consistent with the reaction to other states that acquired nuclear weapons after the initial use of such weapons in World War II. We now know that General Curtis LeMay and other air-force officers advocated a preemptive attack on the Soviet Union before it could acquire nuclear weapons. As China approached the nuclear threshold the Soviets sought to determine whether the United States would join it in a preemptive strike. In the Clinton administration, military action against North Korea was only stopped by the diplomatic intervention of President Jimmy Carter.
It is hard, however, to understand why so many in the case of Iran invite either the humiliation of having to back down from their previous unequivocal declarations of the necessity of an attack in response to an Iranian nuclear weapon, or the obvious economic and political disasters that would follow from such an action. This is even harder to understand when you realize that as a nation we have a lot of experience in crafting policies and security guarantees that have actually prevented states from gaining any decisive advantages from acquiring nuclear weapons. Think Soviet Union, China and North Korea. Other states have largely on their own decided that nuclear arms really do not offer them any real benefits even after they had acquired such weapons (South Africa) or embarked on the road to such weapons (Argentina, Brazil, Sweden, Switzerland and Taiwan).
What seems to be most absent from the current discussion about Iran's nuclear future, whatever it is and whenever it arrives, is the response to two questions. First, what policies will limit any advantage, political or military, that Iran might gain from such weapons? Second, how do we begin to craft, with all the states of the region-certainly including both Israel and Iran-political, economic and security arrangements that recognize their varied interests and concerns and their often very different perspectives of what these are? In the end, we need to decide how we can perform damage control and create arrangements that take into account states' varied interests.
Figuring these things out is really not intellectually tough, not rocket science. We survived the cold war and reshaped Europe from three centuries of nation-states often at war with each other into a rapidly coalescing and even expanding region where armed conflict has receded into a past that is hard to remember and impossible to recreate. Japan, China, India, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia all represent something far different and beyond the imagination of their citizens and most outsiders fifty years ago. So what is needed now is to begin the process of discussion, consultation, planning and acting that will lay the groundwork for the region's future-one far different from either the past marked by conflict or the current path toward a regional conflagration that may very well involve nuclear weapons.
President Charles de Gaulle of France is said to have pronounced that the United States would never be willing to respond to a Soviet nuclear attack on Paris with actions that would threaten the destruction of an American city such as Chicago. De Gaulle drew the conclusion that Europeans would have to build their own nuclear forces to meet this threat. The United States and the rest of Western Europe did not accept de Gaulle's proclamation as fact. Quite the opposite, they created policies and military deployments that convinced the Soviets that any attack on Western Europe would result in a devastating American reply. In this shadow of security, Western Europe thrived and built new institutions, and eventually the Soviet Union collapsed. Why is it not feasible, along with all of the states in the Middle East, to create security policies that guarantee acts of aggression will not be allowed to threaten any state's survival while beginning to build the economic institutions and policies that can create a future where war seems impossible?
What is hard is the actual act of stepping off the shaky, and probably sinking, ship that we now stand upon to construct a very different vessel. This is one of those times in history where will is more important than brilliance, where determination to shape a different future is more vital than experience in the rituals of the past.
David Kay led the UN inspection after the first Gulf War that uncovered the previously unknown Iraqi nuclear program and, after the most recent Gulf War, led the CIA's Iraq Survey Group that determined that there had been no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction at the time of the war. He is now a private consultant in Washington, DC.Essay Types: Essay