The threat from Tehran

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Over the weekend, Richard Clarke wrote an op-ed about Iran that’s perhaps a bit more subtle than was given credit for:

The president recently said that reports of the United States preparing to attack Iran were ”simply ridiculous.” He then quickly added, ”All options are on the table.” … Some planners say such strikes would cause the people to overthrow the mullahs. Actually, if we struck Iran, I think we would unite it, trigger a spasm of terrorist attacks against America and Israel and start another war for which we have no exit strategy. Thus, we need an honest national dialogue now on how much we feel threatened by Iran and what the least-bad approaches to mitigating that threat are.

As Dan Drezner says, the “honest national dialogue” line is usually a cop-out, but in this case there’s really not much honest discussion about, as Clarke says, “how much we feel threatened by Iran.” After all, there’s good reason to think, even if the United States and Europe scrapped together a united front and slapped sanctions on Iran, that Tehran could survive an economic shoot-out with the West. China, for instance, has begun investing heavily in Iran’s oil fields, and there’s every reason to think that a strong sanctions regime from the U.S. and EU could be circumvented thanks to our budding rival to the East.

If sanctions fail, the only “stick” left is invasion, or military strikes against Iran’s reactors. In this week’s New Republic, Lawrence Kaplan reports that there’s a bit of inter-White House feuding over how best to tackle Tehran. The realists think Iran can be persuaded to give up its nuclear program by a “grand bargain”; though at the moment, the Bush administration hasn’t offered Iran anything more than modest economic incentives in exchange for giving up a fuel cycle that Tehran is legally allowed to pursue. The hawk camp, led by Dick Cheney, thinks all negotiations are futile and want to pursue an unspecified “hardline” approach. Meanwhile, a third compromise camp wants to try out negotiations, with the expectation that they’ll fail, so as to buy time while figuring out the best way to deal with Iran. As can be expected, this will probably create a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby negotiations are pursued half-heartedly and actually do fail because everyone involved wants them to fail.

No one, however, seems to be asking the two questions Clarke hints at: First, what if none of these approaches work to disarm Iran, and second, how intolerable a threat is a nuclear Iran? An Iran with the bomb could, after all, feel emboldened to continue sponsoring terrorism, and pursue more aggressive state action around the Middle East, as Pakistan initially did after it went nuclear, sparking the Kargil crisis in 2000. That would be a nightmare scenario. Alternatively, though, a nuclear Iran could end up being contained and deterred, as the USSR was, and perhaps end up becoming a more responsible geostrategic player, as India and Pakistan have of late. There’s also reason to think that a nuclear Iran would be less likely to harbor all those al-Qaeda fighters, since Tehran’s mullahs wouldn’t need them for deterrent value and it’s already a semi-risky bet harboring Salafist jihadis in a Shiite regime.

Those are two possibilities, but it’s worth figuring out which is the more likely. If the threat of a nuclear Iran is high enough to risk destabilizing the region with strikes and attempted coups, then maybe the White House should take that risk, should negotiations fail. If not, perhaps—perhaps—the White House should consider the inevitability of Iran going nuclear and figuring out how best to go from there.

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