Thinking the Unthinkable on Iran

The question of what to do about Iran's nuclear program is a policy riddle of the first order for the United States and the world.

The question of what to do about Iran's nuclear program is a policy riddle of the first order for the United States and the world. It also signals a turning point in the nuclear story, requiring fresh thinking about the recent evolution of nuclear danger, about the strategies appropriate for dealing with it and even about the very origin and nature of the entire dilemma posed by nuclear weapons.

In the aftermath of the recent talks in Washington between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama, it seems likely that for the time being--perhaps for the rest of this election season--there will be no attack on Iran's nuclear facilities by either the United States or Israel. Iran has agreed to meet with a six-power group led by the European Union's foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, to discuss a diplomatic resolution to the dispute. Attention now shifts to those talks, which will be conducted in the shadow of severe economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the United Nations Security Council.

But there was another result, no less important. Time apparently was won for diplomacy, but a high price was paid. President Obama unequivocally embraced the use of military force, if diplomacy fails, as the ultimate recourse for preventing Iran from turning its nuclear fuel enrichment program into a nuclear weapons program. The president left no ambiguity. He said that a nuclear-armed Iran would be "unacceptable," and he committed the full prestige of the United States to preventing it. "Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment," he told AIPAC, the right-wing lobby that supports the policies of Israel's Likud government. "I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." This bridge-burning declaration was fateful. At a stroke, it removed from consideration the nuclear live-and-let-live policies the United States practiced throughout the cold war toward the Soviet Union and other nuclear powers, including China.

In addition, Obama specified war as the means for guaranteeing his objective. He told AIPAC, "As I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests." For extra clarity, he said, "I do not bluff."

What immediately strikes one about the shape of this policy evolution is how sharply the choice of "options" has been narrowed. Obama has repeatedly said that "all options are on the table," meaning that force may be used. Yet other options, starting with containment, were dropping off the table one after another. By the time Netanyahu departed, Obama seemed to have only two options left: should negotiations fail, will the United States strike Iran now or later? Will it strike once Iran has crossed a certain "red line" or only after it has crossed a slightly different red line?

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How did this shrinkage occur? How has the president allowed himself to be restricted to variations on the theme of who should launch the attack and when? Domestic politics is one reason. The choice of AIPAC as the venue for Obama's declaration was telling. Before Netanyahu's state visit, Israeli officials had been using interviews with American journalists to deliver a threatening message. They suggested that if the United States did not attack Iran, Israel would--and soon, even without American concurrence. Israeli officials even suggested a timeline for the attack. The defense minister, Ehud Barak, told the New York Times he feared that in about a year Iran would enter an "immunity zone," after which an Israeli attack could no longer be successful in rolling back Iran's nuclear program; therefore the attack must come sooner than that. By implication, the United States would have to attack within the year if it wished to stop Israel from acting unilaterally, with all the adverse regional and global consequences that would follow.

There were, it is true, reasons to doubt that Israel's commitment to attack was firm. Some of the officials making the threats had made them before. For instance, in 2010 they had told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic that the deadline for a possible attack was March 2011. But of course that never materialized. More recently Goldberg has suggested that the Israeli threats were "huge gusts of words." It seemed possible, therefore, that the Israeli policy was not that Israel attack Iran but that the United States attack Iran, and that the threats of Israeli attack were designed to produce this result--to inveigle the United States onto a one-way highway to war in a vehicle with no reverse gear.

And Israel's clout, amplified as it is by Republican support for a militarized policy, is enough to render such an ambition realistic. It's been the rule in American politics for more than a half-century that Democratic presidents, no matter how warlike, are under permanent suspicion of being "soft" on one enemy or another. The Israel lobby and its allies, including some of those on the presidential campaign trail, took up this cry against Obama. The president's re-election is clearly one of the stakes on the table in the Iranian crisis. On the one hand, he wants to avoid looking "weak." On the other hand, he wants to avoid a war in the near term, which would have disastrous consequences for his re-election. The deal that was reached--no war now, with a vow of war later if negotiations fail--threaded this needle.

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Yet currents deeper than contemporary political calculation are also at work. A clue to these is the remarkable, unexpected similarity, noted by many observers, between Obama's policy on Iran and George W. Bush's policy on Iraq a decade ago. As Bush did, Obama suspects a country of developing nuclear weapons. As Bush did, he deems that unacceptable. As Bush did, he rules out the live-and-let-live solution of containment. As Bush did, he identifies military force as the ultimate solution. Most important, as Bush did, he sees the particular crisis in question (Iraq for Bush, Iran for Obama) as a skirmish in the larger global cause of stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

As Tom Engelhardt has pointed out at, Obama is an even purer exponent of this policy than was Bush. For whereas Bush was at pains, however implausibly, to trace a connection between the offending country (in his case, Iraq) and the direct defense of the United States (even resorting to the outlandish claim that Iraqi drones might attack American soil), Obama summons up no such immediate threats and relies unreservedly on the overall nonproliferation argument as his basis for war. We can hear him striking this note in a recent interview he gave Goldberg, who asked the president whether it would be necessary to make war on Iran even if Israel weren't in the picture. Obama's answer was affirmative: nonproliferation objectives alone were sufficient. In his AIPAC speech he explained, "A nuclear-armed Iran would thoroughly undermine the nonproliferation regime that we've done so much to build."

Bush accompanied his policy on Iraq with a great deal of neo-imperialist rhetoric that is absent from Obama's statements, but the fundamentals have been the same--a militarization of disarmament leading to a policy of what could be called disarmament wars. Disarmament wars threaten or occur when force becomes the chosen instrument for preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Yet to conclude that Obama merely inherited this policy from Bush would be too simple, for Bush, in spite of all his preoccupation with 9/11, was not its originator, either. That distinction goes to Bill Clinton, who in a widely forgotten episode went to the brink of war in 1993 to prevent North Korea from reprocessing plutonium for nuclear weapons. All the elements familiar to us from the Iraq and Iran crises were present: a country that threatens to go nuclear (and did so in 2006), international sanctions pursuant to UN resolutions, quarrels with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, escalating pressure from a US-led "international community," threats of force, risk of large-scale war and, finally, last-ditch diplomatic efforts. The diplomacy, which proved successful, was undertaken by former President Jimmy Carter, who inserted himself into the negotiations at the final moment, traveling to North Korea and brokering a deal. But before that happened, the Clinton administration gave serious consideration to an array of large-scale military attacks, called the "Osirak option," after the 1981 Israeli attack on a nuclear reactor in Iraq. Inasmuch as there was uncertainty even at that early date about whether North Korea already might possess nuclear weapons, the potential war could have been a nuclear war.

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In other words, disarmament wars are not the invention of Obama or even Bush; they have been "on the table" of US policy for almost two decades. The fact is that after the cold war ended the United States, by an almost unnoticed cumulative process, turned for the first time in the nuclear age to a policy of using force to stop proliferation.

This change, though little noticed, sharply reversed a longstanding policy of a precisely opposite character. All previous nonproliferation efforts by the United States, or any country for that matter (the exception that proved the rule was Israel's Osirak attack), had been conducted by political means alone, mostly diplomacy. No president had resorted to force to stop any country from going nuclear. The global triumph of this universal policy had been the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), opened for signature in 1968, under which five nations (the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China) were permitted to go on possessing nuclear weapons while all others, today numbering 184, voluntarily renounced them. The double standard was tolerated because the five nuclear weapons states promised in Article VI of the treaty to eventually get rid of their arsenals.

This grand consolidation of nonproliferation by diplomatic means was largely prompted by a proliferation crisis that in many respects resembles those of Iran and North Korea today: the first Chinese nuclear test, in October 1964. At that time, China's head of state, Mao Zedong, was the Saddam Hussein or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of his day. In Western eyes, he was an irresponsible, extremist head of state who could not be trusted with nuclear weapons. (Soviet leaders were by then considered comparatively sober and sensible.) Mao, indeed a leader of radical bent, had made shockingly casual references to nuclear slaughter. For instance, he said, "As for China, if the imperialists unleash war on us, we may lose more than 300 million people. So what?" (However, as soon as he got the bomb, Mao adopted extremely cautious nuclear policies, which have been continued by China to this day.)

As the scholar Francis Gavin has shown, the Chinese test led the United States to launch a full-scale, government-wide examination of nonproliferation policies. Disarmament war--today's choice--was considered and rejected. Instead the United States adopted the diplomatic policies that eventually led to the NPT. These were continued unbroken until the end of the cold war.

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Why was this policy, which led to the renunciation of nuclear weapons by 184 countries, abandoned? Why was an era universally recognized as a time of unrelenting tension (the cold war) accompanied by peaceful nonproliferation policies, while a period of comparative relaxation (the post-cold war period) was accompanied by warlike ones?

Certainly one reason was the widely accepted idea following the Soviet collapse that the United States, as the world's "sole superpower," possessing unchallengeable military superiority, was in a position to dictate to the world. The lesson that a postcolonial world was resistant to American military power, indeed to any bullying by great powers, was forgotten. But another, more important reason had to do with the evolution of nuclear danger itself. From the very earliest days of the nuclear age, knowledgeable people, particularly the atomic scientists of the Manhattan Project, had understood that proliferation was not an incidental feature of the nuclear predicament; it was its essence. They had only to look at their own numbers, which included refugees from some half-dozen countries, to know that what they could do with the first nuclear explosion in New Mexico others would eventually be able to do elsewhere. The first Soviet test, in 1949, confirmed their belief. They knew that nuclear danger stems from scientific findings, and that it is in the nature of such findings to spread. And there was no limit to this spread. Over time, it must extend to all nations. This was true of the vacuum tube, radar and antibiotics, and it is true of the nuclear bomb. That was its destiny. Like the rain in the Sermon on the Mount, nuclear know-how descends on the just and the unjust alike.

This does not mean that every country will build nuclear weapons, but it does mean that every country (and some groups that are not countries) will be able to build nuclear weapons if it so chooses. Today the number that can is estimated to be upwards of fifty, and climbing. A conclusion follows: if there is to be safety in the nuclear age, it would be guaranteed not because countries cannot make the bomb but because they have chosen not to--as so many have under the NPT, including South Africa, Argentina, Brazil and Libya. Moreover, that choice must not be merely a passing affair; it must be a sustained choice, a choice for the long run.

In the first decades of the nuclear age, however, these elemental truths faded from sight. One reason was that although proliferation of the relevant know-how was unstoppable, it was also slow. For some decades, nuclear technology was within the reach only of the greatest powers, who cultivated the illusion that what came to be called "the nuclear club" could be confined to them. The NPT's double standard, dividing the world into two classes of nations--the nuclear weapons states and the nonnuclear weapons states--also reflected this illusion. More important was the cold war, which set in motion the rise of the colossal American and Soviet world-smashing arsenals, which came to define what nuclear danger mainly was. The nuclear dilemma thus came to wear what can be called a bipolar disguise. Its multipolar essence was concealed. In the presence of the unlimited danger posed by the two superpowers, proliferation--a word that was restricted to mean smaller powers that might aspire to the club--seemed like a secondary concern. Nuclear danger indeed became so thoroughly associated with the cold war that when that conflict ended, many made the mistake of imagining that nuclear danger had ended, too. They could not perceive that the danger was only then beginning to approach its mature form, destined from its inception, of arising at all points of the compass, and that this emerging peril required a rethinking of nuclear policy as deep as any undertaken in the nuclear age.

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Therefore, it was with a certain surprise that the policy-makers discovered that nuclear danger was by no means a thing of the past after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989--something brought sharply to their attention by decisions taken in such places as Pyongyang, Delhi, Islamabad and Tehran. The bomb, formerly a superpower monopoly reserved for the globe's elite, was now spreading to the back alleys of the world, as had been predicted long ago. Any ruffian might get his hands on it.

It was in this atmosphere that the long, fruitful tradition of disarmament by diplomacy was shelved and the policy of disarmament by force so thoughtlessly adopted. The nuclear age had reached a crossroads. The end of the cold war had pulled the rug out from under the double standard. The nuclear powers, then numbering six (counting Israel's covert arsenal) faced a choice: join the large club of the non-nuclear weapons states, making it universal, or cling to the double standard and start patrolling its borders with force. The nuclear powers, led by the United States, chose force.

It was the wrong choice--as wrong as the choice for the NPT had been right in the 1960s. The new policy was singularly ill adapted to the developing realities. The requirement of the new era was for countries to make enduring commitments to renunciation of nuclear weapons. But force, in its very nature, can be only a quick fix, and often not even that. The outlook for force in Iran illustrates the problems very well. Everyone agrees that at most, airstrikes can retard Iran's nuclear program by only a year or two. There seems every likelihood that the day after the first bombs fell, Iran would withdraw from the NPT, expel the IAEA inspectors and inaugurate a nuclear weapons program, which it would disperse and move underground to elude further destruction from the air.

Thus, far from providing a solution to a proliferation problem, war with Iran would almost certainly precipitate an immediate proliferation catastrophe. President Obama has articulated his nightmare that a nuclear-armed Iran would touch off a chaotic nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Yet a military strike would likely trigger an Iranian crash program to build the bomb (just as Israel's 1981 strike goaded Saddam Hussein to do likewise, as the world discovered after the US invasion of 1991). Why would other countries in the Middle East wait for Iran to succeed? In other words, disarmament war, in Iran or elsewhere, is likely to bring on the very result it is meant to prevent.

Given these realities, the only serious military policy would be the overthrow of the Iranian government and long-term occupation of the country, which alone could produce a more lasting result. Regime change is the necessary corollary to any disarmament war worthy of the name. But merely to mention such a harebrained, reckless, destructive and self-destructive idea as an American occupation of Iran, especially in the aftermath of the Iraq fiasco, is immediately to reject it. What is even more certain is that folly of this kind, unworkable even in a single case, can never provide the basis for the kind of global nonproliferation policy that the world so badly needs. (Obama, let it be said, hinted at awareness of the futility of his newly militarized policy when he remarked to Goldberg in the Atlantic interview, "Our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table.")

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Fortunately, an alternative nonproliferation policy is ready to hand. It is to return to, extend, deepen and carry to its logical destination the previous strategy of nonproliferation and arms control by diplomatic and other political means. The logical conclusion is one that Obama, not incidentally, embraced, though only as a long-term vision, in a speech in Prague in April 2009: a world free of nuclear weapons.

The policy should proceed at three levels: local, regional and global.

The most salient local application is, of course, the Iran crisis. The makings of an imperfect but thoroughly acceptable deal are apparent: permit Iran's enrichment of nuclear fuel to nuclear power-grade in return for Iran's full disclosure of its nuclear programs and their history, along with acceptance of strict inspections and controls to prevent the country from enriching uranium to nuclear weapons-grade. The deal is imperfect, because it overlooks Iran's many deceptions of the IAEA and accepts Iran's uranium enrichment, which, whatever else the country may do, does carry it a good part of the distance toward being able to make nuclear weapons. It is acceptable because it achieves the goal of keeping Iran nuclear weapons-free.

At the regional level, the goal should be a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, as called for in the NPT Review Conference of 2010. If we are lucky, a deal with Iran will solve the current crisis, but in the longer run Israel's nuclear weapons monopoly in the region is unsustainable. At some point one country or another will challenge it, and all the hopeless choices--the shrunken array of options that lead to disaster--will return, and the next time no deal may be possible.

At the global level, the goal can only be a world free of nuclear weapons. From the first days of the nuclear age, when President Truman proposed nuclear abolition at the UN in the form of the Baruch plan, that objective has been a moral imperative in its own right, but now it has become a necessity for a new set of reasons--reasons that have always been latent in the nuclear dilemma but that are now coming to maturity, as the scientists of the Manhattan Project knew they must, in the form of the proliferation dangers in the Middle East and East Asia.

At present, the international community is divided against itself. The United States and Western Europe propose sanctions and other measures against Iran, but China and Russia drag their feet. Everyone knows that what's called "arms control"--that is, reduction in Russian and US arsenals--is essential for nonproliferation efforts, but the diplomacy of the former occurs in a separate universe from the diplomacy of the latter. Each is needed for the success of the other, but instead they are conducted along parallel lines that never meet. The benefits of Obama's commitment to the abolition of nuclear arms, if he means them, would be immense for nonproliferation, but they are thrown away. The United States wants to stop uranium enrichment in Iran, but the 115 countries in the nonaligned movement, noticing that the nuclear powers hold on to their arsenals, and wishing to preserve their own rights to enrich, cordially disagree. These hobbled, divided efforts defeat one another, and conduct the world down the dead-end path of war.

Nothing would be more effectual in healing the division than a believable commitment--not a vision but a plan--by the nuclear powers to surrender their own arsenals. The double standard, a leftover from the bipolar disguise that the nuclear dilemma wore during the cold war, is an anachronism. It ill suits a world in which every nation knows that, whether it wants nuclear weapons or not, it is capable of building them or soon will be. Only the single standard of a nuclear weapons-free world fits the realities of the new era.

Such a policy would turn away from military force to achieve its aims, yet it would not be without the backing of a kind of "force" of its own--the force of the united will of the people of the world, aligned with their governments, to live free of the shadow of nuclear danger, whether posed by those who possess nuclear weapons or those who want to possess them.

President Obama has said that all options are on the table in dealing with Iran in particular and nuclear proliferation in general. Are these options still on the table?

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