It has been four years since that country's secret nuclear program was brought to light, and the path of diplomacy and sanctions has led nowhere.
First, we agreed to our allies' requests that we offer Tehran a string of concessions, which it spurned. Then, Britain, France and Germany wanted to impose a batch of extremely weak sanctions. For instance, Iranians known to be involved in nuclear activities would have been barred from foreign travel — except for humanitarian or religious reasons — and outside countries would have been required to refrain from aiding some, but not all, Iranian nuclear projects.
But even this was too much for the U.N. Security Council. Russia promptly announced that these sanctions were much too strong. "We cannot support measures aimed at isolating Iran," declared Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov.
It is now clear that neither Moscow nor Beijing will ever agree to tough sanctions. What's more, even if they were to do so, it would not stop Iran, which is a country on a mission. As President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad put it: "Thanks to the blood of the martyrs, a new Islamic revolution has arisen . The era of oppression, hegemonic regimes and tyranny and injustice has reached its end . The wave of the Islamic revolution will soon reach the entire world." There is simply no possibility that Iran's clerical rulers will trade this ecstatic vision for a mess of Western pottage in the form of economic bribes or penalties.
So if sanctions won't work, what's left? The overthrow of the current Iranian regime might offer a silver bullet, but with hard-liners firmly in the saddle in Tehran, any such prospect seems even more remote today than it did a decade ago, when students were demonstrating and reformers were ascendant. Meanwhile, the completion of Iran's bomb grows nearer every day.
Our options therefore are narrowed to two: We can prepare to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, or we can use force to prevent it. Former ABC newsman Ted Koppel argues for the former, saying that "if Iran is bound and determined to have nuclear weapons, let it." We should rely, he says, on the threat of retaliation to keep Iran from using its bomb. Similarly, Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria points out that we have succeeded in deterring other hostile nuclear states, such as the Soviet Union and China.
And in these pages, William Langewiesche summed up the what-me-worry attitude when he wrote that "the spread of nuclear weapons is, and always has been, inevitable," and that the important thing is "learning how to live with it after it occurs."
But that's whistling past the graveyard. The reality is that we cannot live safely with a nuclear-armed Iran. One reason is terrorism, of which Iran has long been the world's premier state sponsor, through groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Now, according to a report last week in London's Daily Telegraph, Iran is trying to take over Al Qaeda by positioning its own man, Saif Adel, to become the successor to the ailing Osama bin Laden. How could we possibly trust Iran not to slip nuclear material to terrorists?
Koppel says that we could prevent this by issuing a blanket warning that if a nuclear device is detonated anywhere in the United States, we will assume Iran is responsible. But would any U.S. president really order a retaliatory nuclear strike based on an assumption?
Another reason is that an Iranian bomb would constitute a dire threat to Israel's 6 million-plus citizens. Sure, Israel could strike back, but Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who was Ahmadinejad's "moderate" electoral opponent, once pointed out smugly that "the use of an atomic bomb against Israel would totally destroy Israel, while [the same] against the Islamic world would only cause damage. Such a scenario is not inconceivable." If that is the voice of pragmatism in Iran, would you trust deterrence against the messianic Ahmadinejad?
Even if Iran did not drop a bomb on Israel or hand one to terrorists, its mere possession of such a device would have devastating consequences. Coming on top of North Korea's nuclear test, it would spell finis to the entire nonproliferation system.
And then there is a consequence that seems to have been thought about much less but could be the most harmful of all: Tehran could achieve its goal of regional supremacy. Jordan's King Abdullah II, for instance, has warned of an emerging Shiite "crescent." But Abdullah's comment understates the danger. If Iran's reach were limited to Shiites, it would be constrained by their minority status in the Muslim world as well as by the divisions between Persians and Arabs.
But such ethnic-based analysis fails to take into account Iran's charisma as the archenemy of the United States and Israel and the leverage it achieves as the patron of radicals and rejectionists. Given that, the old assumptions about Shiites and Sunnis may not hold any longer. Iran's closest ally today is Syria, which is mostly Sunni. The link between Tehran and Damascus is ideological, not theological. Similarly, Iran supports the Palestinian groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas, which are overwhelmingly Sunni (and as a result, Iran has grown popular in the eyes of Palestinians).
During the Lebanon war this summer, we saw how readily Muslims closed ranks across the Sunni-Shiite divide against a common foe (even as the two groups continued killing each other in Iraq). In Sunni Egypt, newborns were named "Hezbollah" after the Lebanese Shiite organization and "Nasrallah" after its leader. As Muslim scholar Vali Nasr put it: "A flurry of anti-Hezbollah [i.e., anti-Shiite] fatwas by radical Sunni clerics have not diverted the admiring gaze of Arabs everywhere toward Hezbollah."
In short, Tehran can build influence on a mix of ethnicity and ideology, underwritten by the region's largest economy. Nuclear weapons would bring regional hegemony within its reach by intimidating neighbors and rivals and stirring the admiration of many other Muslims.
This would thrust us into a new global struggle akin to the one we waged so painfully with the Soviet Union for 40-odd years. It would be the "clash of civilizations" that has been so much talked about but so little defined.
Iran might seem little match for the United States, but that is not how Ahmadinejad sees it. He and his fellow jihadists believe that the Muslim world has already defeated one infidel superpower (the Soviet Union) and will in time defeat the other.
Russia was poor and weak in 1917 when Lenin took power, as was Germany in 1933 when Hitler came in. Neither, in the end, was able to defeat the United States, but each of them unleashed unimaginable suffering before they succumbed. And despite its weakness, Iran commands an asset that neither of them had: a natural advantage in appealing to the world's billion-plus Muslims.
If Tehran establishes dominance in the region, then the battlefield might move to Southeast Asia or Africa or even parts of Europe, as the mullahs would try to extend their sway over other Muslim peoples. In the end, we would no doubt win, but how long this contest might last and what toll it might take are anyone's guess.
The only way to forestall these frightening developments is by the use of force. Not by invading Iran as we did Iraq, but by an air campaign against Tehran's nuclear facilities. We have considerable information about these facilities; by some estimates they comprise about 1,500 targets. If we hit a large fraction of them in a bombing campaign that might last from a few days to a couple of weeks, we would inflict severe damage. This would not end Iran's weapons program, but it would certainly delay it.
What should be the timing of such an attack? If we did it next year, that would give time for U.N. diplomacy to further reveal its bankruptcy yet would come before Iran will have a bomb in hand (and also before our own presidential campaign). In time, if Tehran persisted, we might have to do it again.
Can President Bush take such action after being humiliated in the congressional elections and with the Iraq war having grown so unpopular? Bush has said that history's judgment on his conduct of the war against terror is more important than the polls. If Ahmadinejad gets his finger on a nuclear trigger, everything Bush has done will be rendered hollow. We will be a lot less safe than we were when Bush took office.
Finally, wouldn't such a U.S. air attack on Iran inflame global anti-Americanism? Wouldn't Iran retaliate in Iraq or by terrorism? Yes, probably. That is the price we would pay. But the alternative is worse.
After the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1917, a single member of Britain's Cabinet, Winston Churchill, appealed for robust military intervention to crush the new regime. His colleagues weighed the costs — the loss of soldiers, international derision, revenge by Lenin — and rejected the idea.
The costs were avoided, and instead the world was subjected to the greatest man-made calamities ever. Communism itself was to claim perhaps 100 million lives, and it also gave rise to fascism and Nazism, leading to World War II. Ahmadinejad wants to be the new Lenin. Force is the only thing that can stop him.