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IRAN'S ANNOUNCEMENT that it has enriched a minute amount of uranium has unleashed urgent calls for a preventive U.S. airstrike from the same sources that earlier urged war on Iraq. If there is another terrorist attack in the United States, you can bet your bottom dollar that there also will be immediate charges that Iran was responsible in order to generate public hysteria in favor of military action.
But there are four compelling reasons against a preventive air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities:
First, in the absence of an imminent threat (and the Iranians are at least several years away from having a nuclear arsenal), the attack would be a unilateral act of war. If undertaken without a formal congressional declaration of war, an attack would be unconstitutional and merit the impeachment of the president. Similarly, if undertaken without the sanction of the United Nations Security Council, either alone by the United States or in complicity with Israel, it would stamp the perpetrator(s) as an international outlaw(s).
Second, likely Iranian reactions would significantly compound ongoing U.S. difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps precipitate new violence by Hezbollah in Lebanon and possibly elsewhere, and in all probability bog down the United States in regional violence for a decade or more. Iran is a country of about 70 million people, and a conflict with it would make the misadventure in Iraq look trivial.
Third, oil prices would climb steeply, especially if the Iranians were to cut their production or seek to disrupt the flow of oil from the nearby Saudi oil fields. The world economy would be severely affected, and the United States would be blamed for it. Note that oil prices have already shot above $70 per barrel, in part because of fears of a U.S.-Iran clash.
Finally, the United States, in the wake of the attack, would become an even more likely target of terrorism while reinforcing global suspicions that U.S. support for Israel is in itself a major cause of the rise of Islamic terrorism. The United States would become more isolated and thus more vulnerable while prospects for an eventual regional accommodation between Israel and its neighbors would be ever more remote.
In short, an attack on Iran would be an act of political folly, setting in motion a progressive upheaval in world affairs. With the U.S. increasingly the object of widespread hostility, the era of American preponderance could even come to a premature end. Although the United States is clearly dominant in the world at the moment, it has neither the power nor the domestic inclination to impose and then to sustain its will in the face of protracted and costly resistance. That certainly is the lesson taught by its experiences in Vietnam and Iraq.
Even if the United States is not planning an imminent military strike on Iran, persistent hints by official spokesmen that "the military option is on the table" impede the kind of negotiations that could make that option unnecessary. Such threats are likely to unite Iranian nationalists and Shiite fundamentalists because most Iranians are proud of their nuclear program.
Military threats also reinforce growing international suspicions that the U.S. might be deliberately encouraging greater Iranian intransigence. Sadly, one has to wonder whether, in fact, such suspicions may not be partly justified. How else to explain the current U.S. "negotiating" stance: refusing to participate in the ongoing negotiations with Iran and insisting on dealing only through proxies. (That stands in sharp contrast with the simultaneous U.S. negotiations with North Korea.)
The U.S. is already allocating funds for the destabilization of the Iranian regime and reportedly sending Special Forces teams into Iran to stir up non-Iranian ethnic minorities in order to fragment the Iranian state (in the name of democratization!). And there are clearly people in the Bush administration who do not wish for any negotiated solution, abetted by outside drum-beaters for military action and egged on by full-page ads hyping the Iranian threat.
There is unintended irony in a situation in which the outrageous language of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (whose powers are much more limited than his title implies) helps to justify threats by administration figures, which in turn help Ahmadinejad to exploit his intransigence further, gaining more fervent domestic support for himself as well as for the Iranian nuclear program.
It is therefore high time for the administration to sober up and think strategically, with a historic perspective and the U.S.
national interest primarily in mind. It's time to cool the rhetoric. The United States should not be guided by emotions or a sense of a religiously inspired mission. Nor should it lose sight of the fact that deterrence has worked in U.S.-Soviet relations, in U.S.-Chinese relations and in Indo-Pakistani relations.
Moreover, the notion floated by some who favor military action that Tehran might someday just hand over the bomb to some terrorist conveniently ignores the fact that doing so would be tantamount to suicide for all of Iran because it would be a prime suspect, and nuclear forensics would make it difficult to disguise the point of origin.
It is true, however, that an eventual Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons would heighten tensions in the region and perhaps prompt imitation by such countries as Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Israel, despite its large nuclear arsenal, would feel less secure. Preventing Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons is, therefore, justified, but in seeking that goal, the U.S. must bear in mind longer-run prospects for Iran's political and social development.
Iran has the objective preconditions in terms of education, the place of women in social affairs, and in social aspirations (especially of the youth) to emulate in the foreseeable future the evolution of Turkey. The mullahs are Iran's past, not its future; it is not in our interest to engage in acts that help to reverse that sequence.
Serious negotiations require not only a patient engagement but also a constructive atmosphere. Artificial deadlines, propounded most often by those who do not wish the U.S. to negotiate in earnest, are counterproductive. Name-calling and saber rattling, as well as a refusal to even consider the other side's security concerns, can be useful tactics only if the goal is to derail the negotiating process.
The United States should join Britain, France and Germany, as well as perhaps Russia and China (both veto-casting U.N. Security Council members), in direct negotiations with Iran, using the model of the concurrent multilateral talks with North Korea. As it does with North Korea, the U.S. also should simultaneously engage in bilateral talks with Iran about security and financial issues of mutual concern.
It follows that the U.S. should be a signatory party to any quid pro quo arrangements in the event of a satisfactory resolution of the Iranian nuclear program and of regional security issues. At some point, such talks could lead to a regional agreement for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East — especially after the conclusion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement — endorsed also by all the Arab states of the region. At this stage, however, it would be premature to inject that complicated issue into the negotiating process with Iran.
For now, our choice is either to be stampeded into a reckless adventure profoundly damaging to long-term U.S. national interests or to become serious about giving negotiations with Iran a genuine chance. The mullahs were on the skids several years ago but were given a new burst of life by the intensifying confrontation with the United States. Our strategic goal, pursued by real negotiations and not by posturing, should be to separate Iranian nationalism from religious fundamentalism.
Treating Iran with respect and within a historical perspective would help to advance that objective. American policy should not be swayed by the current contrived atmosphere of urgency ominously reminiscent of what preceded the misguided intervention in Iraq.