What to do about Iran? The mullahs seem intent on acquiring a nuclear arsenal. Everything they've been doing lately—enriching uranium, spinning centrifuges, really just about anything they could do short of actual bomb production—is legally permitted under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (a serious problem with the NPT these days). The Bush administration is pushing the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions. But Russia and China would likely veto the motion, owing to the former's massive investment in Iranian reactors and the latter's heavy dependence on Iranian oil. The entire industrialized world is leery of economic confrontation for this same reason; Western Europe and Japan get 10 percent to 15 percent of their oil imports from Iran. As for a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, two objections stand out, among several others: It would be very difficult (the facilities are scattered, some buried deep underground), and it would be widely regarded as premature at best (even the most pessimistic intelligence estimates don't foresee an Iranian bomb for at least a few years).
Still, it's too risky simply to shrug and to hope for the best. Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has openly expansive ambitions across the Middle East, not least to "wipe Israel off the face of the map." Some political scientists have argued that the spread of nuclear weapons is a good thing, that it makes countries more responsible. Could anyone still argue that the theory, dubious enough in general, applies to Iran? Maybe a nuclear Iran could be "deterred" or "contained," but even that's a gamble.
But let's back up. How clear is it that the Iranians are seeking nuclear weapons and not just—as they contend—nuclear energy? Well, very clear. Late last year, the Russians, who financed Iran's largest reactor, offered to import its nuclear fuel so the Iranians couldn't recycle it into nuclear bombs. It was an intriguing proposal. (An annex to the Agreed Framework, signed by the United States and North Korea during the Clinton administration, outlined similar steps for handling Pyongyang's nuclear fuel, but the accord broke down long before that phase of disarmament was reached.) The Iranians said they'd think about it—then a couple of weeks later, they harshly rejected it. Their dismissal angered Russian President Vladimir Putin and drove him a few steps closer to the American position. If the Iranians were pursuing nuclear power strictly for the energy, the Russian proposal should have been perfectly acceptable.
So, again, what is to be done? First, whatever we end up doing, it is useful that in this confrontation (unlike the prelude to Iraq), the other major powers and the international bodies at least agree with the basic facts and with the judgment that these facts pose a threat. It was laudable, even cheering, when the Europeans turned down the Iranians' request this week to go back to the table for more talks. The request came shortly after the Iranians resumed their uranium-enrichment program; the Europeans (who until recently seemed to value negotiations above all else) replied that, until the enrichment was halted, there was nothing to talk about.
This week, the Russians proposed a slowdown in the push for U.N. sanctions. First, they said, Iran's activities should be brought before the International Atomic Energy Agency; only after the IAEA passes judgment should the issue then be taken to the Security Council. Some suspected that the Russians were just trying to drag the process out. But the Bush administration said, Fine, let's do that. And for good reason. There's no reason the United Nations has to act immediately. And jumping through various hoops will at least lend legitimacy to whatever actions we end up taking. (Here is another case where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is proving to be a moderating force in Bush's second term. She appears to realize that the United States needs all the allies it can get to make a resolution, or any other decision, stick and that success is more likely still if, once in a while, these allies—especially ones with ties to Iran—take the lead.)
But what if diplomacy fails? What if the Security Council approves some form of sanctions? What if the Europeans and even the Chinese brave the risk that Iran cuts back—or cuts off—their oil supplies? What if, after all this, Iran continues to enrich uranium?
First, it's worth emphasizing that enriching uranium and spinning gas centrifuge machines are necessary but not sufficient steps toward making A-bombs. The Iranians have to operate a cascade of machines. As David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security points out in a paper published this month, the Iranians tried this once before, in 2003, but failed miserably and broke about a third of their centrifuges in the process. Repairing the damage and getting the machines running again will take at least six months to a year. And it will take another two years beyond that before the plant starts churning out bombs. In other words, if diplomacy has a chance to work, there is some time to make it work.
How will we know, at what point can we judge, whether diplomacy is feasible or fantasy? Several Israeli officials have said publicly that, once the Iranians successfully operate a cascade of centrifuges, even in small numbers, they will know how to operate cascades in large numbers; they will be self-sufficient in the art and science of building A-bombs; they will have crossed a "red line" or, as some ominously put it, a "point of no return." In other words, from the viewpoint of many Israelis, the question—can diplomacy work?—will be decided in 2006.
So, what if diplomacy does fail? One thing is clear: The Israeli air force has spent the last several years preparing for that possibility. They have reportedly practiced bombing runs against a scale model of Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor, which they have built out in the desert. They have equipped all their F-15I and F-16I attack aircraft with external fuel tanks; each plane now has a combat radius of over 1,500 miles—more than enough to reach the real Bushehr and several other nuclear facilities. Israel has also acknowledged buying from the United States 500 BLU-109 air-to-surface bombs—popularly known as bunker busters—which can penetrate seven feet of reinforced concrete.
However, some defense officials say this isn't enough. The Natanz facility, site of Iran's uranium-enrichment, is dug deeper still. The BLU-109 doesn't release a powerful enough blast to destroy Natanz. The site would be damaged, and the enrichment would probably be set back by several months, maybe even a year, but that's all. Meanwhile, the airstrike would likely spark a war with Israel (including stepped-up attacks by Iranian-funded Hezbollah), rally regional and international support for Iran, and stiffen the Iranian people's support for their besieged regime.
If the United States joined in an airstrike, pounding the nuclear sites with repeated attacks from bombers and ship-launched cruise missiles, Natanz and the other facilities probably would be destroyed. Some U.S. officials fear that, for this reason (and because an Israeli attack would be widely interpreted as having an American stamp of approval in any case), the Israelis might launch an attack with the intent of drawing in the United States.
When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was still in charge, he chastised the international community several times for failing to take Iran's nuclear program more seriously, and he warned that, if necessary, Israel would take action on its own. It is hard to blame any Israeli for this position: An Iranian atomic arsenal can reasonably be read as a threat to Israel's existence; an arsenal, combined with the Iranian president's recent remarks makes the threat explicit.
This turbulent combination—the clear evidence of an Iranian bomb program, the unabashed threats voiced by Iran's president, the deliberately publicized preparations of an Israeli counterstrike, and the possibility that this dynamic, once set in motion, could spark a disastrous regional war and (if, say, Iran shut down the Strait of Hormuz) a global economic crisis—does have one silver lining: It may so terrify the world's powers that they actually work together to keep the nightmare from becoming real.
But, even assuming the best intentions, what can they do? It seems to me, anyway, that while North Korea has been pursuing nukes as a bargaining chip—something to trade for security guarantees and economic aid—Iran simply wants a pocketful of nukes. And why not? Every major power in their neighborhood—Israel, India, Pakistan—has the bomb, all with the West's (or at least the United States') blessing. Even if Iran's rulers were rational secularists, they might seek nukes for the security and the prestige. (Back in the 1970s, the shah of Iran started a nuclear program, despite a strong alliance with the United States that included security guarantees and the purchase of billions of dollars' worth of conventional arms.) This is not to justify their quest, only to explain it.
So, here's the big question: If diplomacy is the only rational solution to this problem yet the Iranians just want nukes—in other words, if there is no deal (or at least no deal that the United States would realistically offer) that would compel them to give up their dream—what's the next step?
At this point, I must confess: I don't know. Neither, it seems, does anybody else. So, dear Slate readers, do you have any great ideas? Send them to me. I'll print—and publicly mull over—the best of them. (E-mail may be quoted by name, unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)