How Slate's readers would solve the Iranian dilemma.

How Slate's readers would solve the Iranian dilemma.

How Slate's readers would solve the Iranian dilemma.

Military analysis.
Jan. 27 2006 6:00 PM

Readers, You Murdered Them

So, that's how you'd respond to a nuclear Iran.

In my Jan. 19 column, after running through the maze of threats and scenarios sparked by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran and concluding that, like everybody else, I had no good solutions to the puzzle, I asked you, the readers of Slate, to send in your own great ideas. More than 400 of you wrote responses. Alas, none of them prompted me to shout "Eureka!" and pass them on to the proper authorities. But the disappointment only validated my own stumped state of mind. This is one hell of a nut to crack.

Still, many of your replies were, to say the least, interesting. Quite a few could plausibly serve as the basis for a way out, if one ever emerges.

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The biggest surprise in this survey of sorts is that so many of you did not propose that we drop the big one now. True, several of you did—15, to be exact—while another 28 called for some sort of attack (if not explicitly thermonuclear), by the United States or NATO or Israel (or all three), on Iran's nuclear facilities, oil refineries, or more.

But 52 of you wrote that we have no choice but to live with an Iran that might someday have nukes. A few in this group were unconcerned: One wrote that the Iranians could never make their own bomb, a few others that they want the bomb strictly for self-defense. The vast majority, though, took no comfort in what they saw as the inevitable. Some likened the situation to when Russia got the bomb; back then, too, there were people proposing pre-emptive war, but deterrence and containment prevailed and, in the long run, succeeded.

Two typical e-mails along these lines came from opposite political perspectives. One: "As a Zionist and peacenik, I hate to say this, but maybe the best thing is Mutually Assured Destruction." The other: "As a hawk and Realist, I hate to say this, but air strikes or invasions just aren't the way to go here."

Some of you favored sanctions, some leaned more to inducements, some outlined a mix of both. A dozen of you contrived nifty espionage plots: Assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists, sabotage their reactors, smuggle in a small A-bomb and blow it up to make it look like a reactor accident (a move that would have the added benefit of dampening the desire for nukes elsewhere). I particularly enjoyed the idea of spurring the Russians to get more involved by planting phony evidence of nuclear cooperation between Iran and Chechnya.

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The problem with these cloak-and-dagger gambits is that they give far too much credit to the CIA and far too little to the Iranian internal security forces. (Then again, maybe I'm naive; if any of these ideas has a glimmer of plausibility—and maybe they do—someone in Langley is no doubt pursuing it, and good luck to them, except maybe for the somewhat excessive bit about blowing up a small A-bomb.)

Similarly, 14 of you argued (in many ways correctly) that the main problem isn't the bomb but those controlling the bomb (would anyone be worried if, say, Sweden went nuclear?) and, therefore, proposed that we foment a popular uprising against the mullahs' regime. It's true that the regime is unpopular, especially among Iranian youth, many of whom are as pro-Western as any people on Earth. But three things: First, the regime is extremely adept and firm in suppressing the first signs of rebellion. Second, the CIA did this once before, back in 1953, when we helped overthrow Mohammad Mosaddeq and install the shah. Ever since, a "Mosaddeq complex" has dominated the public consciousness; many hate the regime, but not as much as they hate outside interlopers. (This is why many believe that bombing the reactors would stiffen the regime's control and thus, in the long run, be counterproductive.)

Another 15 or so readers called on Israel—or, in some cases, all existing nuclear powers—to destroy their own A-bombs in exchange for Iranian forbearance. This, of course, just isn't going to happen; Israel in particular feels it needs a nuclear deterrent to secure its own survival. Then again, this objection highlights an awkward element of this whole issue—that Iran, even if it were run by rational secularists, might want some nukes for the same reason. With this in mind, eight readers outlined various security guarantees or no-first-strike pledges that might be offered—by the United States, NATO, the Arab League, in one case by Pakistan—in exchange for the Iranians stopping their own nuclear project.

A couple of dozen of you, noting that Iran derives its leverage from its status as a leading oil supplier, proposed that we urgently pursue alternative sources of energy. This is a long-term solution at best. Under even the most optimistic assumptions—both about how quickly we could kick oil and how slowly the Iranians might build a bomb—it's probably too long-term a solution to do much good. A few of you, realizing this, proposed taking various steps to delay an Iranian bomb (whether by sanctions, inducements, or whatever) combined with policies to wean ourselves off oil. A good idea, for many reasons. A very few said the nation and the world should be willing to boycott Iranian oil and dig into petroleum reserves—even if doing so spurred oil prices to $100 a barrel—for the sake of halting Iran's progress toward a bomb. For how long, though? And would the boycott hold? Wouldn't Iran offer special discounts for those who broke the ban? And wouldn't there be plenty of takers?

One curious thing: None of the correspondents mentioned Russia's proposal—to let Russia enrich (and thereby control) Iran's nuclear fuel. This idea, which has been endorsed by China and the Bush administration, is the one real-world idea that might seriously stave off an Iranian bomb. If, as they claim, the Iranian leaders want only nuclear energy, not a nuclear bomb, and if Russia's offer is accompanied by various other inducements, they should have no good reason to reject it.

But if that deal goes nowhere, we're back in the maze. Most of you agreed on one point: that the current situation is not a "crisis"; it doesn't have to be solved at once; the Iranians won't have a bomb for a few years at least. There's time, for a little while anyway, to give all the alternatives to war a chance.