Although the sanctions imposed upon Iran by both the United Nations and great powers including the European Union, Russia and the United States, appear to have some success — despite President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comical references to them — they haven’t so far tempered the country’s nuclear ambitions. The options available to the West are now limited.
The possibility of military action against Iran has been raised and is, naturally, contemplated by the Pentagon. But bombing Iran would do more harm than good. An airstrike, no matter how carefully orchestrated, is unlikely to take out all of Iran’s nuclear facilities at once, which are scattered over an area more than twice the size of Texas, thus dragging the United States into a prolonged conflict, possibly a ground war that will only strengthen Iran’s resolve to develop a nuclear weapon while undermining internal forces of reform.
Sanctions and isolation are putting Iran under pressure and may manage to contain it. Airstrikes on the other hand, “would propel 56-year-old Iranian demons into overdrive,” as Roger Cohen put it, “and lock in an America-hating Islamic Republic for the next half-century.”
Unless America intends to risk that, it may have to accept a nuclear Iran. The question then becomes how to diminish the threat it poses. Former Secretary of State James Baker harkened back to the Cold War, pointing out in February that the threat of nuclear retaliation “was effective for forty years against the Soviet Union. And I’m not at all sure it wouldn’t be effective against these ayatollahs.”
Iran’s leaders may appear “flaky,” said Baker, but they are not insane. “We’ve got all this unused strategic nuclear capability,” he added, and what the administration should do, is call Tehran and say: “It takes thirty seconds to reaim those missiles at you.”
Speaking with The Wall Street Journal, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was not so hawkish. He proposes a series of actions to contain Iran: offer a robust American defense umbrella to protect friends in the region; provide rhetorical support to Iran’s opposition while accepting America’s limited ability to help it; eschew thought of a preemptive strike against the country’s nuclear facilities; and keep talking to Tehran.
Baker actually suggested that the United States extend its nuclear umbrella over moderate Arab regions in the region as well. Iran has few allies. Other Middle Eastern states, around the Gulf and especially Turkey, aren’t at all looking forward to having another nuclear power in their midst.
Brzezinski warns that containing Iran will be a long game. In spite of recent protests, change won’t come easily to the Islamic Republic. Nonetheless, facilitating, “carefully and cautiously, the political evolution in Iran toward a more acceptable regional role,” preferably in the vein of secular Turkey, should be one of America’s foremost objectives with regard to the country.
Writing for The Daily Star, Ramzy Mardini offers similar advice. He warns that “uncertainty about Washington’s commitment will dramatically increase the incentive for regional states to seek self assurance, and hence, indigenous nuclear deterrents of their own.” Countries as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey rank high on the list here.
In a broader context, “the United States should be prepared to play a pacifying role in the region,” according to Mardini, which means “restricting Iran, but simultaneously working to minimize dangerous escalations involving local allies, particularly when it involves Israel.” That’s why the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks which the Obama Administration revived earlier this month are vital.
While most Middle Eastern regimes may not care as much about the plight of the Palestinian people as they profess to do, their populations share a greater resentment of Israel. Indeed, King Abdullah II of Jordan warned last month that if the renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians should fail once again, the Middle East may have to anticipate another armed conflict. But Israel and its Arab neighbors understand that the real threat — and likeliest instigator of a regional war — is Iran.
The enormous American arms sale to Saudi Arabia that was recently approved by the Obama Administration met with no resistance from Israel for instance. Meanwhile the Gulf Cooperation Council that includes Saudi Arabia and its small emirate neighbors is increasingly aimed at Iran, with American defenses. The United States should intensify this commitment, to signal to Tehran that it’s serious about it and in order to prepare for the unthinkable.