What to Do about Iranian Nukes

In June, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China offered to provide goodies if Iran ended its nuclear program and threatened economic sanctions if it did not. Negotiations would not start until Iran suspended its enrichment of uranium. Although this was a bold take-it-or-leave-it deal by the six powers, Iran left it.

The Iranians, knowing they have the upper hand against a befuddled Bush administration in several respects, have sporadically and belatedly offered to freeze uranium enrichment, but have refused to do it as a condition for negotiations. But negotiations have been held anyway. At the same time, the United States has pressed Russia and China to fulfill their agreement to impose sanctions if the Iranians balked at the original incentives package. Any sanctions, however, are likely to be weak because both Russia and China have economic interests in Iran. The sanctions being talked about are a ban on exports of nuclear components to Iran and a ban on travel for Iranians working on that country’s nuclear program. Iran already has an extensive illicit network in the West for smuggling nuclear components, so a formal ban on Western sales is unlikely to have much of an effect. For security reasons Iran does not allow its nuclear scientists to do much overseas junketing, so the travel ban will be mainly symbolic too.

The only sanctions that would have any real effect on Iran would be in the oil sector. But Russia and China would oppose these vehemently. And so would the nervous Republicans trying to get re-elected in 2006 and 2008 amid already high oil prices. Any petroleum sanctions against Iran, one of the world’s largest oil producers, would cause the world price of oil to escalate. In addition, the history of economic sanctions indicates that, over time, loopholes and smuggling eventually greatly diminish their effect. The Iranians know this well because they have been under some form of economic sanctions ever since their revolution alarmed the West in the late 1970s. Thus, Iran is not exactly quaking in its boots over the new threat of Western sanctions.

Iran also knows that if the United States launches a military air strike against its nuclear facilities, it could retaliate against the United States by causing much trouble in two areas of substantial Republican vulnerability–”Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran could encourage friendly militias in those countries, now supporting their respective governments, to go into violent opposition. The Iranians have many friends in both places who are hostile to the United States. Although Iran would also be harmed by this action, it could close the Strait of Hormuz to petroleum shipments coming out of the Persian Gulf, thus causing the world oil price to skyrocket. But although seemingly irrational, an Iran under U.S. attack might choose to retaliate in any way possible.

Although the Bush administration would have a stronger hand in negotiations with Iran if it hadn’t become involved in the Afghan and Iraqi quagmires, it can’t cry over spilled milk. In addition, haggling over only temporarily freezing the Iranian nuclear program in order to allow negotiations provides no permanent solution to the problem.

The United States must make another bold offer to Iran, this time without the accompanying threats. In addition to the economic incentives provided by a full normalization of U.S.–”Iranian relations and complete integration of Iran into the world economy, the United States needs to guarantee the Iranians that neither the United States nor Israel will attack Iran. At this late date, with the recent invasions by Iran’s adversaries of Iraq and Lebanon, Iran may be too suspicious that such promises will be broken and elect not to give up its nuclear program. But at this point, it’s the Bush administration’s only option. In fact, the threat of military attack by the United States or Israel is what’s driving Iran to seek nuclear weapons in the first place.

If Iran remains intransigent, the United States will probably have to accept that Iran will likely some day become a nuclear weapons state. Although undesirable, this outcome would not be catastrophic because the United States has the most formidable nuclear forces in the world and could likely deter any strike from the small Iranian atomic arsenal. The United States successfully deterred a nuclear attack by radical Maoist China after that regime got nuclear weapons in the 1960s. Nuclear deterrence should also work in the case of a theocratic Iran.