Iran Options
Most are bad. The rest are worse. But actions must be taken.


Clifford D. May

Cyber warfare and covert action: Iran’s nuclear-weapons program has been delayed by the Stuxnet worm and the untimely deaths of a number of scientists. Can more be done, quickly, along these lines? Those who know are not talking and those who talk don’t know. What we do know: It is essential for the U.S. to establish and maintain a qualitative lead in both offensive and defensive cyber weapons, and to develop highly sophisticated clandestine capabilities.

U.S. military force: A last resort, after all peaceful efforts have been exhausted, would probably feature an aerial campaign to destroy or degrade Iran’s nuclear facilities — with no boots on the ground. The risks and uncertainties of such action should not be minimized. By the same token, standing up to Khamenei and Ahmadinejad will not be easier once they possess a nuclear arsenal. (In conversations with his generals, Hitler marveled that the West had not challenged him when he was weak and the costs would have been modest, but instead waited until he was strong and the costs catastrophic.)

Lead from behind: Geographically and theologically, Israel is on the front lines of the War Against the West. Though stopping Iran from establishing a new, anti-Western empire should not be the responsibility of Israelis alone, they may decide they cannot wait for the rest of the world to realize the folly of repeating the mistakes of the 1930s. The “Little Satan” does not have the military might of the United States but never underestimate the ingenuity and determination of this tiny state with its back against the wall. The U.S. might as well provide assistance. America’s enemies and the conspiracy theorists — those who blame the CIA and the Mossad for 9/11 — will point fingers at Washington in any case.

Containment: There are those who argue that Iran can’t be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons or that whatever attempts are made will prove counterproductive. But, they add, not to worry: If a nuclear-armed Soviet Union could be contained for 40 years, so can a nuclear-armed Iran. Soviet atheists, however, though evil, were generally rational and saw little prospect of rewards in the Hereafter. Ahmadinejad and Khamenei may actually believe that an apocalyptical war is necessary to summon the Hidden Imam, the Mahdi, the Savior. If so, for them, as scholar Bernard Lewis has said, “mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent; it is an inducement.” In any case, a serious containment policy would have to include comprehensive missile defense so that we could say to Iran’s rulers: “We have the means to prevent any nuclear-armed missiles you fire from reaching their intended victims.” In fact, though we have the technology to build such a missile shield, we are not doing it.

Appease, temporize, posture, and gesture: That’s a fair description of both American and European policy toward Iran over the past three decades. It’s taken a very long time for the Iranian threat to come into focus for many of America’s leaders. And it’s still not certain that they will respond, seriously and effectively, to this clear and present danger.

— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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