Iran, if not stopped, will join the nuclear club, probably within two or three years. It may be stupid to try to preempt Iran; it may be even stupider not to try. But the stupidest assumption of all is that either Iran is not enriching uranium in order to obtain a weapon, or it might through negotiations or sanctions be persuaded to give up trying.
Why? In Iran’s way of thinking, nuclear-weapons capability has no downside. Diplomatic grandees who assure us that nukes are prohibitively expensive, counterproductive, a guarantee of pariah status, always disruptive to regional peace and prosperity, and never popular with the public are lying, even if they wish they were not.
There is no Iranian worry over the cost. Tehran currently exports almost half a billion dollars’ worth of natural gas and oil every day. Porous sanctions and embargoes won’t stop much of that income stream in an oil-hungry world. Unlike dirt-poor nuclear Pakistan and North Korea, Iran has the potential not just to join the nuclear club, but to do so in a big way, with hundreds of expensive bombs and delivery systems. When we speak of a nuclear Iran, we mean not something like North Korea’s five or six nukes of dubious reliability, but an entire petrodollar-fed strategic arsenal. A nuclear Iran will some day be analogous to China or India, not North Korea.
Who would be able to deter a bellicose nuclear Iran? Pakistan is deterred by its archenemy, the far larger India. Tiny North Korea is corralled by China, which enjoys the mischief Pyongyang’s few nukes cause the West — but only up to the point of not causing too much trouble in its own neighborhood.
But when it comes to deterring Iran, nuclear Israel is tiny — and is ostracized by most of the world. America is growing tired of its role as Middle East watchdog, and until recently President Obama was begging the Iranians for a new “reset” relationship. The rival Sunni Gulf sheikdoms are not known for their martial prowess. Would France step up to warn nuclear Iran not to point its missiles at Berlin? Would the EU band together to fund missile defense?
Once a rogue regime has the bomb, it seems immune from foreign decapitation. We snubbed Pakistan for its bomb and then relented and turned the dollar spigot back on. We fought two wars against Iraq only because Saddam Hussein’s nuclear-enrichment plant had been blown up earlier by the Israelis. Poor Bashar Assad should have dug his cave first, and built his nuclear plant second. Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi’s chief mistake was not seeking to enrich uranium, but surrendering his facilities before he got a bomb and, with it, immunity from the sort of NATO bombing campaign that removed him from power — and from this world. Had he got his centrifuges up and running safely underground, Qaddafi could have playacted his way to all sorts of concessions from Europe, as he ranted one day about taking out Rome, the next day about supplying freedom fighters with the wherewithal to neutralize Israel.
In the past, only Israel has prevented a country — first Iraq, then Syria — from going nuclear. But Iran — which tried and failed to take out Saddam’s reactor — is far larger, more distant from Israel, and more dangerous than was either Iraq or Syria.
Tehran for now bets that Israel could not pull off such an ambitious operation, or that the United States would prevent it, or that Iran’s terrorist allies in Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza would answer such preemption with a hail of missiles striking Israeli cities. It has a keen interest in the election year here in the United States: If Barack Obama looks as if he will be reelected, Tehran will smile, keep mum, not want to cause him any trouble, and worry only about Israel. If the polls suggest that Obama won’t return as president, Iran will worry less about Israel and more about rushing to get a bomb constructed before the next Republican president takes office.
The Iraqi and Syrian enrichment plants were visible to the naked eye; Iran’s facilities are dispersed and hidden underground. To take out Tehran’s future weapons might take a week or two of bombing, not a single day. Iran seems to want by a wink and a nod to communicate two things about its nuclear program: (a) that it is within months of completion, and (b) that it is so well fortified as to be immune from attack. Both propositions are probably untrue, but a third assumption — who would be crazy enough to find out? — is probably not.