Our first foreign policy priority has to be preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Is Iraq a major priority? Absolutely. Is democracy in Iraq an important goal? Certainly, although the critical advances in democracy will only come over the long term. In the short term, Iran is our greatest challenge. Our goal should be to give the president maximum flexibility, by keeping the option of force on the table.
The Iran question is usually posed as a choice between the use of force and simply living with Iranian nukes. The problem might be better posed as a choice between four scenarios.
The first scenario is a sufficiently united front at home and abroad in support of force to compel Iran to verifiably abandon its nuclear program. The second scenario is a sufficiently united front at home and abroad in support of force that, if force must be used, the very serious military, economic, and political consequences are minimized. In the third scenario, the president uses force against Iran toward the end of his term, amidst bitter division at home and abroad, when it looks as though Iran is merely months away from a bomb. In the fourth scenario, our bitter divisions at home and abroad tie the president’s hands, and Iran gets the bomb.
So our choice is less between attacking Iran or not, than between whether we will stand together against the threat or not. Standing (sufficiently) together gives us our best chance for peace, as well as our best chance for success in war. Remaining divided will weaken us in war, or force defeat. Yes, it seems impossible at this moment to imagine sufficient unity behind the option of force against Iran. Yet that is what we must work toward. Our best ally in this endeavor is an honest confrontation with the reality of the danger we face.
Politically, our four scenarios create an opportunity for both Republicans and for hawkish Democrats. We should welcome that. If there are Democrats who want to argue that they will be smarter and better than Republicans at the deployment and/or threat of deployment of force against Iran, let them. I want this president, and the next president, of whatever party, to be able to face Iran, North Korea, et al with a credible threat of force.
There will be those who prefer the third and fourth scenarios. They secretly relish the idea of domestic and international outrage at a president who uses force to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. Or, they believe it’s better to simply let Iran get the bomb. Or, they really don’t want to think about the issue, because they don’t want to take the use of force seriously as an option under any circumstances. Their sense of righteousness and superiority depends upon refraining from force. So be it.
I believe that, in the end, an honest debate over the threat we face from Iran will be more likely to unite than divide us. At any rate, that is the debate we must have. A nuclear Iran is the greatest threat we face. So we need to tackle the issue directly and openly, despite the difficulties and divisions that beset us.
In the Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash runs with the hawkish scenario and (implicitly) explains to the British why they must break with the United States. The reason? Iran’s potential to recruit suicide bombers among Muslims living in the West. My question for Ash: If this is how Europe ought to view the prospect of preventing Iran from obtaining the bomb, how will Europe stand up to Iran when it actually does get the bomb? Care to game out worst-case scenarios for a world in which Ahmadinejad has nukes?