A Wakeup Call on Iran's Nukes

Senior Fellow
John R. Bolton

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, just a few hours after President Bush. The contrast was palpable. Ahmadinejad expressed continued defiance of the UN Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency, insisting that Iran would continue and even accelerate its nuclear program. Bush, by contrast, has overseen nearly six years of failure trying to stop Iran from doing exactly that.

Iran is now closer than ever to achieving its long-held strategic objective of obtaining deliverable nuclear weapons. Why has Iran succeeded and the United States failed in this struggle? What does it tell us about the options available to our next President, in this increasingly dangerous situation? Will Iran be a centerpiece of the first presidential debate?

On January 20, either President McCain or Obama will face very unattractive choices if he is serious about disarming this outlaw regime.

First, negotiating with Iran will not stop its nuclear weapons program. Senator Barack Obama has said that he will speak with rogue state leaders like Ahmadinejad "without preconditions," implying this is a new idea. In fact, Britain, France and Germany ("the EU-3") have been doing exactly that for over five years. Throughout, they have been surrogates for America, and yet Iran has shown no inclination to terminate its nuclear program.

Negotiation is like all human activity: It has costs as well as benefits. The history of Europe's efforts underscores a significant cost of negotiating with a nuclear aspirant: time. More time is almost always on the proliferator's side, because it allows for the complex work necessary to master the nuclear fuel cycle. The net effect of five years of EU-3 negotiation is that Iran is five years closer to achieving a deliverable nuclear weapon. We cannot afford more of the same.

Second, Europe still does not fully appreciate the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran, nor is it willing to take the steps necessary to prevent it. Europe's lack of real concern stems in part from the controversy over intelligence about Iraq, but also from the deeper EU mindset that its members have passed beyond history, and entered a zone of security that will persist as long as outsiders are not "provoked."

This false sense of security saps EU willingness to take steps stronger than mere diplomacy, such as tough economic sanctions, much less contemplating the use of force. Thus, whatever impact on Iran that sanctions might have if imposed swiftly and comprehensively have only wound up giving the appearance of decisive action rather than the reality.

Third, the Security Council will not solve the Iran problem. Russia, and to a lesser extent China, have made it clear that they will block meaningful sanctions in the Council. This was the case in the first three sanctions resolutions, where Russian intransigence wore down the EU-3 to the point where they accepted only what Russia was prepared to allow, so they could "declare victory" even when weak sanctions resolutions were finally adopted.

Russia has an enormous interest in protecting Iran from meaningful Security Council sanctions. Moscow hopes to sell nuclear fuel, and construct many nuclear power plants in addition to the one nearly complete at Bushehr, and sees Iran as a substantial market for high-end conventional weapons sales. Similarly, China's large and growing demands for energy make Iran an attractive partner for assured supplies of oil and natural gas, as well as a potential market. All of these interests and more virtually guarantee that the Security Council's role in dealing with Iran will remain minimal at best.

On January 20, either President McCain or Obama will face very unattractive choices if he is serious about disarming this outlaw regime. One is regime change in Tehran, through support of the widespread discontent across Iran with the mullahs. The other is the targeted use of force against Iran's nuclear program.

Both of these options are complex, risky and highly difficult. Unfortunately, the only other alternative--Iran with nuclear weapons--is far worse. Ready or not, our new President will have to make decisive and far-reaching choices.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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