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Nuclear Meltdown

A crucial moment looms in the Iran debate, even as big questions remain unasked. Like, could we live with a nuclearized Tehran?


Illustration by Christopher Sleboda  

We’re approaching a dangerous crossroads. What to do about Iran has grown into the thorniest foreign-policy dilemma since the Cold War—for the U.S. in general, but with special acuteness for those of us generally (but not suicidally) disinclined to support war as a means of securing the national interest.

On Thanksgiving, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the U.N.’s nuclear regulatory agency, will report on whether Iran is being sufficiently forthcoming about its uranium enrichment and any nuclear-weapons R&D. “We have suspicions,” ElBaradei has said. “I’ve told the Iranians: ‘This is your litmus test. You committed yourself to come clean. If you don’t, nobody will be able to come to your support.’ ”

This report happens to be coming at a moment when its consequences will be amplified to the max—that is, with a presidential election just kicking into high gear and a failed incumbent (and his hell-bent vice-president) watching the clock start to run out on his chance to achieve a spectacular smackdown of a big enemy.

What’s more, we are all subject to a crying-wolf syndrome that makes the correct Iran policy choices even harder to discern. It was, of course, this administration’s ominous nuclear talk—“We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” said Condi Rice—that drove us to war in 2003.

On the one hand, Iran really is both a bigger potential threat to peace and U.S. interests (and to Israel) than Iraq ever was, and at the same time a likelier candidate to become a great democratic beacon in the Islamic Middle East. Yet we simply don’t trust the Bush administration to deal with the threats or the opportunities correctly, let alone deftly. On the one hand, we Democrats and default-Democratic independents can taste victory—that is, can imagine America returning to a reasonable and effective geopolitical M.O. 441 days from now. Yet we understand we won’t get there with a Democratic candidate who comes across as lacking the gene for toughness and Realpolitik. We can’t afford to be irresponsibly naïve on this suddenly pressing national-security issue that the Republicans can exploit (don’t forget: At the end of Aesop’s fable, a wolf really does show up) and—a different thing—we can’t afford a presidential candidate who seems like a naïf or a wimp. We have a visceral distaste for Hillary’s Clintonian ambiguities and triangulation on this issue, but we understand that may be a requirement for any non-Republican to win.

The crisis-mongering of Bush and his Republican would-be successors is enough to make any sensible person feel the peacenik within. It’s one thing to say, as all the leading Democratic candidates do, that in dealing with Iran nothing should be off the table—a sensibly vague, quietly saber-rattling euphemism. But it’s quite another, especially if you’re commander-in-chief or a contender for the job, to whip the saber out of the scabbard and swing it around while shrieking bloody murder.

Lately, the bellicosity from our side has been shockingly fast and loose, almost … Middle Eastern. “If you’re interested in avoiding World War III,” Bush said three weeks ago, “it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.” A few days later, he was Chicken Littling again: “We have no way to defend Europe against the emerging Iranian threat.” Around the same time, Rudy Giuliani was saying that Iran is “threatening to use” nuclear weapons.

Reality check: Iran cannot be prevented from “having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon,” only (perhaps) from employing that knowledge; a missile attack on Europe by Iran is far-fetched even as worst-case fantasy; and not only is Tehran not “threatening to use” nukes, it denies intending even to develop them. (In fact, they are at least two and perhaps eight years away from being able to make a weapon.)

If I believed this administration was engaged mainly in high-stakes game-theory posturing of a Nixonian or Reaganesque kind, trying to frighten the Iranian régime into negotiating a verifiable no-nukes agreement, maybe I could tolerate the distortions as an ugly bit of hardball. But it seems motivated instead by a sincere, reckless, bloody-minded wish to make a war with Iran inevitable.

Except for Ron Paul, every Republican candidate’s line is pretty much the same blithe grrr-antee: “If I’m president,” as Giuliani says, “they’re not going to get nuclear weapons.” Among the Democrats, the only debate over Iran so far consists of slagging Hillary Clinton for tacking to the center instead of center-left—specifically, for voting with a majority of Senate Democrats to designate Iran’s elite military corps a “foreign terrorist organization.” During last week’s debate, though, two candidates did step toward the difficult heart of the matter. When Tim Russert pressed Clinton to “pledge to the American people that Iran will not develop a nuclear bomb while you are president”—in other words, the full Republican overpromise—she declined, wisely saying that she’d do everything she could. And in response to the same question, Biden pointed out that Pakistan’s nuclear warheads ought to concern us a lot more than Iran’s entirely hypothetical ones—and then sketched a plausible what-if scenario in which a U.S. attack on Iran provokes an Islamist takeover of Pakistan and its arsenal. (Thus might Bush start World War III by purporting to prevent it, a 21st-century megaversion of destroying the village in order to save it.)


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