Nuclear Meltdown

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.)

Those two answers cracked open the door to the two big questions that need asking about Iran. First, what might be the full price and unintended consequences of a U.S. attack? For starters, as Biden suggested, radicalizing still more of the Islamic world to an extent that’s much more troublesome than Iran’s unpleasantness.

And second, if diplomacy fails, could the U.S. live with a nuclearized Iran? As far as I can tell, no plausible 44th president has seriously discussed this question—the Republicans, apparently, because they consider it axiomatic that the answer is no, and the Democrats because they politically don’t dare say the answer may be yes.

“It is not a good answer to say, ‘Well, we did containment with the Soviets and the Chinese,’ ” Giuliani argues. For the USSR and China, “there was a residual self-interest, or you might even call it a residual rationality, that said, ‘We don’t want to die.’ ”

This is almost certainly a false view of the Iranian régime, and a dangerous one. And do we trust the geopolitical instincts of a permanently enraged former mayor of New York, or, say, those of the man who until last spring commanded the U.S. military from Pakistan through the whole Middle East? “There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran,” General John Abizaid explained recently. “I believe that the United States … can contain Iran. I believe nuclear deterrence will work with the Iranians. I mean, Iran is not a suicide nation.”

So far most Americans, bless them, aren’t frightened out of their minds. According to the latest CNN poll, 77 percent of people believe that Tehran is indeed developing nuclear weapons, but 68 percent oppose U.S. military action against Iran. And this time there is no cast of liberal hawks beating the drums for war. Kenneth Pollack, whose 2002 book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, was hugely influential, wants diplomatic outreach to Iran. Bob Kerrey and Slate’s Jacob Weisberg supported the invasion in 2003, but they’re in no way onboard for Iran. “Iran is a deterrable threat,” the former U.S. senator told me last week. “We are blowing it out of perspective” with “crazy rhetoric.” And Weisberg reckons “there are almost no circumstances I can envision under which I would support American military action to preempt Iran becoming a nuclear power. I’d like to think I’d hold the same view if I hadn’t made the mistake of supporting the invasion of Iraq.”

But would he? Would any of us? The shadow of Iraq makes it almost impossible to see Iran clearly. Nor is it just that we’ve been chastened by the present debacle—it’s also changed the facts on the ground: If we hadn’t bungled Iraq, the costs of attacking Iran wouldn’t now look so prohibitive.

And then there’s the almost unspeakably complicated issue of where U.S. national interests and Israeli national interests diverge. Maybe we could cope with a nuclear-armed Iran, but Israel’s bet on deterrence would be orders of magnitude bigger than ours—and one that it will undoubtedly be unprepared to make. “The problem the next president is most likely to face,” Weisberg says, “is how to prevent a preemptive Israeli strike [on Iran’s nuclear facilities] from turning into a wider Iranian-Israeli or Israeli-Muslim conflict.”

Before we get there, the first giant domino to fall one way or the other will be ElBaradei’s U.N. report card, in two weeks. If he says Iran has been sufficiently cooperative and transparent, the forces of reason and prudence can redouble their case for a serious diplomatic offensive, and educate Americans about relevant recent history.

They can explain that the Iranian régime is not a one-nutty-man dictatorship—that it comprises factions which exist in a perpetual, quasi-democratic competition. They can point out that Ahmadinejad’s term ends in 2009, and that he may now be as unpopular in Iran as Bush is in the U.S. A majority of the Iranian Parliament has signed an open letter criticizing him.

They can say all of that. But if ElBaradei—an Egyptian who’s bent over backward to save the Iranians from themselves—tells the world that the Iranians are being opaque or deceptive about their nuclear programs, all those hopeful, illuminating facts will suddenly be much less reassuring. And it won’t be so easy to just keep saying that it’s George Bush crying wolf again.


Nuclear Meltdown