As the United States and five other world powers engage in talks in Moscow with Iran over its production of high-grade uranium, Washington ought to meaningfully deploy the instrument of military power from its oft-cited all-options-on-the-table rhetoric. The United States sat down Monday with Iranian officials and counterparts from China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany to address Tehran's growing stockpile of enriched uranium.
Iran for years has threatened international peace with its nuclear aspirations. Tehran claims its uranium processing is only for energy and medical research, but the world has grave and justifiable concerns about a secret nuclear-weapons program as well as Iran's calculated running out of the clock until its arms project comes online.
Over the years, Washington and the United Nations have slapped on an array of ever-tighter sanctions against Iran, to no avail. Endless talks and summits also have failed to arrest Iran's nuclear ambitions. Judging by history, only the credible show of military action will get Tehran's attention for a resolution.
We've been here before. An early example of resolute action to stare down a rogue took place with North Korea as the Soviet Union fell into the historical dustbin. Unrestrained by the Kremlin, Pyongyang stepped up its nuclear operations. U.S. satellites soon detected nuclear activity contravening the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty, signed by Pyongyang in 1985. In reaction, President George H.W. Bush scaled back his engagement policy toward the North and delayed the planned withdrawal of 6,000 U.S. troops from South Korea. Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin L. Powell uttered an uncharacteristic threat: "If [the North Koreans] missed Desert Storm, this is a chance to catch a rerun." America's military power, technological superiority and, mostly, unapologetic resoluteness stood awesomely pre-eminent after its stunning victory in the Persian Gulf War.
Pyongyang was awed, and it relented because of Mr. Bush's insistence. It accepted international weapons inspections in May 1992. The International Atomic Energy Agency's probe uncovered the North's duplicitous accounting for 90 grams of separated plutonium. To this day, that revelation remains the loose thread that unraveled multiple prevarications about plutonium reprocessing until the country's fizzled nuclear test in 2006 confirmed all the suspicion of its true designs.
Even the bellicose Saddam Hussein suddenly became amenable to readmitting U.N. arms inspectors after President George W. Bush went to the General Assembly in September 2002. There, Mr. Bush pledged that U.N. resolutions against Iraq for suspected illicit nuclear and chemical arms "will be enforced - or action will be unavoidable." Mr. Bush's warning and the massive military buildup under way in Kuwait and Qatar persuaded Saddam to drop his restrictions and open the door to the U.N. Monitoring and Verification Commission. Previously, he had frustrated U.N. searches until the commission's predecessor pulled out of Iraq in 1998.
In the wake of the U.S. and allied intervention to topple Saddam, other rogues grew wary. Believing a similar fate awaited him, the Libyan tyrant, Moammar Gadhafi, felt intimations of mortality. Soon after the "shock and awe" phase in the Iraq War, he was quoted in Le Figaro as saying that "when Bush has finished with Iraq, he'll turn on us."
Libya's tyrant flinched and abandoned his nuclear-arms goal, which A.Q. Kahn, the Pakistani scientist and nuclear-weapons peddler, had aided and abetted in the Libyan deserts. Gadhafi ratted out Khan to the world, opened his nuclear and chemical facilities to international inspectors and brought his country in from the cold almost a decade before he was ousted by his rebellious countrymen. Mr. Bush unsubtly greeted the Libyan U-turn when he said, "In words and actions, we have clarified the choices left to potential adversaries."
The U.S. incursion into Iraq also may have yielded a temporary pause in Iran's nuclear-arms program. Tehran certainly was apprehensive that American forces might roll eastward onto Iranian soil. The National Intelligence Estimate in 2007 declared in a still-controversial report that Iran halted secret work on nuclear arms in 2003. The moment of panic passed as the spreading Iraqi insurgency preoccupied Washington. Moreover, the Iraqi Study Group, a panel convened by Congress to find a way out of Iraq, suggested among its 79 recommendations that Washington reach out to Iran to salvage its failing policy.
A beseeching Washington signaled to Tehran that America was not to be feared. Mr. Bush retrieved the foundering counterinsurgency with additional troops and a new strategy. But Iran still understood that it had dodged a bullet. Soon after, the incoming Obama administration looked for rapprochement with Iran before tightening sanctions.
What is historically clear is that sanctions have played no role in persuading rogue regimes to stand down their nuclear programs. Tough language combined with the credible threat of military force offers a surer course for diplomacy than sanctions alone. The comments recently uttered by Dan Shapiro, U.S. ambassador to Israel, to an Israeli audience are a step in the right direction and should be endorsed by the Oval Office. The envoy stated that the United States is not just willing to use military action to stop Iran from building nuclear arms but the "necessary planning has been done to ensure that it's ready." A steel-edged declaration from Mr. Obama backed by an unmistakable display of armed might would go further than the overused and hollow phrase that "all options are on the table" when referring to his administration's approach to Iran.
Thomas Henriksen is senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and author of the book "America and the Rogue States" (Palgrave Macmillan, June 19, 2012).