- - Wednesday, December 4, 2013

It is as though Obamacare had an international equivalent. While Americans were busy celebrating Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the fallout continued from the administration’s recent decision to conclude a covenant of death with Iran. It’s easy to be confused by the obscure controversies over centrifuge numbers and enrichment percentages, not to mention press pundits turning back flips to rationalize Mr. Obama’s latest debacle-in-progress.

Just remember just one thing: Retired Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the former head of the National Security Agency and the CIA — someone who probably understands the intricacies of intelligence on Iran better than anybody else — declared that the agreement “hit the pause rather than the delete button.” It was, he told Newsmax, “practically the worst of all possible outcomes, because now [Iran becomes] a nuclear-capable state . And my fear is, this interim agreement, which doesn’t roll back much of anything becomes a permanent agreement.”

This means an Iranian nuclear weapon is now a foregone conclusion — a matter of when, not if. This despite red lines, endless jawboning and, for good measure, the deployment of the Stuxnet virus, a dual act of war and industrial sabotage inviting retaliation whenever it will best serve Iranian interests.

Still, weren’t we able to contain the Soviet Union? Didn’t mutual assured destruction guarantee a half-century of peace after the American nuclear monopoly was broken? Maybe, but Iran is the kind of adversary that can quickly make you lonesome for the Russians.

To illustrate: As the Iranian hostage situation first unfolded in 1979, I served as chairman for a panel discussion at Harvard’s Kennedy School, which featured professor Roger Fisher, co-author of “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.” An authority on negotiation theory, Fisher outlined strategies the Carter administration might reasonably follow in engineering the hostages’ release. One of my military colleagues was a member of the panel, a tough special-forces officer who had left the U.S. Embassy staff in Tehran only days before Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini turned the mobs loose. When his turn came, my military colleague’s reply was unforgettable. “Professor Fisher, I appreciate your advice, but you really don’t understand what we’re up against. The Iranians won’t negotiate about cutting your heart out. The only thing they’ll negotiate is afterwards — whether or not they should roast it over a slow fire.”

Even for those whose only exposure to the Persian mindset was viewing recent film “Argo,” it shouldn’t be hard to understand why Iran’s neighbors — based on several millennia of historical experience — have an understandable skepticism about glib White House assurances. There are a number of recent game-changers in this notoriously volatile region:

Diminishing nuclear deterrence: Deterrence was always about terror, the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that created a lingering awe of the only superpower to have used those dreaded weapons in combat. Deterrence can be compromised by fading memories, though, as well as revised reputations, such as when President Obama bases his foreign policy on coddling enemies, double-crossing allies and hollowing out the U.S. military. Since the U.S. cavalry is clearly not riding to the rescue, then self-help becomes the order of the day.

Incipient nuclear proliferation: The most overlooked recent lesson is that chemical weapons, long considered as the poor man’s nuke, were dismantled in both Libya and Syria. Nuclear weapons, however, continue their unchallenged track record for ensuring the stability of those regimes able to acquire them. That lesson is not likely to be lost on Saudi Arabia, which views Shiite Iran as a direct threat to itself and neighboring Sunni oil kleptocracies. Since kingdom petrodollars bought and paid for Pakistan’s nuclear development, it is assumed that a Saudi nuke could be supplied in short order. Another joker in the deck is Egypt, disowned as an American ally by Mr. Obama but a traditional military power in a tough neighborhood.

Changing regional alignments: Acknowledged or not, the basic regional alliances now pit Iran-Syria-Lebanon against Israel-Saudi Arabia-Egypt. Russia, with its newly rediscovered roles in both Syria and Egypt, is quickly displacing the United States as the key offshore balancer. Because power abhors a vacuum, that far-reaching displacement is just another casualty of the nonstrategy of leading from behind.

Questionable command and control: With more nuclear weapons in more hands, “Dr. Strangelove” might reappear on 21st-century screens, but as genuine tragedy rather than black comedy. Even with the steady injection of technology, U.S. and Soviet permissive-action links and fail-safe systems still needed a fair amount of luck to avoid an accidental detonation. What about Iranian, Saudi or even Egyptian nuclear forces? If they build such weapons, will they also invest in the technologies and practice the unforgiving disciplines needed to avoid the worst of all man-made calamities?

These are hard questions, even assuming that the new Iranian nukes are meant for deterrence rather than another holocaust.

Col. Ken Allard, retired from the Army, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.