Thursday, December 22, 2005

For American policymakers, it is difficult to think of any geopolitical challenges that are currently more troubling than the prospect that Islamic Republic of Iran — already one of the most violent, paranoid regimes in the world — could soon develop nuclear weapons.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has vowed that a wave of Palestinian attacks would destroy Israel, and has questioned whether the Holocaust took place.

If these were just the demented ravings of a powerless lunatic, they could easily be dismissed as mere bluster. But the Islamist regime in Tehran must be taken seriously. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution that overthrew the shah, Tehran has been one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism. During the past two years, much has been learned about Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons; we now know that since the mid-1980s, the regime has pursued covert efforts to develop such weapons, in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Were Iran to actually develop nuclear weapons, it would have the ability to continue funneling millions of dollars each year to organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas without fear of punishment. It would also develop a formidable (and perhaps impregnable) capability to deter meaningful U.S. retaliation for its role in fomenting Iraq’s terrorist insurgency and harboring al Qaeda operatives.

In short, nuclear weapons in the hands of the current Iranian regime would be an intolerable threat to world peace and to American foreign-policy interests. If nothing is done, Mr. Ahmadinejad, his boss, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards will soon have these weapons in their possession. Even the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei — whose response to the Iranian challenge has been lethargic — acknowledges that once Iran has developed the capability to enrich uranium, it will be only a few months away from being able to produce nuclear weapons.

Since new revelations about Iran’s nuclear program became public nearly three years ago, we have heard from numerous military experts and friends of Iranian democracy — people who have no use for the current regime — who counsel against military action. But the critics themselves are deeply divided over what to do: Some say the right combination of sanctions and political pressure will “contain” Tehran; others believe that a democratic revolution is right around the corner and that that could resolve the issue. Others — delusionalists, in our view — believe that European Union diplomacy could somehow persuade the ayatollahs not to continue their efforts to develop atomic bombs.

All proposed alternatives to using force have serious defects — in particular, the fact that, if they fail, they give Iran more time to master the nuclear fuel cycle and produce weapons.

Another reality is that military strategists in Israel, outside the government, are seriously discussing the prospect of military action against Iranian weapons facilities. Given the Iranian leadership’s genocidal statements about Israel, against the history of the Israeli destruction of Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, such action can’t be ruled out. Over the coming weeks, we expect to examine the prospective benefits and risks of military action against Iran — and the risks of not acting before Iran acquires nuclear weapons. We will further look at who — Americans, Israelis, some kind of Iraq-style “coalition of the willing”or the United Nations — would be best suited to take that action.

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