Thursday, December 17, 2009


With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announcement that his country intends to build 10 new uranium enrichment facilities, it should now be patently clear that the effort to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons has failed.

For Tehran, the negotiations have been nothing more than one long stall — a ruse to buy time, conduct more tests, and hasten the day Iran becomes a nuclear power.

The mullahs — or the members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who may be in charge — intend to build the bomb. To date, no inducements from the West — no offers of integration into international community, economic assistance or the lifting of modest sanctions — have been able to deter them from their goal.

This leaves the United States and its international partners with three options:

First, persuade Russia and China to join in the imposition of more extensive, targeted sanctions against key financial and energy-related industries. It may be fanciful to think that the Iranian people, however courageous, could bring down the current regime that sits atop a million-man army and a brutally repressive and theocratic IRGC. But if the sanctions are sharp and biting enough, the possibility exists that Iranian leaders could change their conduct and even consider replacing certain colleagues whose words and deeds have produced such dire economic consequences. Admittedly, such a change of heart would not come easily, but a more moderate group of leaders might seize the opportunity to become a valued member of the international community rather than its pariah.

Second, set back the Iranian nuclear effort by military means - either by giving Israel our blessing to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities or by joining Israel in such an attack. A military operation would be extremely high risk, requiring an extraordinary amount of intelligence and operational precision to be successful. The probability that such action would produce a devastating backlash by many Muslims across the ideological spectrum is high, with potential untold consequences to the global economy. A military strike is a dangerous option, but may prove unavoidable if diplomacy and other efforts fail.

Third, we learn to live with an Iranian bomb.

At this moment, we appear headed toward option three. So it is worth reflecting on what living with a nuclear Iran would mean for the United States, the Middle East and the world.

A nuclear Iran would be emboldened in its efforts to destabilize the Middle East and export its revolutionary ideology. Armed with nuclear weapons, Iranian leaders would enjoy a sense of invincibility. This could lead to bolder interference in Iraq and Afghanistan, greater mischief in Lebanon and more aggressive support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Tehran also could incite Shia populations in the Gulf States, thus threatening the survival of moderate Arab governments.

Iran’s possession of a nuclear bomb would likely start a nuclear cascade across the Middle East, as nations threatened by Iran question U.S. security guarantees and seek their own deterrent capability. Within a decade, we could see the number of nuclear states grow dramatically, as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and others seek nuclear weapons to protect against Iranian aggression. This would spell the end of nonproliferation. As more nations develop their own nuclear deterrent, our ability to control nuclear stockpiles and prevent the spread of nuclear materials to dangerous actors could collapse.

A nuclear Iran would itself pose an unprecedented proliferation risk. Tehran already supplies dangerous weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, and might share nuclear materials with radical extremists. The result would be a growing risk that nuclear or radiological weapons will get in the hands of terrorists, who would not hesitate to use them against the U.S., Israel and other allies.

Some insist we could deter Iran much as we deterred the Soviet Union. This is far from clear. The leaders of the USSR dreamed of establishing a global communist empire, but they were also rational pragmatists whose first priority was survival in this world. The hard-line elements in Iran include religious fanatics who speak of ushering in the end of this world by hastening the arrival of the 12th Imam. While few Iranian officials are millenarian radicals, the existence of even one is too many. For such actors, the doctrine of “mutual assured destruction” might be taken as a promise, not a threat. We could wind up in a nuclear showdown with Iran, similar to the Cuban missile crisis, without the benign outcome.

These scenarios may seem far-fetched to some, but the terrible lesson of Sept. 11 is that “the future is not what it used to be.” Rather than yield to the notion that the nuclear ambitions of Iran’s current regime are unchangeable, we should redouble our efforts to bring about a change of heart in the regime through sanctions if possible; by other means if necessary.

• William S. Cohen is the chairman of the Cohen Group, an international business consulting firm. He served in the House and Senate from 1973 to 1996 and as secretary of defense from 1997 to 2001.

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