In 1981, Israeli leaders sent bombers to destroy Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak. Rafael Eitan, then Israel’s Army chief of staff, is said to have explained the motivation succinctly: “The alternative is our destruction.”
Three decades later, the militant jihadist regime in Iran is developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. It also, not just coincidently, is supporting terrorist groups abroad, facilitating the killing of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, vowing to wipe Israel off the map and promising, in the longer term, “a world without America.”
It’s a plan - one that we will find a way to stop if we have learned anything from history. Both President George W. Bush and President Obama have said it would be unacceptable for Iran’s current rulers to have their fingers on nuclear triggers. The reality, however, is that the Bush administration took no serious steps to prevent Tehran from making progress toward that goal, and it remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will bring change on this critical issue of national and international security.
Israel’s attack on Saddam’s nuclear facilities resulted in a chorus of international condemnation. Over time, however, minds changed. “[What] the Israelis did at Osirak in 1981 … in retrospect, was a really good thing,” President Clinton later said, articulating what has become the consensus view on both the moderate left and the moderate right.
Still, does history need to be repeated? There is one other possibility, one non-military tool that has not been utilized: serious economic sanctions or, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton phrased it, “crippling sanctions.” If sanctions were to cause Iran’s rulers to worry whether their drive for nuclear weapons is weakening - rather than strengthening - their hold on power, that could lead to a breakthrough. Or, if the discomfort caused by the sanctions were to prompt Iranians to rise up even more strongly against their oppressors, that also might bring a positive result - for Iranians and for the rest of the world.
What would serious sanctions look like? To begin, the United States, perhaps with the assistance of some European allies, would cut off shipments of gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran. Only a few companies, mostly European, now supply these products that Iran desperately needs because, though a major oil producer, it has constructed few oil refineries.
Shipping companies, banks and insurance companies that underwrite the trade also could be discouraged from continuing to participate in this business. Legislation to achieve such results, such as the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, has strong bipartisan support - three-quarters of both the Senate and the House.
James Woolsey, CIA director under President Clinton, has suggested that the White House and Congress, in addition, should make clear that from now on “any company that does any kind of business with an Iranian entity - not just the Revolutionary Guards, not just oil and gas companies, but any entity - can do no business with the United States government.”
There are those advising Mr. Obama that such pressure can only serve to antagonize Iran’s rulers who, they insist, have legitimate grievances against us. It requires forbearance not to regard these advisers as terminally naive. Others argue that nothing short of military force can be effective, that Iran’s rulers will withstand economic pressure, no matter how crippling, in order to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction they can use to intimidate - or incinerate - those they see as enemies of God.
But why not test that theory - and quickly, given how fast Iran is moving toward the finish line? If sanctions prove ineffective, at least we will know for certain that only two options remain. The first is bad: the use of force by the United States or, more likely, Israel. The second is worse: watching passively for the second time in less than a hundred years as fanatical and ruthless tyrants acquire the capabilities to match their clearly stated intentions.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.