The White House believes there is an Islamic bomb in your future. Associated Press reported Tuesday that the Obama administration is “quietly laying the groundwork for long-range strategy that could be used to contain a nuclear-equipped Iran and deter its leaders from using atomic weapons.” Granted this could be routine contingency planning, but it’s believable that President Obama is pursuing an acquiescent policy given his foundering efforts to dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear capability.
American planners are pondering whether Iran can be deterred from using nuclear weapons. This is the wrong question. They should instead examine how the United States will be deterred should Iran go nuclear.
Even under the current equation (the United States has nuclear weapons and Iran does not), Iran is the number one state sponsor of terrorists, supplies Hamas and Hezbollah with rockets and conventional weapons, and gives materiel, training and intelligence support to extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iran is directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of more American military personnel than any other country since the Vietnam War. Tehran does not lack the will to stand up to the United States even without nuclear weapons. It’s chilling to consider how much more bold Iran will be with an atomic arsenal.
A nuclear Iran would not immediately launch a full-scale war. At the very least, Tehran would need time to enlarge its nuclear stockpile. But testing a nuclear weapon would give the Islamic Republic an instant insurance policy against regime change. They know that the United States would not respond to their new capability with vigor, so Iran will use nuclear leverage to pursue conflict at the lower ends of the conflict scale.
This is the most important lesson of Cold War-style nuclear deterrence: preventing warfare at the nuclear level encouraged conflict by other means. This was demonstrated by the explosion of unconventional wars from the 1950s to the 1980s.
The United States maintains that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be “unacceptable,” but this is empty rhetoric. Witness the case of North Korea. On Oct. 21, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told an audience in Seoul, “We do not today - nor will we ever - accept a North Korea with nuclear weapons.” News flash to Mr. Gates: The United States has accepted a nuclear-armed North Korea since Pyongyang tested an atomic bomb in 2006. The U.S. government took no concerted action to back up its “no North Korean nukes” policy.
Saying a course of action is unacceptable and not imposing serious consequences once the line is crossed is irresponsible and encourages other countries to test the same limits. Hence, when the United States declares that Iran “will not be permitted” to achieve nuclear-weapons capability, Tehran’s response is: Says who?
The United States should be planning for the more probable contingency of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program. When Israel says something is unacceptable, it means it, and Israel is not afraid to back up its statements with force.
Israel has consistently taken military action against nuclear threats from their hostile neighbors. An Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear program will have significant consequences for the region, and Washington will be required to demonstrate strong leadership.
The coming conflict will require more than another goodwill tour of the Middle East by Mr. Obama or a tart comment from the secretary of state. A war is brewing, and the United States should get serious about which side it wants to be on.