Sunday, October 19, 2003

It is time to admit that Iran will follow North Korea’s example and become a de facto nuclear-weapon state in the absence of a U.S. preventive military attack or a powerful international diplomatic offensive. Unilateral U.S. military action against Iran is not in the cards anytime soon, for reasons that the situation in Iraq makes painfully clear.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has said “we never want to do another Iraq,” and that was last summer when the level of optimism over the Iraq occupation was much higher than it is now. Multilateral military action is also out of the question: quite simply, there are no volunteers for that job. Diplomacy is the only recourse, but it must rise to the occasion, and it has not, so far.

Iran’s response to the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for greater access to its nuclear facilities has already been more sophisticated than Saddam Hussein’s was to another sort of deadline. A full acceptance of the IAEA’s Oct. 31 deadline for meeting those demands would be a welcome first step. But it will not guarantee the necessary halt to the construction of Iran’s uranium enrichment complexes.

Iranian authorities are very unlikely to do that without stronger incentives (or threats) than are now on the table. As for plutonium, Russia is requiring that Iran return the irradiated fuel rods from the reactor Moscow is helping it to build. That would prevent Iran from acquiring bomb-grade plutonium, the other fuel for a nuclear weapon. But a state determined to build a nuclear arsenal could be expected to find ways to circumvent these restrictions as well. The only solution to the problem of nuclear proliferation in Iran must address intentions as well as capabilities.

The United States seems to be banking on its European friends to raise the potential costs to Iran of nuclear weaponization, much as it is now relying upon China to stop North Korea’s weapons program. This makes sense, but it is not a complete answer. Pursuit of nuclear weapons is the result of regional insecurity; other players — notably, those closer to home that concern Iran more directly — must be brought into the equation.

If Iran joins Israel as a de facto nuclear weapon state, with three other nuclear weapon states — Russia, India and Pakistan — nearby, it is very unlikely that other nations in the vicinity will be able to resist launching or accelerating their own nuclear weapon programs. It is not at all inconceivable that a Middle East with four, five, or six nuclear weapon states — including Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — will be the reality of the early decades of the 21st century.

Nobody should want that outcome — least of all those who put their trust in a resurrection of the Cold War model of stability. The U.S.-Soviet nuclear standoff was stabilized by very different conditions. The United States and the Soviet Union had no territorial demands against each other and their military forces never engaged in large-scale direct combat with each other. That is not the case in the Middle East. Far from it.

More to the point, a nuclear balance of terror in the Middle East is not inevitable. But American diplomacy is doing too little, too late to reverse course along an all-too-orthodox and pedestrian path. Its main flaw is that it is not truly regional in scope. It asks nothing of Israel, or of Pakistan or India. Vague threats are made against the Syrians, whose alleged nuclear aspirations are unlikely to be diminished by last week’s Israeli air attack. Egypt and Saudi Arabia seem not to be on the radar screen in the nuclear field at all.

The United States must offer a broader vision of a nuclear-free region. The presence of American troops in the Middle East makes this the time for both creative thinking and decisive action. The moment will not last too long.

James Goodby is a former U.S. ambassador, currently affiliated with the Brookings Institution and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kenneth Weisbrode is a councilor of the Atlantic Council of the United States.

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