Preventing Nuclear-Armed Iran Remains a Top U.S. Priority in 2010

January 4, 2010

As the year 2009 ended, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed a deadline from the United States and our allies on a United Nations deal to halt uranium enrichment, a key component in Iran’s nuclear program. This is the latest in a series of snubs by the Iranian regime beset by increasing domestic unrest. In December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts have “produced very little in terms of a positive response,” and she also conceded what many of us have thought all along: “Additional pressure is going to be called for.”
                                Rising Tensions
A nuclear-armed Iran would have global implications, particularly for strong U.S. allies in the Middle East, including Israel. During a speech before the U.N. in September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed this point, saying, “The greatest threat facing the world today is the marriage between religious fanaticism and the weapons of mass destruction, and the most urgent challenge facing this body is to prevent the tyrants of Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
All evidence indicates Iran is accelerating its pursuit of a nuclear bomb. The failure of diplomacy has led the Obama administration to consider alternative options in dealing with Iran. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently declared that a military option could not be ruled out. In an annual assessment of the nation’s military risks and priorities he wrote, “My belief remains that political means are the best tools to attain regional security and that military force will have limited results. However, should the president call for military options, we must have them ready.”
I share Admiral Mullen’s view that we should first exhaust our political options. Our strongest non-military approach is economic sanctions. Currently, Iran is subject to a range of U.S. sanctions, which place restrictions on trade, investment, and foreign aid. Efforts are underway in Congress to strengthen U.S. leverage with partners, such as China and Russia, to back international sanctions. Recently, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that would authorize President Obama to impose sanctions on nations that sell or otherwise provide Iran with refined oil. The Senate will consider similar legislation soon. 
                                Potential Outcomes
As the U.S. addresses this international priority, which promises to intensify this year, there are three scenarios that could unfold:
The first is that the international community would have to contend with a nuclear-armed Iran. With nuclear capability, Iran would have greater leverage than ever to impose its will on the Middle East and create unprecedented regional instability. This could heighten the likelihood that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist organizations, which have a long history of support from Iran. These terrorists have pledged to destroy America and spread violence across the globe. It would be illogical to ask our soldiers to fight terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and Iraq, while ignoring Iran’s role in bolstering terrorism.
The second scenario is that Israel, which is within reach of Iran’s missiles, could act unilaterally to protect itself. Israel has taken such action in the past. In 1981, Israel staged the world’s first airstrike against a nuclear plant and took out Iraq’s Osirak reactor. More recently, Israel launched a strike on a partially constructed nuclear reactor in Syria. An attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would certainly prove more difficult, as facilities have been strategically spread across the country. As Prime Minister Netanyahu warned, “History has shown us time and again that what starts with attacks on the Jews eventually ends up engulfing many others.” Because Israel would face a tremendous tactical challenge that would likely require the involvement of the U.S. and other allies, this option should be viewed as a last resort.
The third and most hopeful scenario would involve the Iranian people themselves and a democratic uprising that is not as far-fetched as some believe. Iran has a century-old tradition of democracy, and the world is now seeing how thin the people’s support for the regime truly is. When President Ahmadinejad’s term was extended in June, millions of civilians took to the streets to protest the hijacked election. In late December, hundreds of thousands of Iranians flocked to the religious capital of Qom for the funeral of the Shite cleric who helped lead the largest anti-government movement in three decades. Just last week, new demonstrations against government oppression erupted in cities across the country. The regime, clearly threatened by its empowered populace, responded with deadly violence. A number of democratic activists were shot and killed, while many others were arrested. The population of Iran, the majority of which is under the age of 30, is ideologically primed to lead the way to a hopeful future, free from the oppression of the current regime.
Despite the many challenges posed by Iran, there is hope. This issue will remain a top priority for the U.S., and we should work to employ the diplomatic strength of the world to bring about change in Iran’s behavior. In addition to sanctions, we must demonstrate U.S. support and encouragement for the democratic yearnings of the Iranian people to usher in a new government that serves and protects their interests.