A similar deal with Iran could be developed. It could start with selling Iran 20-percent enriched uranium fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor in return for an Iranian pledge to stop its own enrichment beyond 5 percent — the level required to fuel nuclear electricity plants. If Iran were to agree, the United States could communicate privately to it that any violation of that agreement would justify U.S. military action. A U.N. Security Council Resolution could also authorize states to take punitive actions to enforce the deal.
The sweetener would be acknowledgement of Iran’s right to enrich uranium to the level required for fuel for civilian nuclear electricity plants, in return for its adherence to maximal nuclear inspections and related transparency measures. In effect, everyone gets something they want. Together with intelligence efforts by the United States and other countries, such a deal would offer the best assurance available that Iran is not secretly undertaking a nuclear weapons program.
Creating an agreement that would be acceptable not only by the standards of Iran’s Supreme Leader but also by those of U.S. and Israeli politics would be a challenge equal to JFK’s finest hour. For Obama, it would require imagination, courage and a willingness to weather what would undoubtedly be withering attacks from political opponents. Still, even if such a plan would be ugly and painful, it is clearly preferable to either war or a nuclear-armed Iran.
The first and most important lesson from the Missile Crisis for Obama is that when presented with a binary choice between unacceptable options, it is important to explore alternatives that, however unacceptable, are less catastrophic. Kennedy summarized his key take-away from the Missile Crisis this way: Success requires averting “confrontations that bring an adversary to a choice of either humiliating retreat or nuclear war.”
Graham Allison is director of Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and author of the book
Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe
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