Some have argued that even in the worst-case scenario, a nuclear Iran could be deterred. Yet this ignores the immensely costly, complex and tension-ridden realities of Cold War-era deterrence, the apocalyptic strain in the Iranian theocracy and the near-certainty that several regional powers will go nuclear if Iran does. Once nuclear balances are forged in conditions where tensions are no longer purely bilateral, as in the Cold War, and in still-developing countries whose technology to prevent accidents is rudimentary, the likelihood of some nuclear exchange will mount dramatically.
This is why the United States has insisted on limits on Iranian enrichment — that is, curtailing access to a weapon’s precursor elements. Abandoning the original demand to ban all enrichment, the P5+1 has explored what levels of production of fissile material are compatible with the peaceful uses authorized by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The higher the level of enrichment, the shorter the time needed to bring about militarily applicable results. Conventional wisdom holds that the highest practically enforceable limit is 5 percent enrichment, and then only if all fissile material beyond an agreed amount is safeguarded outside Iran.
The time available for a diplomatic outcome shrinks in direct proportion as the Iranian enrichment capacity grows and a military nuclear capacity approaches. The diplomatic process must therefore be brought to a point of decision. The P5+1 or the United States unilaterally must put forward a precise program to curtail Iranian enrichment with specific time limits.
This does not imply a red line authorizing any country to go to war. However respectfully the views of friends are considered, the ultimate decision over peace or war must remain in the hands of the president. Why negotiate with a country of such demonstrated hostility and evasiveness? Precisely because the situation is so fraught. Diplomacy may reach an acceptable agreed outcome. Or its failure will mobilize the American people and the world. It will clarify either the causes of an escalating crisis, up to the level of military pressure, or ultimate acquiescence in an Iranian nuclear program. Either outcome will require a willingness to see it through to its ultimate implications. We cannot afford another strategic disaster.
To the extent that Iran shows willingness to conduct itself as a nation-state, rather than a revolutionary religious cause, and accepts enforceable verification, elements of Iranian security concerns should be taken seriously, including gradual easing of sanctions as strict limits on enrichment are implemented and enforced. But time will be urgent. Tehran must be made to understand that the alternative to an agreement is not simply a further period of negotiation and that using negotiations to gain time will have grave consequences. A creative diplomacy, allied to a determined strategy, may still be able to prevent a crisis provided the United States plays a decisive role in defining permissible outcomes.
2012 Tribune Media Services