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Bush's Choice on Iran

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, January 30, 2006

The debate on Iran is drifting toward the ugly question that the Bush administration would most like to avoid. That is: Is it preferable for the United States to live with the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran, or with those of a unilateral American military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities?

President Bush has never answered that question; instead, he and his State Department have repeatedly called an Iranian bomb "intolerable" while building a diplomatic coalition that won't tolerate a military solution. But two of our more principled senators, Republican John McCain and Democrat Joe Lieberman, have this month faced the Iranian Choice -- and both endorsed military action. McCain was most direct: "There is only one thing worse than the United States exercising a military option," he said on "Face the Nation." "That is a nuclear-armed Iran."

It's easy to see why the Bush administration prefers ambiguity to McCain's decisive judgment. After all, both options are terrible, and everyone can agree that diplomacy is worth a try. Yet Bush and both parties in Congress ought to be thinking through their own answers to the Iranian Choice, for two reasons. First, it looks more likely than not that the United States will, in the end, have to make that decision; and, second, the answer to the question ought to shape how the coming diplomatic phase is managed.

One driver of the choice is the ranting of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about Israel and the Holocaust -- which, contrary to what a Western secular sensibility might suggest, is not necessarily a bluff. As Lieberman put it in his "Face the Nation" appearance a week ago, "if we should have learned one thing from 9/11 . . . it is that when somebody says over and over again, as Osama bin Laden did during the '90s, 'I hate you and give me the chance, I will kill you,' they may mean it and try to do it." If the West is going to gamble that it can contain a religious fanatic who possesses nuclear weapons and vows to wipe Israel from the map, it should do so knowingly, and not because it failed to provide for the possibility that an extremist would not respond to conventional diplomacy.

Another decision forcer is that, for all the talk among Iran watchers about opposition within the regime to Ahmadinejad, there is no evidence that anyone in Tehran disagrees with his judgment about negotiations with the West -- which is that Iran has no need to make a deal. Iranian leaders were universally dismissive of the offer made last summer by the European Union. There is no indication that any senior leader or faction favors giving up uranium enrichment, under any circumstances. Not even the democratic opposition wants it.

So the United States must approach the coming maneuvering in and outside the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency board, and any last-minute negotiations in Vienna, Moscow or Tehran, the way the Iranians probably do: not as an end in itself but as a prelude to more meaningful action. If the ultimate intent is to contain, rather than attack, the Iranian nuclear program, then dilatory and fruitless negotiations -- like those of the past two years -- are worthy and even desirable. Not only do they slow Iran's bomb-building but they help to cement a global coalition that might be able to deter the regime from actually using an eventual weapon over a long twilight era, Cold War-style.

If this is the choice, then aggressive efforts to support the Iranian democratic opposition also make sense, since over time the regime might be undermined from within. Russia and China should be courted. Brinkmanship -- like interrupting Iranian oil exports, or prompting Tehran to do so -- is to be avoided, since there is no military option to fall back on if the mullahs don't blink.

On the other hand, if McCain is right, then the current diplomatic campaign should be compressed. As in the case of Iraq, the United Nations and sanctions should be explored just long enough to show that the United States has tried them. That's because the timeline for military action is much shorter than that of containment: While it might not complete work on a weapon for five or even 10 years, according to most intelligence estimates, Iran will probably pass what Israel calls the "point of no return" far sooner. After that point, when Tehran will have acquired all the means it needs to manufacture a bomb, it would be considerably more difficult to stop the Iranian program by force. So, if military action is preferable to containment, then brinkmanship is called for, while promotion of Iranian democracy, or painstaking cultivation of Russia and China, is a waste of time.

So what is the Bush administration doing? It is allowing talks to drag on, and slowly courting Russia and China, but doing next to nothing to help Iranian democrats; it is drawing up lists of sanctions that, if imposed, might trigger a crisis, but it is also laying the groundwork for long-term containment. Perhaps the president has decided what course he will choose if Iranian uranium enrichment proceeds in spite of negotiations, U.N. resolutions or even sanctions. If so, his administration's current tactics show no sign of it.


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