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What's Missing From the Iran Debate

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, and other officials watch a military parade in Tehran last year.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, and other officials watch a military parade in Tehran last year. (Hasan Sarbakhshian -- Associated Press)

The context within which these national strategies and decisions are interacting is being reshaped by two factors. First, oil prices have exploded, greatly enriching Iran and making clear to the West the economic and political pain and destruction that could come from a serious disruption in the flow of oil. Second is Iran's belief that it has gained a strategic advantage against the United States as a result of its being tied down in Iraq, and against Israel, because of the tactical blunting, if not defeat, of its military in Lebanon.

The United States must figure out and articulate its strategic objectives regarding Iran's nuclear program. At present, its actions and rhetoric are often as conflicted as those of the Islamic Republic.

And while not all would agree with Sen. John McCain's assessment that the only thing worse than a U.S. or Israeli military attack on Iran would be Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, few in the mainstream of American politics seem ready to go on the record with a plan for "the day after" that does not involve military action.

Two concerns seem to be most absent from discussion of Iran's "nuclear future," whatever it is: First, what policies would limit any advantage, political or military, that Iran might gain from such weapons? Second, how do we begin to craft, with all the states of the region -- including Israel and Iran -- political, economic and security arrangements that recognize their varied interests and concerns and their often very different perspectives on what these are? In the end, we need to decide how we can perform damage control and create arrangements that take into account states' varied interests.

Figuring this out is not rocket science. But we must begin the process of discussion, consultation, planning and acting that will lay the groundwork for a future far different from either the conflicts of the past or the current path toward a regional conflagration that may well involve nuclear weapons.

The United States, along with all of the states in the Middle East, has to create security policies that guarantee that acts of aggression will not be allowed to threaten any state's survival while also beginning to build the economic institutions and policies that can create a future where war seems impossible. While Iran's economy suffers, engagement is more feasible.

What is hard is the actual act of stepping off the (probably sinking) ship we stand on to construct a very different vessel. This is one of those times in history when will is more important than brilliance and when determination to shape a different future is more vital than experience in rituals of the past.

The writer led the U.N. inspections after the Persian Gulf War that uncovered the Iraqi nuclear program. He later led the CIA's Iraq Survey Group, which determined there were no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction at the time of the 2003 invasion. A longer version of this article appears in the September/October issue of the National Interest.

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