Which would be worse if sanctions and diplomacy fail: the aftermath of an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran to set back its nuclear program, or the Tehran regime having the bomb?

Of course, one hopes the sanctions/diplomacy route succeeds. But what if it doesn’t?

If you measure the level of public discussion, hands down the worst would be having Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and/or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad armed with nuclear weapons.

However, within the intelli-gence community and among its retirees there are some ex-perienced analysts who believe that Iran’s leaders with nuclear weapons wouldn’t be much different than they are today, with their first concern being holding on to power, not using a weapon to wipe out Israel and thereby bring about their own destruction.

That approach has been sensibly argued by Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA intelligence analyst and a national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005. He was deeply involved back then when internal doubts about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs were low-keyed by CIA leaders and ignored by the George W. Bush White House.

“An Iran with a bomb would not be anywhere near as dangerous as most people assume, and a war to try to stop it from acquiring one would be less successful and far more costly than most people imagine,” Pillar writes in the current issue of Washington Monthly.

Pillar, who teaches at Georgetown University, points out that despite all the “belli-cosity and political rhetoric” about the issue, the idea of an Iran with the bomb “has been subjected to precious little careful analysis.” Conventional wisdom is that Tehran’s leaders would become more dangerous to their neighbors and the United States, Pillar states.

He cites the repeated stereotyping that Iran’s rulers are “religious fanatics who value martyrdom more than life, cannot be counted on to act rationally and, therefore, cannot be deterred.” Pillar notes that the past 30 years have proved that although they promote martyrdom to defend the homeland, “they have never given any indication of wanting to become martyrs themselves.”

Pillar says that since the 1979 revolution against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Islamic Republic of Iran has conducted a “cautious” policy toward the world. He acknowledges targeted assassinations in the 1980s and 1990s of exiled dissidents, but avoids mentioning Tehran’s anti-Americanism, its threats to Israel and its support of Hamas and Hezbollah, groups the United States and Israel consider terrorist organizations. He also fails to mention Iran’s military aid to dissident forces in Iraq.

Of course, Americans forget that the United States and Britain overthrew the popularly elected government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in August 1953 — something all Iranians remember. Americans also ignore Washington’s open policy of “regime change” in Tehran, promoted most pro-minently during the Bush years.

There is no lack of bitterness on both sides. That may prevent Americans from weighing Pillar’s cold analysis that “Iran’s rulers are constantly balancing a very worldly set of strategic interests” and from thinking “principles of deterrence are not invalid just because the party to be deterred wears a turban and a beard.”

There are two other possible dangers associated with Iranians having the bomb — they would arm terrorists, or they would feel shielded and become more generally aggressive. The Bush administration used the former to help build support for invading Iraq: Saddam Hussein would give a nuke to terrorists.

As the CIA argued in 2002 about Hussein, Pillar says Iran’s leaders have no incentive to lose control over a nuke. In Iran’s case, any use by terrorists would be traced to Tehran and bring swift retaliation. Tehran, he argues, would use nukes only in self-defense.

As for making Iran bolder in supporting terrorist groups, Pillar argues that Tehran’s main reason for obtaining the bomb is “in deterring aggression against one’s own country.”

Pillar also questions why the argument that any Israeli/U.S. attack on Iran to set back its nuclear program uses the “best case” scenario that Tehran’s response would be limited, while only a “worst case” analysis is made of Iran getting the bomb. If the armed attack by Israel or the United States is analyzed under “worst case” scenarios, Pillar says, “we would be hearing about a regional conflagration involving multiple U.S. allies, sucking in U.S. forces beyond the initial assault.”

He said such an attack also “would be an immediate political gift to Iranian hard-liners.”

An attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities of course would disrupt oil markets and raise gas prices. Look at what just the threat of such an attack is doing.

“War or a world with an Iranian bomb are not the only alternatives,” Pillar says. Talks are planned; diplomacy plus sanctions are still in play.

Even if Iran gets a bomb, “Israel would retain overwhelming military superiority with its own nuclear weapons — which international think tanks estimate to number at least 100 and possibly 200,” Pillar says. With its military assets, Israel “would continue to outclass by far anything Iran will have,” he concludes.


For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.