Living with the Iranian bomb

Containing a nuclear Iran may be less risky than a pre-emptive strike

Written by New York Times | Published:September 11, 2012 3:51 am

Containing a nuclear Iran may be less risky than a pre-emptive strike
Bill Keller

IRAN has returned to the front pages after a summer hiatus. Negotiations aimed at preventing the dreaded Persian Bomb have resumed their desultory course. Iran,although suffering from the international sanctions choreographed by the Obama administration,keeps adding new arrays of centrifuges while insisting the programme is strictly non-military. Israel is — or maybe isn’t — edging closer to a unilateral strike.

This strikes me as a good time to address an unnerving question that confronts any concerned student of this subject: Can we live with a nuclear Iran? Given a choice of raining bunker-busting munitions on Iran’s underground enrichment facilities,or,alternatively,containing a nuclear-armed Iran with the sobering threat of annihilation,which is the less bad option? As the slogan goes in Israel: “Bomb? Or The Bomb?”

The prevailing view now is that a nuclear Iran cannot be safely contained. On this point both President Obama and Mitt Romney agree.

However,there are serious,thoughtful people who are willing to contemplate a nuclear Iran,kept in check by the time-tested assurance of retaliatory destruction. If the US arsenal deterred the Soviet Union for decades of cold war and now keeps North Korea’s nukes in their silos,if India and Pakistan have kept each other in a nuclear stalemate,why would Iran not be similarly deterred by the certainty that using nuclear weapons would bring a hellish reprisal?

Anyone who has a glib answer to this problem isn’t taking the subject seriously.

Let’s assume,for starters,that Iran’s theocrats are determined to acquire nuclear weapons. Western analysts say there is no evidence yet that the supreme leader has made that decision. But if you ruled a country surrounded by unfriendly neighbours — Persians among the Arabs,Shiites among the Sunnis — a country with a grand sense of self-esteem,a tendency to paranoia and five nuclear powers nearby,wouldn’t you want the security of your own nuclear arsenal?

Let’s assume further that diplomacy,sanctions and computer viruses may not dissuade the regime from its nuclear ambitions.

A pre-emptive bombing campaign against Iran’s uranium factories would almost certainly require major US participation to be effective,and would not be neat. Beyond the immediate casualties,it would carry grave costs: outraged Iranians rallying behind this regime that is now deservedly unpopular; Iran or its surrogates lashing out against American and Israeli targets in a long-term,low-intensity campaign of retaliation; a scorching hatred of America on the newly empowered Arab street,generating new recruits for al-Qaeda and its ilk; an untimely oil shock to a fragile world economy; an unravelling of the united front Obama has assembled to isolate Iran. All that,and a redoubled determination by Iran’s leaders to do the one thing that would prevent a future attack: rebuild the nuclear assembly line,only this time faster and deeper underground.

Now imagine that Iran succeeds in making its way into the nuclear club.

Despite the incendiary rhetoric,it is hard to believe the aim of an Iranian nuclear programme is the extermination of Israel. The regime in Iran is brutal,mendacious and meddlesome,and given to spraying gobbets of Hitleresque bile at the Jewish state. But Israel is a nuclear power,backed by a bigger nuclear power. Before an Iranian mushroom cloud had bloomed to its full height over Tel Aviv,a flock of reciprocal nukes would be on the way to incinerate Iran. Iran may encourage fanatic chumps to carry out suicide missions,but there is not the slightest reason to believe the mullahs themselves are suicidal.

After immersing myself in the expert thinking on both sides,I think that,forced to choose,I would swallow hard and take the risks of a nuclear Iran over the gamble of a pre-emptive war. My view may be coloured by a bit of post-Iraq syndrome.

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