Ever since 1945, when nuclear weapons began entering the arsenals of the great powers, thoughtful observers have worried over how to prevent the spread of these lethal instruments. It was bad enough that they were possessed by the world’s major nations. But at least the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China were ruled by people rational enough not to actually use them.
But what if certain small nations, perhaps including some ruled by reckless dictators who could not be counted on to behave sensibly, developed or obtained nuclear weapons? That was the real nightmare. The major powers confronted it by persuading most of the world’s countries to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, pledging themselves not to seek nuclear arms. There were some exceptions — Israel, for one, refused to sign, and is known to have a nuclear arsenal — but for a while the policy worked reasonably well.
The trouble is that at least two relatively small but obstreperous nations — Iran and North Korea — are becoming sophisticated enough, technologically, to construct nuclear weapons, and are showing every sign of intending to use them to blackmail the rest of the world. North Korea is believed to have several nuclear bombs already, and Iran is thought to be within a few years, or even months, of doing so.
This grim problem has shown up on President Bush’s watch, and he cannot escape having to decide what to do about it. Earlier presidents gladly postponed a decision, but Bush doesn’t have that luxury. The Democrats, too, are fortunate: They don’t have to propose a solution. They can wait to see what Bush does, and then criticize that, whatever it is. Bush alone must decide.
As far as Iran is concerned, all the evidence suggests that its ruling mullahs intend to go full-steam ahead toward producing nuclear weapons, while intermittently offering to negotiate with the major powers to keep them from initiating effective counter-measures.
What counter-measures? There are only two possibilities. One is stringent economic sanctions. The other is military action.
Sanctions might work, if Russia and China could be persuaded to cooperate. Iran’s sole important export is oil, and barring it from the world market would, in the beginning, hurt the rest of the world even more than Iran. But over the long haul global supplies would adjust to the demand, and the pain inflicted on Iran would become severe. The trouble is that it would hurt the Iranian people even more than its government, and most Western nations are not immune to such humanitarian considerations. The odds are, therefore, that sanctions won’t work.
That leaves military action, and there are those who say that won’t work either. Iran’s production facilities for nuclear weapons are widely dispersed, and in many cases buried deep underground. But repeated precision strikes by American air forces could certainly slow Iran’s progress toward nuclear capability considerably, and that might be enough to induce serious negotiations.
The greater problem with military action might be its side effects. It would probably enrage the young Iranians on whom we must count to oust the mullahs. They may be anti-mullah, but they may also want their country to belong to the nuclear club. In addition, the government might respond to air strikes by stepping up its support for the insurgents in Iraq, or even be able to turn many of their fellow Shiites in Iraq (on whom we are counting to lead a democratic regime) against the United States.
Such are the considerations President Bush must be weighing, and it is difficult not to feel sorry for him as he does so. But he sought the presidency, after all, including its burdens. Iran is clearly one of the greatest, and war (in the form of air strikes) simply cannot be ruled out.