As the Iranian regime barrels forward, openly calling for the destruction of Israel and overtly breaking the nuclear non-proliferation rules, two distinctly undesirable prospects confront the West.
The first is to acquiesce to Tehran and hope for the best. Perhaps deterrence will work and the six-decade moratorium on using atomic weapons will remain in place. Perhaps the Iranian leadership will shed its messianic outlook. Perhaps no other states will repeat Iran’s decision to flaunt the rules they had promised to obey.
The key words in this scenario are "hope" and "perhaps," with the proverbial wing and prayer replacing strategic plans. This is not, to put it mildly, the usual way great powers conduct business.
The second prospect consists of the U.S. government (and perhaps some allies) destroying key Iranian installations, thereby delaying or terminating Tehran’s nuclear aspirations. Military analysts posit that American airpower, combined with good intelligence and specialized ordinance, suffice to do the needed damage in a matter of days; plus, it could secure the Straits of Hormuz.
But an attack will have unfavorable consequences, and especially in two related areas: Muslim public opinion and the oil market. All indications suggest that air strikes would cause the now-alienated Iranian population newly to rally to its government. Globally, air strikes would inflame already hostile Muslim attitudes toward the United States, leading to a surge in support for radical Islam and a further separation of civilizations. News reports indicate that Tehran is funding terrorist groups so that they can assault American embassies, military bases, and economic interests, step up attacks in Iraq, and launch rockets against Israel.
Even if Western military forces can handle these challenges, air raids may cause Iranians and their supporters to withhold oil and gas from the market, engage in terror against energy infrastructure, and foment civil unrest, all of which could create an economic downturn rivaling the energy-induced recession of the mid-1970s.
Faced with these two unappealing alternatives, I conclude, along with John McCain, that "There’s only one thing worse than the United States exercising a military option. That is a nuclear-armed Iran."
But is there a third, more palatable option? Finding it is the goal of every analyst who addresses the topic, including this one. That third option necessarily involves a mechanism to dissuade the Iranian regime from developing and militarizing its atomic capabilities. Does such a deterrence exist?
Yes, and it even has a chance of success. Iran, fortunately, is not an absolute dictatorship where a single person makes all key decisions, but an oligarchy with multiple power centers and with debate on many issues. The political leadership itself is divided, with important elements dubious about the wisdom of proceeding with nukes, fearful of the international isolation that will follow, not to speak of air strikes. Other influential sectors of society — religious, military, and economic in particular — also worry about the headlong rush.
A campaign by Iranians to avoid confrontation could well prevail, as Iran does not itself face an atomic threat. Going nuclear remains a voluntary decision, one Tehran can refrain from making. Arguably, Iranian security would benefit by staying non-nuclear.
Forces opposed to nuclearization need to be motivated and unified, and that is made more likely by strong external pressure. Were Europeans, Russians, Chinese, Middle Easterners, and others to act in sync with Washington, that would help mobilize opposition elements in Iran. Indeed, those states have their own reasons to dread both a nuclear Tehran and the bad precedent that sets for other potential atomic powers, such as Brazil and South Africa.
That international cooperation, however, is not materializing, as can be seen at the United Nations. The Security Council meanders on the Iran issue and an Iranian official has been elected to, of all things, the UN’s disarmament commission (which is tasked with achieving nuclear disarmament).
Deterring Tehran requires sustained, consistent external pressure on the Iranian body politic. That implies, ironically, that those most adverse to U.S.-led air strikes must (1) stand tight with Washington and (2) convince Iranians of the terrible repercussions for them of defying the international consensus.
Such steps offer no guarantee of success, but they do present the only realistic way to prevent grave dangers.