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Don't let Iran cross the nuclear threshold

In dealing with Tehran, none of Obama's options are pretty or risk-free.

By David Harris / May 28, 2009

New York

While there is a broad consensus in the West that Iran should be dissuaded from pursuing its nuclear weapons program, no clear strategy has emerged for attaining that goal.

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During the Bush era, critics had a field day. Rather than snarl at Iran from afar and place it in the "axis of evil" – as the administration did – would it not be better, the critics suggested, to engage Tehran's leaders?

The Bush policy did not produce the desired result. Iran's nuclear program continued.

But the European Union initiative toward Iran did not do any better. Starting in 2003, the EU, with US encouragement, engaged with Tehran to find a diplomatic solution, but all the EU had to show for its effort was precious time lost.

Now, the Obama administration is trying a new tack. Several overtures to Iran have been made in recent months, and more may be in the offing. Will they succeed in halting Iran's enrichment efforts?

Perhaps. But what if Tehran rebuffs the American overture or, more likely, strings Washington along with well-practiced feints that seem to offer encouragement but add up to nothing more than a ploy to keep America guessing – and, yes, hoping?

After six years, the Europeans could write the textbook on Iranian negotiating strategy. As one European involved in the talks commented privately, "We should have remembered that the Iranians were refining the game of chess while we were barely out of our caves."

So if the current policy fails, what next?

Putting the question off indefinitely is not an option. There will come a moment when Iran has indisputably crossed the nuclear threshold. Then it will be too late.

As the case of North Korea illustrates, once an unpredictable regime goes nuclear, all bets are off. The North Koreans believe they hold the cards, and play accordingly. No doubt the Iranians have learned from their example.

The policy options for dealing with Iran are neither pretty nor risk-free.

One approach is to accept the inevitability of an Iranian nuclear bomb, but apply cold-war deterrence theory to contain it. In other words, tell the Iranians that any use of a nuclear weapon will trigger a nuclear reply and then rely on the rational behavior of Iranians to avoid their own potential destruction.

But an Iranian bomb would have catastrophic consequences. It could trigger a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world, where fear of Iran runs wide and deep. It might also lead to the sharing of technology with dangerous Iranian allies, from Hezbollah to Venezuela. And as long as Iran is headed by religious messianists, their theology could lead them to defy rational behavior – for example, by fulfilling their oft-voiced fantasy of a world without Israel. In any case, simply possessing the atomic know-how creates endless possibilities for Iran to employ nuclear blackmail.