Iran now looms as one of the Bush administration's most difficult foreign policy challenges.
It is critical because Iran seems intent on pursuing, and hiding, a program to develop nuclear weapons. Iran is also a nation vigorously supporting terrorist organizations, some of which may be eager to use such weapons.
While North Korea is similarly intent on pursuing the development of nuclear weapons, its motivations are various, perhaps even mercenary. But Iran seems motivated by Islamist zeal, dramatically enunciated in the past six months by the provocative pronouncements of its new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iran has skillfully played out negotiations with a coalition of concerned European nations, supported by the United States, seeking to halt the Iranian program. These have come to naught, with Iran restarting its temporarily halted nuclear enrichment program. This provides the material that can be used for nuclear weaponry.
With the patience of the Western negotiators virtually exhausted, the next step will be in Vienna next month when the International Atomic Energy Agency will consider referring the Iran problem to the United Nations Security Council. A Security Council resolution branding Iran an international pariah would be sought. It would be marginally better if supported by Security Council permanent members China (a major buyer of Iran's oil and gas) and Russia (which is helping build Iran's ostensibly peaceful nuclear energy program). But the prospect of China and Russia signing on to any serious punitive sanctions against Iran seems remote. Thus we are likely to see a situation sadly reminiscent of the Security Council's record on Iraq - a series of condemnatory resolutions with no effective action.
Besides being a security problem, Iran is fast becoming a political problem for President Bush, with critics both Republican (John McCain) and Democratic (Hillary Clinton) demanding a tougher stance on Iran. Mr. Bush will not relish accusations of weakness swirling around him as he ushers the Republican party into the midterm elections of 2006, or the presidential election of 2008.
The options for the US seem to be as follows:
Diplomacy. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice can keep working this circuit, urging Britain, France, and Germany to maintain pressure on Iran and China and Russia to step up and be statesmanlike, and not pursue their own vested interests in Tehran. There may be some traction. Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair can be counted on. Germany has a new leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel. France's President Jacques Chirac seems newly impressed by the nuclear threat, warning recently that France would not shrink at unsheathing its own nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack. Meanwhile China and Russia reap widespread benefits from their multifaceted relationships with the US and might be subject to persuasion.
Economic pressure. Tough international sanctions against Iran may be hard to orchestrate. They could also backfire, hurting and alienating those Iranians who have no particular enthusiasm for their own hard-line ruling regime. But carefully selected and targeted economic pressures are certainly an option. Apparently fearing such action against Iranian foreign currency reserves, the Tehran regime has started shifting its holdings out of European banks.
Public diplomacy. Exchanges of journalists, writers, artists, musicians, and teachers could be encouraged. Initially, Iran might be prepared to engage in cultural exchanges, rather than political. But the US could also use its international broadcasting assets to hearten Iranians who hunger for democracy. Entities both inside and outside Iran working for democratic reforms could be given US support.
Military action. While Bush administration officials do not take military action against Iran off the table, it must be a last resort. Even though many young Iranians despise their present government, a military attack by the US probably would strike a nationalistic chord with them and stir angry anti-American sentiment. There would be a new wave of anti-American feeling throughout the Islamic world.
The Israelis have long argued that Iran is a principal threat to them. They have surely developed contingency plans for a strike against Iranian nuclear installations. But an Israeli attack would generate throughout the Islamic world the same firestorm as would be caused by an American assault. Even an Israeli air attack would probably require American logistical support.
None of the above options may lead to success. In the end Iran may acquire a nuclear weapon or weapons. The United States must make it crystal clear that any Iranian nuclear device used against American citizens or facilities or allies, even if delivered by an Iranian surrogate, would trigger the most devastating reprisal.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.