Every day, air travelers willingly give up dangerous items in inspections because of uncertainty that one passenger might hijack the plane. A similar uncertainty now exists with Iran: Should it be forced to give up the potential to have nuclear weapons?
Before 9/11 and the sudden rise of uncertainty over when or how a terrorist might strike, it was easier for nations to cope with adversaries through military defense, diplomacy, coalition building, and spywork. Threats were more visible and often there was time to deal with them.
Now the United States and Europe are caught between that old world of more certainty and a new, less certain one. That's especially true as they decide how to respond to Iran's refusal this week to comply with a UN Security Council demand that it suspend enrichment of uranium – a key step toward making a bomb – and further cooperate in inspections of its suspect nuclear facilities.
The age of terrorism is really an age of heightened uncertainty, and how much risk democracies will accept from countries that have a track record of supporting terrorists. Iran's latest support of terrorists in Lebanon, Iraq, and among Palestinians makes it even more suspect than just after 9/11. And revelations that it hid key parts of its nuclear program from the International Atomic Energy Agency for nearly two decades have raised eyebrows an extra wrinkle on many a world leader's forehead – as did news that many of Iran's research facilities are secretly buried deep in bunkers.
Several years of European-led talks with Iran over its nuclear program have now come to a head. Will the UN Security Council accept an Iranian counteroffer to simply continue talks, thus giving Iran more time for nuclear research? Or will it fulfill its implied threat made in June to play hardball by imposing economic sanctions on Iran for not agreeing to suspend enrichment by the end of August?
Simply put, at what point does the world decide that it can't live with the uncertainty over Iran's intent and abilities to make nuclear weapons?
By differing estimates, Iran could be either a decade or a year or two from mastering the technology of making nuclear devices. It may merely want that ability in order to wield more influence in the Middle East, and not actually use them to attack Israel or to slip a few bombs to Islamic terrorists.
Before the Iraq war, President Bush was wrong about Saddam Hussein still having weapons of mass destruction. But he was right about Iraq's intent to resume WMD production, as well as Mr. Hussein's support for terrorists (Palestinian suicide-bombers). That mixed-bag record by Mr. Bush, as well as the continuing war in Iraq, has left many Americans and Europeans wary of using a preemptive action – either sanctions or force – to deal with the uncertainty of Iran's nuclear program. They are more wary of uncertainties over the unknown consequences of attacking Iran's nuclear facilities than the uncertainty of an Iranian bomb.
The Security Council must weigh these competing risks and act in a meaningful way to avoid failing in its global leadership role.
Iran must not board this plane without its bags fully searched and any threats removed.