Like so many of the choices facing Barack Obama, the Iran conundrum is not of his making but one he has no choice but to confront. I see few ways, alas, in which the US and its allies can prevent Iran getting a nuclear weapon capacity in the near future. Maybe there was a chance earlier this decade, but it seems pretty hopeless to me now. A military attack would be a catastrophe; it would re-ignite Jihadism on a scale not yet seen with repercussions so unpredictable and results so insecure no prudent statesman would contemplate it. It would breathe new life into the Khamenei regime, al Qaeda and every anti-Semitic nutjob on the planet. For it to truly work in extinguishing Iran's dispersed and deeply buried network of sites, some kind of extremely brutal bomb or even tactical nukes would be required. A nuclear first strike by Israel against a Muslim country means a long and possibly swift slide toward global war.
Yes, if we can sharpen sanctions so that key members of the coup regime are personally crippled, fine. But I don't believe that broader sanctions will prevent Iran's nuclear program, and I don't believe the Russians or the Chinese will sign on to anything remotely useful in the first place. Does this leave an intolerable threat to the survival of Israel and the security of neighboring Sunni Arab states? It would be dangerously naive to under-estimate the threat, but equally foolish to over-state it.
Israel, remember, has the potential for massive nuclear response to any attempted strike from Iran.
The obvious aim, it seems to me, of the Revolutionary Guards is not to nuke al-Aqsa, but to use a nuclear capacity to immunize their terrorism in the region, to balance Israel's nuclear monopoly, to scare the crap out of the Saudis and Egyptians, and to shore up their control at home. I see this as an inevitable coming-of-age of Iran as a regional power, and although there is an obvious and acute danger that nuclearization could entrench some of the worst elements of the regime (and they don't get much worse than Ahmadinejad), the brutal truth is: we do not have the tools to stop it. One day, a nuclear Iran, if led by men and women legitimately elected by the people of Iran, could be our friend, not enemy - and a much more reliable and stable friend than the Sunni Arab autocracies we are currently shoring up. I believe, in short, that in my lifetime we will see a democratic Iran, led by the generation that took to the streets this year. And I believe vigilant containment is the only realistic way at this point to get there.
What we have to understand - and what I have come belatedly and painfully to grasp - is that our collective narcissism can be an obstacle to successful statesmanship. In blunter terms: This is not about us. In so far as we have made Iran about us, we have added mountains to the landscape of human misery and pain. This is a struggle for the Iranian people, a long, brutal, bitter struggle. We should do all we can to support them, without the neocon grandstanding that actually helps the regime rather than hurts it. But we have to understand our limits.
This is a deep struggle in the Muslim soul - a struggle to come to terms with its own sectarian past, the bloodiness of some of its scriptures, and the real and present threat of modernity as it crashes down on their medieval order with the power of technology they cannot control.
This process will take time, and Americans' well-meant determination to fix this state of affairs is, however understandable, naive. The arc of history is far slower than our 24-hour news cycle or our ADD blog-posting. The resurgence of religious fundamentalism at this moment of technological marvel and global integration is an utterly predictable phenomenon, and it will not end soon. And when it does end, it will do so by collapsing under its own lies and delusions and denial, just as communism did. We can do a little to nudge this along, but we cannot be the decisive force - or we will merely reignite the civiliizational conflict. Maybe a hot war is inevitable. But if it is, it is essential to our civilization and its core values that we do not initiate it. If Iraq did not convince us of that, nothing will.
I write this at the end of a decade that changed my politics. They changed because reality shifted. Globalization, technology and fundamentalism have reordered our post-Cold War world. The advantage lies with the asymmetrical, the nimble, the long tail, the lone actor. There is nothing the modern state can really do to stop this, and if it tries to assume the powers to have a chance, it will cease to resemble anything like the democracy or republic the Founders envisaged. We can panic and construct a Leviathan so powerful and invasive it will in the end destroy our freedoms, or we can hang in, do all we can to defuse ideological and theological tension, construct more effective means of defense and security, and outlast the Islamist wave even through what will be its many outrages and offenses.
This would be appeasement if strong military action were an effective alternative and could defeat the enemy. But if we have learned anything these past few years, it is that the mightiest military in the world cannot stop a lone fanatic eager to kill himself in order to kill countless others in a religious mission. Even if we were to transform Afghanistan, a Yemen would soon emerge. Even now after spending trillions on Iraq, we cannot stop al Qaeda returning when we leave to exploit sectarian divides.
What we need is sobriety, stoicism, vigilance and a determined defense of our values and the rule of law. We cannot save our civilization by junking it, by pre-emptive wars and torture and near-dictatorial executive power. And we cannot save it by politicizing every attack, thereby magnifying the power of one tiny terrorist with burnt balls to create havoc and division in the free world.
I cannot say I end this decade with any optimism. The age of asymmetry is full of foreboding. But this much George Bush got right: this really is a new kind of war. He got the what. What he didn't get right - what I initially didn't get right - was the how. This how requires self-restraint as much as raw power, dedication to our values as much as emotional gratification, grindingly difficult intelligence work whose successes are rarely known but whose failures are in every headline. I believe that the election of Obama and the Green Revolution in Iran were signs that the next generation understands the magnitude of this crisis and are seeking a new way to overcome it. I believe that in my heart and soul. Which is why I found those events as inspiring as they are now imperiled.
The resistance is currently overwhelming, vicious, angry and alert. But when I feel its lethal force, I remember too the great wave of enthusiasm that brought Obama to the presidency and the explosion of democracy that brought millions to the streets of Iran.
In the words of Niebuhr:
"There are no simple congruities in life or history. The cult of happiness erroneously assumes them. It is possible to soften the incongruities of life endlessly by the scientific conquest of nature's caprices, and the social and political triumph over historic injustice. But all such strategies cannot finally overcome the fragmentary character of human existence. The final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it...
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; there we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; there we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."
(Photos: A piece of a building is lifted by a crane from the ruins at ground zero as work continues 11 October, 2001 in New York, as the sun rises one month after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. By Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images.
A supporter of defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi helps evacuate an injured Iranian riot-police officer during riots in Tehran on June 13, 2009. By Olivier Laban-Mattei//Getty Images.)