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.