The Nuclear Power Beside Iraq

Now that Iran unquestionably intends to build a nuclear bomb, the international community has few options to stop it—and the worst option would be a military strike

A year and a half ago, Iran’s nuclear ambition constituted a threat but not yet a world crisis. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had not yet been elected president of the country, nor begun his declarations that the Holocaust never occurred and that modern Israel must be “wiped from the map.” The mullah-dominated Iranian government was still evasive and uncooperative rather than flatly defiant when the United States and Europe demanded supervision of its nuclear programs by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It might even look favorably on the face-saving compromise the Russian government talked about, under which Iranians could build just about any nuclear power plant they wanted, thereby satisfying their announced desire to move beyond reliance on oil—as long as they left the reprocessing and enrichment of spent fuel, and therefore the potential for building nuclear weapons, in Russian hands on Russian soil.

From the archives:

Will Iran Be Next?
In 2004, James Fallows reported on a war game The Atlantic conducted, simulating preparations for a U.S. assault on Iran.

It was at this time, in September 2004, that The Atlantic sponsored a “war game” to consider what choices the United States might have if the Iranian problem built to a crisis. War games are not a staple of this magazine’s operation, but in light of difficulties in Iraq, we wanted to play out the long-term implications of possible U.S. moves and Iranian countermoves. So under the guidance of Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel who had conducted many real-world war games for the Pentagon, including those that shaped U.S. strategy for the first Gulf War, we assembled a panel of experts to ask “What then?” about the ways in which the United States might threaten, pressure, or entice the Iranians not to build a bomb. Some had been for and some against the invasion of Iraq; all had served in the Pentagon, intelligence agencies, or other parts of the nation’s security apparatus, and many had dealt directly with Iran.

The experts disagreed on some details but were nearly unanimous on one crucial point: what might seem America’s ace in the hole—the ability to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations in a pre-emptive air strike—was a fantasy. When exposed to “What then?” analysis, this plan (or a variant in which the United States looked the other way while Israel did the job) held more dangers than rewards for the United States. How could this be, given America’s crushing strength and wealth relative to Iran’s? There were three main problems:

* The United States was too late. Iran’s leaders had learned from what happened to Saddam Hussein in 1981, when Israeli F-16s destroyed a facility at Osirak where most of his nuclear projects were concentrated. Iran spread its research to at least a dozen sites—exactly how many, and where, the U.S. government could not be sure.

* The United States was too vulnerable. Iran, until now relatively restrained in using its influence among the Iraqi Shiites, “could make Iraq hell,” in the words of one of our experts, Kenneth Pollack, of the Brookings Institution. It could use its influence on the world’s oil markets to shock Western economies—most of all, that of the world’s largest oil importer, the United States.

* The plan was likely to backfire, in a grand-strategy sense. At best, it would slow Iranian nuclear projects by a few years. But the cost of buying that time would likely be a redoubling of Iran’s determination to get a bomb—and an increase in its bitterness toward the United States.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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