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

That was the situation nearly two years ago. Everything that has changed since then increases the pressure on the United States to choose the “military option” of a pre-emptive strike—and makes that option more ruinously self-defeating.

About Iran’s intention to build a bomb, there is no serious disagreement among Russia, China, France, and the United States. Iran has dropped its pretense of benign intent. It refused the compromise that Russia formally proposed late in 2005 (though a new round of negotiations was announced early in March). Last year’s elections, the most democratic in that nation’s history, transformed the leadership—by making it more anti-Western and harder-edged. The attainment of an Iranian bomb might provoke Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other neighboring countries to begin nuclear programs of their own, and might make the terrorist groups Iran supports throughout the region feel they can attack with greater impunity. Dealing with Iran is now considered an international crisis.As it has watched Iran’s evolution, the United States has delivered more and more studied warnings that “all options remain open”—code to the Iranians that they should worry about an attack. In different ways, George W. Bush and two aspiring successors, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, have expressed this view. Government officials in Israel have been more explicit still, with the defense minister saying that Israel “will not accept” Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Intellectuals, activists, and out-of-power politicians from Newt Gingrich to Benjamin Netanyahu have all urged their leaders to stand firm.

The biggest change has been in what Soviet strategists used to call the “correlation of forces.” Every tool at Iran’s disposal is now more powerful, and every complication for the United States worse, than when our war-gamers determined that a pre-emptive strike could not succeed. Iran has used the passing time to disperse, diversify, conceal, and protect its nuclear centers. Instead of a dozen or so potential sites that would have to be destroyed, it now has at least twice that many. The Shiite dominance of Iraq’s new government and military has consolidated, and the ties between the Shiites of Iran and those of Iraq have grown more intense. Early this year, the Iraqi Shiite warlord Muqtada al-Sadr suggested that he would turn his Mahdi Army against Americans if they attacked Iran.

Economically, Iran also has far greater leverage than before. Through 2004, the price of a barrel of oil averaged less than $40. In 2006, it has been above $60, an increase of more than 50 percent. Rising demand from China, India, and, yes, the United States has left virtually no slack in the world’s oil markets. OPEC’s “spare” production capacity—the amount it could quickly supply beyond current demand—is about 1 million barrels a day. Iran now supplies about 4 million barrels a day. If it chose to, or had to, remove much of its oil from the market, a bidding war could send the price of a barrel of oil above $100. Eventually, everyone would adjust. Eventually, the Great Depression ended.

Perhaps the American and Israeli hard-liners know all this, and are merely bluffing. If so, they have made an elementary strategic error. The target of their bluff is the Iranian government, and the most effective warnings would be discreet and back-channel. Iranian intelligence should be picking up secret signals that the United States is planning an attack. By giving public warnings, the United States and Israel “create ‘excess demand’ for military action,” as our war-game leader Sam Gardiner recently put it, and constrain their own negotiating choices. The inconvenient truth of American foreign policy is that the last five years have left us with a series of choices—and all of them are bad. The United States can’t keep troops in Iraq indefinitely, for obvious reasons. It can’t withdraw them, because of the chaos that would ensue. The United States can’t keep prisoners at Guantánamo Bay (and other overseas facilities) indefinitely, because of international and domestic challenges. But it can’t hastily release them, since many were and more have become terrorists. And it can’t even bring them to trial, because of procedural abuses that have already occurred. Similarly, the United States can’t accept Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power, but it cannot prevent this through military means—unless it is willing to commit itself to all-out war. The central flaw of American foreign policy these last few years has been the triumph of hope, wishful thinking, and self-delusion over realism and practicality. Realism about Iran starts with throwing out any plans to bomb.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 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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