A weakened America's choices on Iran

My Monday column for the print FT:

The best course in dealing with Iran is not hard to see. The difficult thing is having to accept that its chances of success are poor. If the US and others do all they sensibly can, Iran will probably acquire nuclear weapons anyway. This prospect, much as one might prefer not to think about it, is terrifying. How can such a policy be right in that case? All one can say is that the alternatives are worse.

The right thing is to increase the diplomatic and economic pressure on the Iranian government, to make the threat of military action if that fails more credible and to offer Iran more attractive exits from the confrontation. The right policy, as the cliché has it, is a bigger stick and more carrots.

A diminished but still vocal group of American hawks (including Norman Podhoretz, who advises Rudolph Giuliani) wants to bomb Iran right away. This policy has almost no chance of success. Air strikes would not destroy Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. The country has had years – ever mindful of Osirak, the Iraqi nuclear facility destroyed by Israeli aircraft in 1981 – to disperse its nuclear-weapons infrastructure. One imagines with dismay the press briefings after the first strikes, the aerial photographs of buildings taken out with stunning precision, and the rolling of eyes in the US and around the world at the claim that the right things had been hit.

Strikes could strengthen President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad’s position as sub-supreme leader, rather than helping the “moderates” who oppose him. A man who calls for Israel to be wiped off the map is not one to shy away from conflict. “Attack them now” leads, with high probability, to an Iran with nuclear weapons that is more not less united behind an extremist leadership and more intent on humiliating America. Air strikes might delay that outcome, but before long, the west would probably find itself in an even worse position.

If the war in Iraq had succeeded – if Saddam Hussein had had weapons of mass destruction and reconstruction had worked – the calculations would be different. The threat of war against Iran would then have been credible, and maybe enough by itself to get results. At a minimum, it would have complicated Iran’s calculations.

Because the war in Iraq has gone so badly, leaving the US militarily politically weakened, a single-stranded policy of threats is not merely questionable, as it would have been in any case, but almost nonsensical. To be sure, if Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is calculating that the chance of American air strikes is zero, he is wrong. They might be as high as (who knows?) one in three – and higher still if you weigh the odds of an Israeli strike. But when it comes to threats that you hope not to carry out, perception is what counts. Post-Iraq, America is much less menacing. When you look weak and your only policy is to keep making threats, in the end you have to carry them out – and then what? The largest cost of the failed war in Iraq (which is saying something) may yet turn out to be a nuclear-armed Iran.

To make its stick bigger, and therefore less liable to have to be used, America needs a more popular president, braver allies and a wider sense of outrage at Iran’s flouting of the international nuclear weapons regime (to say nothing of its conduct in Iraq). More carrots requires the US to offer Iran’s leaders what they crave most: respect. Talks on help with a tightly monitored civil nuclear programme, without forcing Iran to back down first, would serve that purpose. If the offer was spurned, so much the better for mobilising international opinion against Iran. But the Bush administration is unpopular and untrusted at home, reluctant (with reason) to rely on feckless allies and the United Nations, and repelled by the idea of offering cosmetic victories to enemies. All that and stubborn, too. To put it mildly, it is badly equipped to advance the needed agenda.

Rather than leading a tough diplomatic effort, the US has preferred to stand aside from Europe’s vacillating initiatives, as if content to show they will not work. Proving that point has done little to advance American security. Europe’s governments, for their part, have been slow to acknowledge the failure of their toothless diplomacy. All of them need to think much harder about what they have at stake if Iran realises its nuclear weapons ambitions. The same goes for Russia, which is not lacking in restless and rebellious Muslims. The writhings of an isolated Bush administration have been pleasant for Europe and Russia to watch. Are they worth the price of a nuclear-armed Iran?

The Bush administration might be blind to its own past mistakes, but on the threat posed by Iran its eyesight is good. Tacitly, at least, it must now acknowledge its weakness – by reaching out to allies for help in toughening sanctions and by offering to reward Iran for co-operating. But, make no mistake, Europe and Russia have an even more daunting adjustment to make. They must recognise that they need George W. Bush’s help in this at least as much as the White House needs theirs.

Even if a tougher and more concerted diplomacy happens, Iran is likely to end up with nuclear weapons. But it would still be inexcusable for governments to do less than their best to stop it.