Cold War II

With Iran, the only choices left are war and nuclear deterrence. And war is not the answer

President Bush's threat to attack Iran threatens the United States. The consequences of a new war in the Middle East—for that is what it would be, with Iran fighting back with terrorism—need no listing. Striking a second Muslim country while occupying Iraq would be a ramifying blunder, spreading death far into the century, holding our children and their children hostage to Bush's catastrophic presidency.

If Iran is building a nuclear weapon, Bush is responsible. First, he grouped Iran with Iraq and North Korea in the "axis of evil," a gratuitous and counter-productive provocation. Then he announced a new U.S. strategy: pre-emption. The U.S. gave itself the right to strike countries suspected of harboring terrorists or weapons of mass destruction without any act of belligerence on their part. Threatening pre-emption, critics warned, would motivate the axis of evil countries to rapidly develop nuclear weapons to deter a U.S. attack, as North Korea appears to have done. Next Bush implemented this new strategy, making "preventive war" on Iraq. Saddam had a nuclear program, went the logic of the administration's case for war. Unless we "took him out" Saddam would have a nuclear weapon within a few years. He could then deter pre-emption while sharing his largesse with terrorists who would attack the United States with nuclear weapons. The case for war reinforced the message sent to Tehran by the war itself: in order to deter attack from a superpower following a strategy of pre-emption and imperialism (a.k.a. "regime change"), go nuclear.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq has been a deliverance for the mullahs ruling Iran. They founded their claim to legitimacy on their resistance to a U.S.-backed dictator; they came to power in 1979 behind student demonstrators shouting "Death to the U.S.!," and "Death to the Shah!"; they invoke the Great Satan to distract the Iranian people from their repression. Bush's threat last week renews the regime's nationalist bona fides. If he bombs the Iranian nuclear reactors, the mullahs will be in power for generations.

Will Bush do it? He does not have to face the voters again; that political check is gone. His supine party controls the Congress; that institutional check is gone. War cemented Bush's presidency. Before September 11 he was the least legitimate president since "Rutherfraud" B. Hayes, installed in the White House by the vote of a Republican Supreme Court justice, Joseph P. Bradley, who was the Clarence Thomas of 1877. As the Downing Street memo indicates, the climate of fear generated by the looming war with Iraq helped the GOP recapture the Senate in 2002, as Karl Rove calculated. The war in Iraq, which the administration spun as the main battlefield in the "war on terror," re-elected Bush in 2004. Iraq has since become a political wound for Bush and a liability for his party. Cutting and running look to be in the cards there. To cover his retreat from an Iraq collapsing into civil war, Bush will need to look strong. Republicans need fear to prevail in next year's elections— to mask the debacle of Iraq.

What can stop Bush from playing the war card one last time? The Democrats can't—won't—stop him. Civil disobedience won't. The GOP's corporate base might. An attack on Iran, by driving up the price of oil to historic highs, could trigger a recession. No industry would be unaffected, but energy-intensive industries would suffer disproportionately. The airline industry might implode. Business leaders have an interest in peace with Iran. They need to act on it.

Tony Blair could stop Bush. His support for war against Iraq made war inevitable. His refusal to support a U.S. attack on Iran, I believe, would have a decisive effect on American opinion and arouse the world against Bush. Nothing could restore Blair's standing with his people—and history—as surely as saying no to Bush. Nothing could so increase Britain's prestige in the world. No other act could yield more long-term security for the British people. By showing all Islam that Britain wanted no part of a U.S.-led war of civilizations, Blair would have done all words can do to prevent terrorism in Britain.

Redeeming one disaster with another is a formula for an infinite regress of disasters. Bush's policies have left Iran with no choice but to possess the bomb. It is too late to change those policies. It is probably too late to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power—if that is what it means to do. But if the costs of war to forestall that development are too high, the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran are no less high. It is too late for good choices. Iran, unlike Iraq, has sponsored terrorism and has ties to terrorist groups. That nexus carries grave dangers for Israel. The Israelis may feel they have no choice but to attack Iran's nuclear facilities if the U.S. won't. That course would put U.S. security at risk.

But if we can't stop Iran from going nuclear, and if we dissuade the Israelis from taking action, how do we live with the risks of Iran's putting "the world's worst weapons in the world's worst hands"? By imposing the discipline of nuclear deterrence on Iran. If a nuclear device went off in an American city we would destroy the regime in Tehran—that is political reality. Americans would not accept Iranian denials that they had nothing to do with it. To retain the deterrent effect of that reality, we need privately to lay it on the line with Tehran: If our people or the Israelis suffer a nuclear attack, that will be the end of you. You have, we should say, the incentive of survival to prevent nuclear terrorism against our countries. We want relentless participation in the campaign against terrorist groups. We want to see cells broken up; leaders assassinated. We want proof. You need to give us proof. It is your only insurance against destruction There is no guarantee this strategy would work. But if war is the alternative to living with a nuclear-armed Iran then it may be the better of two perilous choices.