The Obama administration has trapped America. It is now ever clearer that current negotiations will not achieve a reliable, verifiable halt to Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Absent such terms, a non-nuclear Middle East rests on Iran’s “good faith” and on Iran’s neighbors’ faith in her — both thin reeds. No magic rescue looms. Very hard choices and dark fates may await.
What if the Obama administration suddenly switched its approach on negotiations and sanctions? Sadly, it is almost certainly too late to force Iran to abandon its long-coveted goal. Three obstacles bar an effective reversal: Iran is so close it can taste nuclear-weapon status; the world is no longer willing to credit and follow President Obama’s “red lines”; and any new sanctions would take months to enact and years to bite.
The end of all our retreats is this: Either we trust current and future Iranian leaders, or we or someone else someday uses force. Calls for prudence, humanity, and morality paved this road. But we now may face a fate much less humane and moral.
Some think that we can avoid painful dilemmas by relying on the efficacy and supposedly superior morality of Cold War–style nuclear deterrence. In effect, we would threaten nuclear retaliation against millions of Iranian civilians, many of whom do not support their government. Such barbarism was considered unthinkable before the Cold War. Necessity justified it then. Is this the most moral course now? If it ever came to pass, would we compliment ourselves on our restraint in not striking earlier? Or take comfort that we reasonably relied on the ayatollahs’ affection for their people?
Worse yet, this scenario assumes that the principles and practices of Cold War deterrence will apply neatly and consistently to Iran and the rest of the Middle East. It assumes the ayatollahs and their regional adversaries will be as stable internally as we and the Soviets were, will avoid direct conventional conflict as assiduously, will be as risk-averse with nuclear threats, will build and operate their nuclear systems as carefully, will be as invulnerable to a disabling first strike, will safeguard their arsenals as successfully, will abjure proliferation as completely, and would only attack openly, in the manner associated with Cold War calculations of mutual assured destruction. Is it safe to assume that all of these conditions will apply? In fact, do any? If they do now, would they consistently over many years?
The Middle East is very far from stable or quiet — and it contains terrorist “wild cards” to boot. Indeed, terrorism is not an occasional tool, but a common one. Radical infiltration is not a rare occurrence, but a regular one.
Nor was the Cold War as safe as many recall. Would a Middle Eastern Missile Crisis turn out the same way as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis? Would the Arab states of the Middle East respond to Iranian adventurism with the same restraint the West showed when Soviet troops quashed the Hungarians in 1956 or the Czechs in 1968?
In truth, no one knows.
Even a cursory listing of plausible scenarios illustrates what might follow within a few years of Iran’s obtaining, or perhaps just claiming to have obtained, nuclear weapons:
1. To deter Saudi Arabia from getting nukes, America promises nuclear retaliation against Iran if it were to attack the Saudis. The House of Saud, doubting that Iran will credit American promises and politically reluctant to rely on infidel America, purchases nuclear weapons anyway. A year later, two Saudi weapons are stolen by Islamist soldiers or terrorists. Our intelligence agencies have reason to believe the intention is to smuggle the weapons into America.
Variation: The House of Saud itself falls under the sway of Islamists, who then control Saudi weapons.
2. Fearing intimidation by nuclear Iran, two neighboring Sunni states go nuclear. Unlike the United States and the Soviet Union, the antagonists are so close to each other geographically that missile warning times are in the minutes; in addition, regional early-warning systems are primitive, and Cold War–style controls over weapons release are nonexistent. In the midst of a regional confrontation, one side mistakenly believes the other has launched a preemptive strike (as happened during the Cold War). A fervent local commander promptly launches on warning. The other side retaliates. One million die. Oil production crashes.
Variation: In the melee, missiles pre-programmed for retaliation against Israel are launched. Israel retaliates massively. The Arab world believes Israel started it all.
3. The ayatollahs brutally crush renewed pro-democracy demonstrations in Tehran. Violence spirals into a slow-motion, Syrian-style civil war, with Sunni support stoking the flames. Iranian moderates appeal to the U.S. president for arms. The nuclear-armed ayatollahs declare that if the U.S. supplies them, it will be considered an act of war. The U.S. is defiant, but secretly fears that prolonged Iranian civil war risks radicals, revolutionaries, or criminals seizing Iranian nuclear weapons. So the U.S. refuses to aid the revolutionaries, in effect protecting the regime.
Variation: Opposition forces or rogue regime elements obtain two nuclear weapons and, facing defeat, trade them to anti-American groups for support or sanctuary.
4. Following provocations on both sides and repression of Shiites in majority-Sunni states, Iranian proxy forces threaten to take control of one or more of those states. Brutal killings escalate. The governments of oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Kuwait totter. Iranian troops stage nearby, threatening to enter if any other Arab country or the U.S. intervenes. The Joint Chiefs estimate that securing the area would require 400,000 U.S. troops for an indefinite period and would lead to hundreds of casualties; U.S. ships would be too vulnerable in nearby waters to direct attacks against Iran. The Joint Chiefs further estimate that all-out conventional war, perhaps even requiring an invasion of Iran for a decisive victory, would require 1.2 million American forces and, if it appeared to be nearing success, would risk an Iranian nuclear attack on deployed U.S. forces in final defiance. Meanwhile, Iran, suspecting that the U.S. would not risk an unprecedented head-to-head war with a nuclear power, escalates, attacking Saudi oil terminals and closing the vital Strait of Hormuz to all foreign oil tankers.
5. A terrorist bomb at a Washington event kills or maims 188 people, including three U.S. congressmen and two Arab ambassadors. Evidence points to Iranian agents. The U.S. president hesitates to launch conventional retaliatory air attacks against a nuclear-armed foe — a situation never faced in the Cold War. Congress calls for investigations. The U.S. requests U.N. sanctions, which Russia and China veto. Months pass. A new regional crisis arises. Soon additional terrorist attacks of uncertain origin kill hundreds more Americans. Frustrated and under increasing political pressure at home, the U.S. president sends planes to attack Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps outside Tehran. The president also sends troops to assist regional forces fighting Iranian proxies. Iran retaliates.
6. Nuclear weapons are launched at New York City and Washington, D.C., from the deck of a derelict African-flagged freighter 50 miles off our coast. The freighter then sinks. More than 100,000 Americans die, and there are 800,000 other casualties. Parts of both cities are uninhabitable. The U.S. suspects Iranian weaponry, but Iran denies any official involvement. A limited U.S. nuclear response against Tehran would mean killing at least 200,000 Iranians, and a successful U.S. conventional attack to topple the ayatollahs is impractical given the likely losses to our troops. Either limited course risks additional Iranian nuclear attacks either in the Middle East or against the U.S. homeland. China, dependent on Middle Eastern energy, mobilizes. The U.S. president launches a surprise massive nuclear response against Tehran and all suspected Iranian weapons sites. Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces escape with several nuclear weapons.
None of these scenarios are inevitable. All are plausible if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, given Middle Eastern realities, which are so different from the Cold War ones. Afterwards, a future U.S. president would surely ask whether the losses — to Americans and to civilians abroad — did not exceed what his predecessor would have faced for attempting to destroy the ayatollahs’ nuclear-enrichment facilities years earlier.
Welcome to the new prudent, humane, and moral world that may await.