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Eric C. Anderson Headshot

Learn to Live with the Iranian Nuclear Program

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Paramedics learn two lessons early in their careers: never panic and never rush. Panic typically results in foolish and/or dangerous behavior. Rushing about can cause accidents, lost equipment, and senseless mistakes. The denizens of Washington's chattering class would be well-served to remember these lessons in light of the latest revelations concerning Iran's nuclear weapons program. Endlessly waving about the latest bit of incriminating evidence will not significantly alter Tehran's behavior nor will it generate international support for an exercise of the Bush doctrine. Rather, I would suggest it is time Washington learn to live with Iran's nuclear ambitions in much the same way we have with China, India, Pakistan...and Israel.

Despite occasional ostrich-like protests to the contrary, U.S. policy makers have been aware of Iran's potential nuclear weapons program since at least 2002. Data provided by the National Council of Resistance of Iran -- Tehran's very own parliament in exile -- in 2002 revealed Iran's efforts to enrich uranium and produce heavy water. While these efforts were not ipso facto proof of intent to manufacture munitions, they were (and are) cause for concern...and drew significant attention from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Three years of subsequent IAEA inspections found Iran to be engaged in a number of activities that all suggested electric power generation was probably not the primary driver behind these efforts. In addition to delaying inspections, Tehran developed cover stories, cleaned up suspect facilities, and even went so far as to destroy a site before the IAEA could put eyes, and Geiger counters, on the target.

These are not the actions of an innocent party. But like any child caught with a hand in the cookie jar, Tehran opened the conversation with denials and cover stories. In May 2004, the Iranian foreign ministry vehemently rejected claims Tehran was running a secret nuclear weapons program. In October 2005, Tehran declared U.S. charges concerning Tehran's nuclear weapons program were a lie...that the country's nuclear program was solely aimed at generating electricity. In September 2006, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told NBC reporters, "We don't need weapons at all. We're strong enough to defend ourselves. And we support peace." In September 2007, Ahmadinejad told an audience at Columbia University Iran had no nuclear weapons program. And in June 2008, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly decreed, "No wise nation is interested in making a nuclear weapon, since it is not logical and can not be used."

As Shakespeare so aptly observed, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." The latest development in this long-running saga all but proves Tehran is very much interested in constructing a functioning nuclear weapon. On 14 December, the Times of London published a story highlighting "notes, from Iran's most sensitive military nuclear project," that purportedly outline a four-year plan to test a neutron initiator--the trigger for an atomic weapon. According to nuclear experts I've spoken with, this device has no civilian application--it will not generate electricity, its only function is to make things go boom. Bad karma, bad, bad karma.

Tehran's response to this latest disclosure: the report is "baseless." "Such statements are not worthy of attention. These reports... are intended to put political and psychological pressure on Iran." In fact, Tehran's foreign ministry would have us believe the Times story is simply a "scenario" crafted by "some countries [that] are angry that our people defend their nuclear rights."

I don't know about you, but I find this denial strangely reassuring. It reaffirms what we have suspected for a long time; Iran is operating a less-than covert nuclear weapons program. Which causes me to wonder about the response from Washington. In a 15 December interview with the Times, an unnamed "senior U.S. official," declared, "Now that work may have been done on a trigger mechanism, this certainly gives urgency, in the absence of any meaningful response from Tehran...in terms of additional pressure on sanctions." I'm betting the most recent denial is not going to constitute a "meaningful response from Tehran."

All of which leaves Washington in a bit of a quandary. Sanctions--as the Cubans, North Koreans, and former Soviet Union can attest--are rarely worth the paper they are printed on. This is particularly the case when one is providing a commodity--oil and natural gas--the rest of the planet finds critical for continuing economic productivity. What are we going to do? Advocate a full boycott of Iranian petroleum products and thereby drive up world oil prices? Given the current global economic woes that course of action seems foolish, at best. At worst it could threaten the Obama administration's political longevity. Oh, I suppose we could continue denying Tehran access to foreign technologies, but that ploy certainly seems to have been less than successful...with both Iran and North Korea.

So how about learning to live with the Iranian nuclear program just as we have the Indian and Pakistani atomic developments? Seems reasonable to me. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be prone to making outlandish statements--but he is not insane, he is a politician...an elected politician who will say anything necessary to secure votes. Hugo Chavez does this, Nicolas Sarkozy has come up with some real eye openers...and lord knows more than one Republican or Democrat president has issued statements that caused an uproar outside our borders.

Instead of turning the Iranian nuclear weapons program into yet another excuse for a crisis in the Middle East we need step back and take a deep breath. Think, for a minute, about how Tehran likely sees the world. As the only functioning Gulf state with a predominately Shiite population, Iran is not exactly surrounded by friends. Add to that a nuclear armed Israel and the endless American military presence...and you have reason for concern--particularly when some in Jerusalem and Washington have been very adamant about suggesting the possibility of preemptive strikes on Iran's newest national pride and joy.

That said, we can put this fear to our advantage. The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction may seem passe and out of favor in academia, but the truth is such a defense strategy works. In this case, it will require Washington and Israel to open nuclear umbrellas over a whole new set of erstwhile allies. A public declaration that a nuclear strike originating from Iran will result in Tehran's annihilation is going to significantly curtail Ahmadinejad--and his successor's--policy options.

And spare me a lecture about the dangers of a nuclear weapon in Muslim hands. Frankly, I am more worried about Pakistan's nukes than I am any Iranian program. Tehran appears capable of keeping the wacky fundamentalists in line or at bay. I am significantly less certain of Islamabad's ability to do the same. In a similar vein, it would behoove us to remember that the only nation to ever employ one of these devices in anger proudly proclaims its Christian orientation.

Rather than pandering to fear mongers, Neocons, and modern crusaders, Washington needs to come to grips with this emerging reality. Iran is going to have a nuclear weapon, and there is little, to nothing, we can do to stop Tehran from realizing this ambition. The great quandary is not in how the United States should deal with a nuclear Iran, but how Washington is going to explain this latest development to an American population prone to visceral responses to anything Iranian. I'd start by ceasing the demonization of Iran. At the same time I would demand Tehran reiterate her adherence to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Finally, I would require the Iranian leadership make the same pledge we have chosen to accept from Israel: Tehran, "would not be the first country in the Middle East to formally introduce nuclear weapons into the region."

I understand none of this is acceptable to the John Boltons of American politics, but demanding a world of black and white is impossible when reality is nothing more than shades of gray. The Obama administration has demonstrated it understands this lack of perfection in dealings with China and the war in Afghanistan...let us apply the same pragmatism to engaging with Iran.