The U.S. must soon accept the reality that Iran will become the world's 10th nuclear power. If we cannot persuade the Iranians to abandon pursuit of nuclear capabilities, contrary to the rodomontade emanating from the White House and State, we will be unable to prevent them from doing so. Imposing broader economic sanctions or launching military strikes would be ineffective and potentially counter-productive. However, Iran developing nuclear capacity does not necessarily mean it's the end of the world. That, we can prevent.
Sanctions doomed without China
The sooner we quit fiddling with otiose sanctions against Iran, the sooner we can begin crafting containment and deterrence strategies that are actually effective. Besides, nearly all experts agree any sanction program the U.S. concocts that does not have China's full commitment is a sanctions program designed to fail.
Embarrassingly enough, as we were wooing Chinese leaders earlier this week to support more stringent measures, the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) sold 600,000 barrels of gasoline to Iran. It was their first direct sales to Iran since January 2009, filling a void for the month of April left by other suppliers who wanted to avoid getting hit with sanctions.
Plus, there's not a shred of evidence to support the theory these types of measures would persuade Tehran to change its behavior in the least. Broader restrictions would only strangle the Iranian people, who could voice their rage via the ballot if they had legitimate elections in Iran -- but they do not. Sanctions would then end up having an antipodal effect as Iran's regime deflects the public outrage against the U.S.
Military action not a viable option
The problem with military strikes is Iran has a number of retaliatory levers they can pull, such as shutting down the Strait of Hormuz -- one of the world's largest energy bottlenecks and home to 40% of the world's maritime oil shipments. Iran possesses significant littoral warfare capabilities, including mines, anti-ship cruise missiles and land-based air defense to disrupt traffic for months.
Iran has the ability to trigger an international network of proxies to launch terrorist attacks and employ asymmetric warfare against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Iran purportedly has several hundred operational Shahab-3 missiles they will launch at Tel Aviv if and when they are ever attacked.
Furthermore, a military attack would not stop Iran's nuclear development program, and could actually strengthen the regime. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) writes:
There is precedent for this rallying effect. The Ayatollah Khomeini might never have consolidated the Islamic Revolution in the first place had the Iraqi army not invaded Iran a year after he took office; the war was a godsend to him because it provided a nationalist glue that his pan-Islamist theories could not. The other weakness of air strikes is that if they did not topple the regime, they would delay but not end Iran's nuclear ambitions; after a delay of a few years, the nuclear program would recover.
Not to mention, the odds of success are low considering Tehran has distributed components of its nuclear program underground across a country four times the size of Iraq. Because of Iran's mountainous topography and world-renown deception operations, the U.S. wouldn't be able to locate any of the hardened facilities in the first place, let alone destroy them.
Myth of the mad mullahs
Many believe deterrence is not possible against Iran because its leaders are irrational Islamofascists evidenced by wild-eyed proclamations such as wanting to wipe Israel off the face of the earth and claiming the Holocaust never happened.
However, history tells us a different story because many forget how insane the Soviets and Chinese were once believed to be. During the 60s the Johnson administration contemplated bombing China's nuclear sites rather than let that madman Chairman Mao acquire nukes.
Mao had some memorable quotes that make Ahmadinejad's rants seem tame, including such classics as:
If the worse came to worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist.
Foreign Policy's Robert Farlay further captures the general sentiment about China at the time:
The regime's ideology precluded the notion of an afterlife (and thus of eternal damnation), and its leaders had demonstrated a willingness to kill millions upon millions of their fellow citizens in the service of utopian goals. There was every reason to believe that the Chinese leader could push the button without remorse.
U.S. opinion of the Soviets was not much better, based on Russia's willingness to absorb 20 million casualties during World War II (about 14% of their population). The prevailing notion was the U.S. could not deter the Russians because "their basic moral fiber was considered alien" as the New Republic's J. Peter Scoblic puts it.
The Department of Defense concluded in a recent analysis that Iran's first priority has always been the survival of their regime and deterrence was a central part of their nuclear strategy. The Iranian theocracy's ideological goals have taken a backseat to more pragmatic considerations.
The way in which Iran strikes deals with infidels on a daily basis, practicality does seem to have trumped their millenarianism and pining for the return of the "Hidden Imam." As James M. Lindsay and Ray Takeyh point out in a recent Foreign Affairs article:
Despite their Islamist compulsions, the mullahs like power too much to be martyrs.
Good old-fashioned deterrence
Iran's Sunni neighbors will not be very excited about a newly-nuclearized Shiite power attempting to gain dominance in the region. So, not unlike arrangements during the Cold War, the U.S. can extend its deterrence umbrella and provide security guarantees to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Turkey. Ironically, Iran's attempt at achieving regional hegemony via nuclear acquisition might backfire if it alienates other Muslim countries and forces them into the arms of the Great Satan.
As a matter of fact, dealing with a nuclear threat might be easier than other international security issues on America's agenda. The U.S. can use an "offshore balancing" strategy, relying on missile, air and naval power as a deterrent as opposed to setting foot in foreign lands as "occupiers" once again.
After reviewing the history of U.S. nuclear defense strategy with China and Russia, and reading reports on the true nature and motivations of the regime in Theran, the paranoia and fear on both sides of the political aisle in the U.S. is mind-boggling. Or, to go a step further, I'd even call it irrational. Some self-proclaimed U.S. political leaders have even asserted publicly that if Iran obtained nuclear weapons it would result in a second holocaust (of course, for Iranian leaders it would be the first). And who is calling who crazy?
Working under the assumption that Iran wants to survive and the U.S. develops a prudent deterrence strategy -- although inevitable, a nuclear Iran need not be intolerable.
Follow Michael Hughes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mhughes3500