The debate over how to deal with Iran's nuclear program is clouded by historical amnesia. Nuclear proliferation has been stopped before, and it can and should be stopped in this case as well. Unfortunately, with Tehran -- as with some of its predecessors -- the price for Washington will be relinquishing the threat of regime change by force.
Opponents of military action against Iran assume a U.S. strike would be far more dangerous than simply letting Tehran build a bomb. Not so, argues this former Pentagon defense planner. With a carefully designed attack, Washington could mitigate the costs and spare the region and the world from an unacceptable threat.
Matthew Kroenig’s recent article in this magazine argued that a military strike against Iran would be “the least bad option” for stopping its nuclear program. But the war Kroenig calls for would be far messier than he predicts, and Washington still has better options available.
The political science professor and the former Pentagon official debate Kenneth N. Waltz's article from the July/August 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs.
A nuclear-armed Iran would not make the Middle East more secure, argues Colin Kahl; it would yield more terrorism and pose a risk of a nuclear exchange. Kenneth Waltz maintains that nuclear deterrence enhances stability, and if the price is more low-level conflict, so be it.
The past several months have witnessed a heated debate over the best way for the United States and Israel to respond to Iran's nuclear activities. As the argument has raged, the United States has tightened its already robust sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic, and the European Union announced in January that it will begin an embargo on Iranian oil on July 1. Although the United States, the EU, and Iran have recently returned to the negotiating table, a palpable sense of crisis still looms.
It should not. Most U.S., European, and Israeli commentators and policymakers warn that a nuclear-armed Iran would be the worst possible outcome of the current standoff. In fact, it would probably be the best possible result: the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East.
POWER BEGS TO BE BALANCED
The crisis over Iran's nuclear program could end in three different ways. First, diplomacy coupled with serious sanctions could convince Iran to abandon its pursuit of a nuclear weapon. But this outcome is unlikely: the historical record indicates that a country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons can rarely be dissuaded from doing so. Punishing a state through economic sanctions does not inexorably derail its nuclear program. Take North Korea, which succeeded in building its weapons despite countless rounds of sanctions and UN Security Council resolutions. If Tehran determines that its security depends on possessing nuclear weapons, sanctions are unlikely to change its mind. In fact, adding still more sanctions now could make Iran feel even more vulnerable, giving it still more reason to seek the protection of the ultimate deterrent.
The second possible outcome is that Iran stops short of testing a nuclear weapon but develops a breakout capability, the capacity to build and test one quite quickly. Iran would not be the first country to acquire a sophisticated nuclear program without building an actual bomb. Japan, for instance, maintains a vast civilian nuclear infrastructure. Experts believe that it could produce a nuclear weapon on short notice.
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