Still Time to Attack Iran

The Illusion of a Comprehensive Nuclear Deal

Iranian missiles at a military exhibition in Tehran in 2010 (Courtesy Reuters)

Much has changed in the two years since I wrote “Time to Attack Iran,” but one basic fact hasn’t: diplomacy remains unlikely to neutralize the threat from Iran’s nuclear program. A truly comprehensive diplomatic settlement between Iran and the West is still the best possible outcome, but there is little reason to believe that one can be achieved. And that means the United States may still have to choose between bombing Iran and allowing it to acquire a nuclear bomb. That would be an awful dilemma. But a limited bombing campaign on Iran’s nuclear facilities would certainly be preferable to any attempt to contain a nuclear-armed Iran.

The successful negotiation of an interim deal between Iran and the United States and its negotiating partners has not substantially improved the chances that this problem will be resolved diplomatically. On the most important issue, the two sides are as far apart as ever, at least judging from the way that the Iranian government still makes claims of a “right to enrich” uranium, despite the multiple U.N. Security Council Resolutions that have demanded the suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Any deal that permits Iran to continue enriching uranium cannot be considered comprehensive in any sense. At present, it is estimated that Iran could dash to a nuclear weapons capability in two or three months. A deal that allows limited enrichment would push that timeline back to about six months, at best. (Some analysts, including Joseph Cirincione and Colin Kahl, have misleadingly claimed that the world still has years to solve the problem because it would take Iran a long time to develop an arsenal of deliverable warheads. But that is beside the point: Whenever the Iranian government develops bomb-grade fissile material, it can then move that material to an undisclosed location, thus taking the West’s military option off the table.) In other words, the comprehensive deal under discussion would put the two sides back where they were in January 2012, when “Time to Attack Iran” was first published.

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