WASHINGTON — The United States faces a cold reality: even stepped-up U.S. and Western sanctions of recent weeks have not persuaded Iran’s radical regime, which is driving ever closer to nuclear weaponry, to shift course.
That’s largely because Washington has never mounted a credible threat of military action to derail Tehran’s efforts. While President Barack Obama and George W. Bush insisted “all options are on the table,” other officials undercut them by openly questioning whether military action would work and what Tehran would do in response.
Even as it squeezes Iran harder economically, the United States should finally establish that credible threat — and U.S. deliveries of advanced bunker-busting bombs and refueling tankers to Israel should be part of that effort.
The reasons are twofold.
• First, a nuclear Iran remains an unthinkable option. A nation that already kills U.S. troops in the region, mounts terror plots on U.S. soil, seeks greater influence throughout South America, and generally threatens U.S. interests around the world would — with nuclear weapons — be almost immune to pressure.
Tehran could better protect the terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, that it funds and equips; more aggressively de-stabilize its neighbors while pursuing regional hegemony; and disrupt oil flows through the Straits of Hormuz — all while knowing the United States and its allies would have to think twice before forcefully confronting a declared enemy with nuclear weapons.
Moreover, Tehran could go further and activate its leaders’ persistent threats to eliminate Israel or transfer nuclear weapons to terrorist groups that could target Jerusalem, Washington, London, or the capitals of other hated countries.
At the very least, a nuclear Iran would prompt a nuclear arms race across the region, where more than a dozen states vow to pursue nuclear weapons if Tehran develops them. That, in turn, would put the volatile Middle East within a hair trigger of catastrophe if tensions mounted and fighting ensued.
Nor can Washington count on “containing” a nuclear Iran, as it contained a nuclear Soviet Union. Facing a regime whose leaders espouse genocide, are pursuing nuclear weapons and longer-range ballistic missiles to carry it out, and despise “the Great Satan” (the United States) almost as much as “the Little Satan” (Israel), the prudent course for Washington is to presume Tehran means what it says.
• Second, only a credible threat of military action holds any promise of preventing Iran from completing its nuclear pursuit.
At this point, Tehran clearly does not take Washington’s “all options are on the table” mantra seriously. The United States has left Iraq, is leaving Afghanistan, is war weary, and is cutting its defense budget. Its top officials are pressuring Jerusalem to give sanctions more time before launching its own strike. Washington talks less about a military option and far more about pursuing alternatives.
By contrast, no one, including Iran’s leaders, doubts Jerusalem’s resolve. Israel bombed Iraq’s Osarik nuclear plant in 1981 and Syria’s undeclared Syrian nuclear site in 2007, making clear that it will not tolerate existential threats.
By giving Israel advanced bunker-busting bombs and refueling capacity — as a bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel of the Bipartisan Policy Center recently recommended — the United States will both restore some of its own credibility and give Israel the resources to cripple Iran’s scattered and well-protected facilities.
At worst, Israel could slow Iran’s nuclear pursuit, providing some additional time for Iranians to overthrow their hated regime, and hopefully replace it with a far less dangerous one, before it’s too late.
At best, a U.S. transfer of the higher-grade weaponry to Israel will convince Iranian leaders that, along with Tehran’s nuclear program, the regime’s own survival may be at stake and that it should finally change course.
If so, Washington’s action would fulfill the age-old Latin adage: “if you wish for peace, prepare for war.”
• Haas is a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the American Foreign Policy Council.