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Living with a nuclear Iran

Posted: May 15, 2012 - 11:01pm

After months of heated rhetoric, the threat of a conflict with Iran over its nuclear program seems to be subsiding.

According to one Obama administration official, “We are in a period now where the combination of diplomacy and pressure is giving us a window.” We’ll all know better later this month when talks resume in Baghdad. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi appears optimistic. “At the Baghdad meeting,” he told reporters, “I see more progress.”

So the good news is, at least in the short run, that there’s hope of avoiding conflict.

But before we start celebrating we need to recognize that little has changed, including Iran’s desire to become a nuclear power.

Like virtually everyone else, I don’t think Iran should have nuclear weapons. But what I think is unimportant. It is important, however, to understand the Iranian regime’s rationale for pursuing them — and why they’re unlikely to abandon that pursuit, no matter what we offer in exchange.

In the view of Iran’s ruling clerics, it is not irrational to see their country as the Muslim world’s regional counterweight to U.S. ally Israel, which is presumed to have not only a nuclear capability, but as many as 100 nuclear warheads.

So what’s the United States to do?

President Obama already has declared, “I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” That means if diplomacy doesn’t work — and it probably won’t — the only option the president has left himself is military force.

While advocates of military force acknowledge that taking out Iran’s nuclear program wouldn’t be as “easy” as Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility, which prevented Saddam Hussein from developing a nuclear warhead, they may underestimate the complexity of such an operation.

Iran’s nuclear program doesn’t consist of a single target, but perhaps as many as several hundred targets. Some of these are near heavily populated areas. And some buried deep underground in hardened bunkers.

The U.S. military is capable of conducting such an attack, but it would be a massive undertaking. And there would never be absolute, 100 percent certainty that all the targets were destroyed.

Iran, of course, wouldn’t sit idly by during or after such an attack. While direct retaliation against the United States is beyond Iran’s capability, attacking U.S. targets in Iraq and Afghanistan is not. Iran also could try to close or disrupt shipping traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, which carries some 20 percent of the world’s oil. Or it might choose to attack Israel, perhaps triggering a wider regional conflict. Finally, Iran could resort to terrorism as a response — figuring it has little to lose.

But none of this really is necessary. While a nuclear-armed Iran would be no cause for celebration — and would complicate our national security strategy (and seriously complicate Israel’s) — the fact is: The United States and its allies could live with a nuclear Iran.

After all, there are few nuttier regimes in the world than North Korea’s — and a nuclear North Korea has not resulted in Armageddon.

The reality is that unless the mullahs in Tehran are suicidal — and they don’t appear to be — Iran is no more likely to use a nuclear weapon than North Korea.

Why? Because the vastly superior and far-more capable U.S. nuclear arsenal would serve as a powerful deterrent, as would Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear arsenal, which is backstopped with an increasingly sophisticated missile defense system. In short, the mullahs would risk total destruction if they launched a nuke.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal has successfully deterred the likes of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung in the past — both of whom were considered “crazy” in their time. It has prevented North Korea’s seemingly irrational leaders from doing the unthinkable. There’s little reason to believe that Iran’s blustery President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the ruling mullahs, are any more anxious to see their country destroyed.

Of course, there would be risks involved with Iran eventually becoming a nuclear power. But those risks are more manageable than the risks associated with trying to destroy its nuclear program.

• Pena is a Washington-based senior fellow with the Independent Institute

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