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Commentary

The status quo makes an Iran war likely

Either Israel is engaged in the most elaborate ruse since the Trojan Horse or it is on the cusp of a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. What’s alarming is not just Iran’s increasing store of uranium or the growing sophistication of its rocketry. It’s also the increasingly menacing annihilationist threats emanating from Iran’s leaders. Israel’s existence is “an insult to all humanity,” says President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Anyone who loves freedom and justice must strive for the annihilation of the Zionist regime.” The country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei explains that Israel is “a true cancer tumor on this region that should be cut off.”

Everyone wants to avoid military action, surely the Israelis above all. They can expect a massive counterattack from Iran, 50,000 rockets launched from Lebanon, Islamic Jihad firing from Gaza and worldwide terror against Jewish and Israeli targets, as happened last month in Bulgaria.

Yet Israel will not sit idly by in the face of the most virulent genocidal threats since Nazi Germany. The result back then was 6 million murdered Jews. There are 6 million living in Israel today.

Time is short. Last-ditch negotiations in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow have failed abjectly. The Iranians are contemptuously playing with the process. The strategy is delay until they get the bomb.

What to do? The sagest advice comes from Anthony Cordesman, military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, hardheaded realist and a believer that “multilateralism and soft power must still be the rule and not the exception.”

He may have found his exception. “There are times when the best way to prevent war is to clearly communicate that it is possible,” he argues. Today, the threat of a U.S. attack is not taken seriously. Not by the region. Not by Iran. Not by the Israelis, who therefore increasingly feel forced to act before Israel’s more limited munitions – far less powerful and effective than those in the U.S. arsenal – can no longer penetrate Iran’s ever-hardening facilities.

Cordesman therefore proposes threefold action.

First, clear U.S. red lines: It’s time to end the ambiguity about U.S. intentions. Establish real limits on negotiations – to convince Iran the only alternative to a deal is pre-emptive strikes, and to convince Israel to stay its hand.

Second, make it clear to Iran that it has no successful options. Either their program must be abandoned in a negotiated deal (see No. 1 above) on generous terms from the West (see No. 3 below) or Iranian facilities will be physically destroyed. Ostentatiously let Iran know about the range and power of America’s capacities – how deep and extensive a campaign we could conduct, extending beyond just nuclear facilities to military-industrial targets, refineries, power grids and other concentrations of regime power.

And third, give Iran a face-saving way out. Offer Iran generous terms – economic, diplomatic and political. End of sanctions, assistance in economic and energy development, trade incentives and a regional security architecture. Even Russian nuclear fuel.

Tellingly, however, Cordesman does not join those who suggest yielding on nuclear enrichment. That’s important because a prominently leaked proposed “compromise” would guarantee Iran’s right to enrich, though not to high levels.

In my view, this would be disastrous. Iran would retain the means to potentially produce fissile material, either clandestinely or in a defiant breakout at a time of its choosing.

Would Iran believe a Cordesman-like ultimatum? Given the record of the Obama administration, maybe not. Some (though not Cordesman) have therefore suggested the further step of requesting congressional authorization for the use of force if Iran does not negotiate denuclearization.

First, that’s the right way to do it. No serious military action should be taken without congressional approval (contra Libya). Second, Iran might actually respond to a threat backed by a strong bipartisan majority of the American people – thus avoiding both war and the other nightmare scenario, a nuclear Iran.

If we simply continue to drift through kabuki negotiations, however, one thing is certain. Either America, Europe, the Gulf Arabs and the Israelis will forever be condemned to live under the threat of nuclear blackmail (even nuclear war) from a regime the State Department identifies as the world’s greatest exporter of terror. Or an imperiled Israel, with its more limited capabilities, will strike Iran – with correspondingly greater probability of failure and of triggering a regional war.

All options are bad. Doing nothing is worse. “The status quo may not prevent some form of war,” concludes Cordesman, “and may even be making it more likely.”

Charles Krauthammer writes a weekly column for The Washington Post.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 27, 2012, on page 7.

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