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Back Diplomacy With Force to Bar Iran From Nuclear Club

April 01, 2003|Bennett Ramberg | Bennett Ramberg was in the State Department during the first Bush administration and is author of "Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy" (University of California Press, 1984). E-mail: bennettramberg

There is little doubt that Iran, which for the moment has neither a bomb nor nuclear weapons material, has learned much from North Korea and Iraq.

Iraq teaches the mullahs that failure to move forward rapidly to get the bomb puts a nuclear aspirant in the U.S. cross hairs.

By contrast, North Korea demonstrates that once a nation gets the bomb or weapons material, there is little the U.S. or others can do to halt a program.

So now the international community has three choices: acquiesce to a nuclear-armed Iran while attempting to contain it, diplomatically induce Iran to forbear, or take military action to halt the program.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated that Iran continued to be a subject for concern. "It is now time for the entire international community to step up and insist that Iran end its support for terrorists," he said, adding that "Tehran must stop pursuing weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them."

Washington and other capitals have confronted such dilemmas in the past. During the Cold War, Pentagon war gaming included preemptive strikes on Soviet and Chinese nuclear weapons plants. But real strikes never happened. Instead, the U.S. largely relied on nuclear deterrence and an arms control process with Moscow to build confidence and reduce the risk of war.

When Russia and India weighed preemptive destruction of Chinese and Pakistani nuclear facilities, respectively, they decided that deterrence was the prudent course. The Clinton administration contemplated attacking North Korea's atomic plants but instead used economic and political incentives in a failed attempt to halt Pyongyang's program.

Israel, however, took a different path. In 1981, in an air attack, it destroyed Iraq's Osirik nuclear plant. Condemned by the international community at the time, the action is widely credited today with having prevented Baghdad from acquiring nuclear weapons during the 1980s.

Timing was important. Israel destroyed the reactor before it began building up a radioactive inventory that bombing would have dispersed.

So what should the international community do? Reports have circulated for some time that Israel has contemplated applying the Osirik precedent to Iran.

Jerusalem faces a stark fact: Iran is a sworn enemy that has provided incalculable assistance to terrorists who threaten the Jewish state. In the future, this assistance could include nuclear material. It is unlikely that Israel will play the dithering game that has characterized the international response to North Korea and Iraq.

In the post-9/11 world, the U.S. has a strong incentive to use military force, given Tehran's continuing sponsorship of international terrorism and general antagonism toward Washington.

Military action, of course, is not risk-free. But the risks may be far greater for the U.S. than for Israel. Jerusalem may perceive itself as largely immune from Iranian response to a military attack, given the distances separating the adversaries and the fact that Iran would have to cross unfriendly territory defended by U.S. forces.

Washington's military assets in the Persian Gulf, by contrast, offer Iran an inviting target. Tehran's retribution could include support of guerrilla activity in the Shiite zones of an American- and British-occupied Iraq and sabotage of the region's oil fields, upon which the West relies so heavily.

As for diplomacy, the international community can urge Iran to halt its program. The Security Council could issue a resolution. But in the aftermath of Iraq, such declarations appear toothless. As part of a diplomatic effort, Washington could implore nuclear suppliers to halt their assistance to Tehran. Moscow, however, already has declined to do so.

Then there is acquiescence. If we simply accept that Iran has the bomb, that would stimulate nuclear proliferation across the Middle East. Because that clearly is unacceptable, we would probably try to temper it with containment. Containment worked during the Cold War and arguably it could work again to keep other nations from acquiring nuclear capabilities.

However, this course assumes that Iran would not divert nuclear material to terrorist allies. It also takes for granted that Iranian safeguards would prevent theft of nuclear material.

So we are left with only one real solution: Combining the diplomatic and military options. Iran should agree to the tougher inspection regime proposed by the International Atomic Energy Agency or risk liquidation of its nuclear weapons investment by military force.

The choice should be squarely in Tehran's hands.

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