TEHRAN THIS WEEK claimed that it had enriched uranium, a first step toward nuclear weapons capability. The question now is whether the Bush administration has learned from its mistakes in Iraq, or will it set our nation on a road that leads to military confrontation with Iran?
No one concerned about U.S. national security wants Iran to obtain a nuclear weapons capability. It would be a destabilizing force in the Middle East and throughout the world. That's exactly why we need strong American leadership, working toward a verifiable diplomatic solution.
Instead, the administration reportedly is intent upon relying on the failed doctrine of preemption and new Pentagon planning that stokes the prospect of military conflict. If this is true, Americans ought to be deeply concerned.
The doctrine of preemption, first articulated by President Bush at West Point in June 2002, was spelled out in the September 2002 National Security Strategy: "The greater the threat, the greater the risk of inaction -- and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves."
Just a few weeks ago, the doctrine was reiterated in the latest National Security Strategy. According to this document, the U.S. may use force before it is attacked because the nation cannot afford to "stand idly by as grave dangers materialize." Yet it is the doctrine itself that is dangerous.
First, it demands that our intelligence be right -- every time. This is difficult, if not impossible, in the shadowy world of terrorism and WMD. As we've seen in Iraq, intelligence not only can be wrong, it can be manipulated. Our nation's credibility and stature have taken a huge hit as a result, and the U.S. is in no position to garner support in the international community for military confrontation based on preemption.
Second, the doctrine of preemption may lead to a less stable world in general -- especially if our adversaries believe they are safe from preemptive action only if they possess nuclear weapons. Iran has no doubt noted the difference in our dealings with North Korea, which possesses nuclear weapons, and Iraq, which the administration believed was still developing them. So the administration may have encouraged the very proliferation it is seeking to prevent.
Third, an overreliance on preemption can lead to the downplaying of diplomacy. By the administration's own account, Iran is years away from possessing nuclear weapons; there is time to engage in forceful diplomatic action.
The dangers inherent in preemptive action are only multiplied by reports that the administration may be considering first use of tactical, battlefield nuclear weapons in Iran: Specifically, nuclear "bunker busters" to try to take out deeply buried targets.
There are some in this administration who have been pushing to make nuclear weapons more "usable." They see nuclear weapons as an extension of conventional weapons. This is pure folly.
As a matter of physics, there is no missile casing sufficiently strong to thrust deep enough into concrete or granite to prevent the spewing of radiation. Nuclear "bunker busters" would kill tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people across the Middle East.
This would be a disastrous tragedy. First use of nuclear weapons by the United States should be unthinkable. A preemptive nuclear attack violates a central tenet of the "just war" and U.S. military traditions.
There is no question that in the post-9/11 era, a full range of policy options for dealing with new and uncertain events should be on the table. But in my view, nuclear options cannot be considered as an extension of conventional options.
So what steps should the United States be taking?
The U.S. should engage Iran diplomatically. So far, England, France and Germany have led the negotiated effort to halt Iran's uranium enrichment, while Russia has explored other alternatives. It is time for the U.S. to lead such efforts, not stand by.
We must push for a complete halt to Iran's enrichment activities and full access to all nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency. If Iran refuses, international sanctions should follow, and inspections with U.N. forces if necessary.
At the same time, the U.S. needs to build international alliances to create a unified front opposed to Iran's quest for nuclear weapons.
The United States should learn the lesson of Iraq. It should not make the same mistake twice. There is broad agreement that Iran cannot be allowed to proceed with its nuclear programs and continue to flout the international community. Now is the time for tough diplomacy, joined by our allies, not a premature military confrontation that could include nuclear devastation.