'It is not this calendar year" that the world will face a nuclear-capable Iran, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus told a Senate committee last week. He was being conservative: Most experts now estimate that Iran needs about 18 months to complete a nuclear device and a missile to carry it.
Iran's march toward nuclear weapons has been slowed by several factors: technical bottlenecks, the exposure of secret facilities and equipment breakdowns (sometimes thanks to flaws baked into equipment by Western intelligence agencies).
But progress toward the bomb hasn't been stopped -- not by sanctions, negotiations or domestic unrest.
The Obama administration's goal is still to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But like many of the president's worthy aspirations, this one may be unattainable. The administration is working diligently on stepped-up economic sanctions against Iran, but even the proponents of that approach don't promise immediate results. And the option of a military strike against Iran faces strong opposition from an important constituency: the U.S. military, which doesn't relish adding a third war to the two it's already fighting. As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates never tires of pointing out, a military strike wouldn't prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; it would merely postpone it.
That's why national security thinkers from both parties are talking more openly about what happens next: what to do when the Iranians get a nuclear weapon.
An Iran with one or two nuclear bombs is a very bad thing, their reasoning goes, but it's not the end of the world. As Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, put it last month: "I don't think that the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, are going to drop it immediately on some neighbor. They fully understand what might follow. They are radicals but not total meshugenehs" (Yiddish for "nut cases"). He went on to say that a nuclear Iran would be "unacceptable" because it would strengthen the Tehran regime as a regional power and increase the danger of nuclear proliferation -- but the Israelis are also thinking about what to do if the "unacceptable" happens.
Hawks, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, argue that military action is the only remaining option. But a growing chorus that includes former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, are warning against a military strike on Iran by either the United States or Israel. A military strike, they say, would create chaos and strengthen its hard-line regime. And it wouldn't stop Tehran from eventually acquiring a nuclear weapon.
As Bruce Riedel, a 29-year veteran of the CIA who directed the Obama administration's initial review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, put it to me last week: "Bombing Iran is a truly bad option."
Even a surgical airstrike against Iran's nuclear installations, he warned, would touch off a much wider conflagration around the Persian Gulf and beyond. "It's not a war the United States needs right now," he said. "It would be disastrous to the wars we're already in [in Afghanistan and Iraq], and it would lead to a fourth war, one between Iran and Israel."
So what should we do instead? At the same time the U.S. tries to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, it should also turn to an option it has long experience with: containment. That doesn't mean passively accepting a nuclear Iran. Instead, it means working on several fronts to deprive Iran of any advantage it hopes to gain from possessing nuclear weapons.
It means escalating sanctions on Iran to increase the cost of owning nuclear weapons. It means providing a more explicit American defense umbrella to Israel, Saudi Arabia and other countries that Iran might threaten. It means a more active U.S. role in the region -- presumably the opposite of Iran's desires. And it means a continued demand on Iran to freeze and eventually reverse its nuclear program, even if it produces actual weapons.
In fact, even though the Obama administration isn't ready to accept that Iran will become a nuclear power, it is already doing all those things -- and laying a foundation for containment.
Riedel makes one more provocative point: He argues that President Obama should actually take the military option off the table and forswear any intention of attacking Iran -- because, in his view, it gets in the way of an effective containment policy. "It makes it harder for a lot of other countries to come on board," he said.
But Obama and his aides, after vowing repeatedly to keep the military option on the table, are unlikely to agree.
The most important thing is this: Obama shouldn't allow himself to be boxed in by past formulas. If Gates is right that a military attack on Iran is a bad idea, the time to begin talking about alternatives is now.
In 2003, the United States went to war in Iraq without a thorough debate of the alternative -- which was containment. Then, as now, hawks argued that military action was the only remaining option. This time, before another rush to war, that claim should be put to a more exacting test.