As the Iranian nuclear program nears its critical stages and the possibility of
military action becomes more realistic, highly respected observers – even former
senior Israeli officials – have come out strongly against this. US President
Barack Obama has made his preference for continued sanctions and diplomacy
clear. The US and EU talks with Iran on Saturday did not provide a clear
indication of whether Iran is serious about wanting a last- minute deal. The
inveterate optimism of diplomats aside, the only clear outcome is a further time
gain for Iran, until the next round on May 23.
The US should be willing
to offer Iran a generous deal that will address its legitimate interests – even
the long-sought assurance that the US will not pursue a regime change. For
Israel, painful compromises – such as acquiescence to Iran’s long-standing
relationship with Hezbollah – are worth making if they achieve the over-arching
goal of preventing a nuclear Iran.
No one disputes that an attack should
be considered only as a last resort and would be deeply problematic even
All sides greatly prefer a diplomatic outcome, and no one more than
Israel, whose interests are most deeply effected and which will bear the brunt
of an Iranian retaliation.
For a deal to work, however, one has to have a
partner. The simple fact is that Iran has rejected all efforts to reach a
negotiated solution to date, beginning with Clinton and renewed with greater
emphasis by Obama, and has used the passing time to further develop its nuclear
We can hope that the punishing oil and financial sanctions
now in place will finally change the Iranian calculus.
sanctions time to work is certainly the preferred option and Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu has indicated his willingness to do so. So there still is a
limited window for diplomacy, but let us not delude ourselves. Iran has good
strategic reasons for seeking nukes, has turned the issue into a domestic cause
célèbre, and has so far demonstrated a clear willingness to pay the attendant
costs. Hope is important, but is not a substitute for hardheaded
Moreover, there is a fundamental weakness in the argument for
diplomacy and sanctions, which reflects a basic unwillingness to face up to the
bitter truth and draw the consequent conclusions, painful though they may be:
Unless a very unexpected change takes place in Iranian policy, ongoing diplomacy
risks becoming a cover for acquiescence to a nuclear Iran and de-facto support
for a policy of deterrence and containment.
Although Obama has officially
disavowed this option, many believe it to be the likely and even desirable
outcome, given the alternatives.
Those who do have the responsibility to
say so clearly and openly, not by holding out the probable chimera of a
Military action is certainly not a panacea. Iran
already has the know-how needed to reconstitute the program, if attacked, and
could reach its current stage of development again within a few years. A gain of
a few years, however, should also not be dismissed.
Much can happen in
the Middle East in a few years.
For an attack on Iran to make sense,
anyone willing to act once would have to be willing to do so again, should the
program be reconstituted.
Following an attack, the international
community would presumably exert crushing pressure on Iran, in order to deal
with the issue and prevent the likelihood of a further strike. Moreover, the
time gained would be used for a variety of additional delaying measures, such as
renewed subversion, and the long hoped for regime change in Iran might also take
Some argue that an attack will merely rally the Iranian people
around the regime, which is indeed a likely short-term result. There is,
however, no reason to presume that this will be the case once the initial fury
passes and Iranians truly consider their interests, especially if the
international community continues to impose heavy costs. It should be remembered
that the regional uprisings began with the demonstrations in Iran in June
Diplomacy and sanctions should be pursued during the coming months,
while the window of opportunity for doing so still remains
Ultimately, however, the choice will come down to one of two
danger-fraught alternatives: living with a nuclear Iran through containment and
deterrence, or military action. Whichever approach one favors, we owe it to
ourselves to face up to this painful choice honestly.
The writer, a
Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, was a deputy national security
adviser in Israel.