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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Over the horizon dark clouds of an imminent nuclear crisis between the West and Iran are building, a crisis whose dynamics may be more treacherous than those of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, if only because we may be damned if we take military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons - and damned if we don't. Harvard political scientist Graham Allison has recently referred to the Iranian nuclear situation as a "slow motion Cuban Missile Crisis."
While the two crises could not be more different, the analogy reminds us to seek, as JFK did, additional options beyond attack or acceptance of nuclear weapons. A solution, albeit partial, to this dilemma, I would argue, lies in defusing nuclear threats.
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At this juncture six options seem to be available: (1) diplomacy; (2) regime change; (3) deterrence; (4) surgical attack; (5) invasion; and (6) nuclear defusing.
Let's consider each.
Diplomacy is the option of choice. If Iran can be persuaded or dissuaded by a mixture of diplomatic carrots and sticks to back down, then the crisis may be peacefully resolved. This option is unrealistic, however. Iran counts on Western diplomacy, even maybe sanctions, to take enough time until the bomb is in the basement. Moreover, Iran knows that the US has discredited itself, both domestically and internationally, in Iraq, offering Iran a unique historical opportunity to acquire nuclear weapons.
Regime Change probably will not occur before Iran's builds its first nuclear weapon. Active measures, short of an overt military option, will likely backfire. Because Iranians attach so much self-worth, identity, and prestige to their nuclear project, foreign pressure to overthrow their current government will only result in rallying the majority of Iranians, even those disenchanted with the current regime, around the flag.
Deterrence may become the default option if other peaceful options do not materialize and military options are removed for being too dangerous and costly. A problem with deterrence, however, is that the perceived need to preserve it in the future provides grounds for the use of force in the present. Another problem with deterrence is that if it fails nuclear war is the likely scenario. Even if the West succeeds in deterring Iran from using nuclear weapons, a nuclear Iran is more likely to act with impunity and use nuclear blackmail to achieve its objectives. Deterrence also means accepting that in five or 10 years there will likely be additional nuclear countries in the Middle East, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
When we add Israel to the picture, it becomes even more complicated. First, to deter each other both Iran and Israel will be forced to have second strike capability, raising the specter of a nuclear arms race. Second, unlike the US and the USSR during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Israel and Iran lack any "common knowledge" - shared understandings and expectations.
The fear of a first strike between Israel and Iran will be high and so will the chances of unintended nuclear war. Third, and perhaps most depressing for the long run, it is unlikely that Iran and Israel will develop the arms-control and confidence building measures that prevented the cold war from becoming hot.
Surgical attack has been under consideration in Washington and Israel in the last few years. The main problem with this alternative, however, is that, while it could damage Iran's nuclear production capabilities it hardly will be able to stop Iran from returning to production once the dust has settled. In fact, if attacked, Iran will redouble its efforts to attain nuclear weapons and may take revenge on Israel.
Even before the dust settles, Iran is likely to mount a terror campaign that will make current warfare in Iraq seem like child's play. What's left of US attempts at democracy promotion in the Middle East will be in shambles and the divide between the West and the Muslim world will widen dramatically, thus affecting life in North American and European cities.
In sum, Western security and economic welfare will be indelibly weakened by an attack. This will be the price, not of eradicating the danger of a nuclear Iran, but of gaining a few years, half a decade at most, to allow for regime change in Iran.
Invasion of Iran has all of the above problems and much more. It would extend American military power beyond, making it vulnerable to attacks elsewhere and, most important, even if the military operation succeeds, as in Iraq in 2003, "the day after" may bring guerrilla warfare, demoralization, and defeat.
If the US is defeated, not only in Iraq but also in Iran, Israel's existence as a Jewish state will be in jeopardy, the possibilities of China overtaking the US will increase, and the world will revert to somber times, when the fruits of modernization and globalization may be at risk.
Nuclear Defusing might help the parties back off from the brink by changing their expectations so as to dispose them to take measures that would be otherwise inconceivable. It includes making Israel - Iran's avowed nuclear target - a member of NATO and the quid pro quo agreement of Israel to move rapidly to a permanent two-state solution, more or less along the Clinton Plan, and to a peace treaty with Syria in return for the Golan Heights.
Placing Israel under NATO's nuclear umbrella would go a long way toward deterring Iran from threatening or attacking Israel with nuclear weapons. But will NATO, in particular its European members, accept Israel?
The answer is that if diplomacy and non-violent regime change will not work and the remaining alternatives are global jihad or a nuclear war, then throwing into the positive side of the equation a formal resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the creation of viable Palestinian state might go a long way in changing minds in NATO headquarters as well as in European and North American capitals.
Israelis also may warm to this idea if they understand that the price of retaining the occupied territories is jihad against Israel, or worse, nuclear war. One of the imaginative aspects of this option is that it will allow all sides to come out saving face and having prevented the worst case scenario.
This option, of course, assumes a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem in the form of two viable states whose people enjoy the security they deserve. The Iranian nuclear crisis, therefore, may become a catalyst to help move Israelis and Palestinians from the politically impossible to the ethically and historically imperative. Once Israel is embedded in NATO, and Israelis and Palestinians have embarked on a long-term truce and adopted peaceful coexistence, the international community will promote regional arms control involving NATO, Iran, and other Middle East countries.
In one or two generations the Middle East could become a nuclear weapons free zone. The energy and resources that this alternative will require are enormous, but they will pale by comparison to the cost of the alternatives.
The writer is Andrea and Charles Bronfman Professor of Israeli Studies at the University of Toronto.