In the profound lack of certainty and the possibility of dire consequences concerned with Iran''s nuclear program, it is possible to conceive of a scenario that is less than perfect, but way short of catastrophic.
Let''s start with some basics.
In politics, it is generally impossible to achieve ideal solutions for serious problems. Individuals, groups, and national governments have their separate interests. One must give in order to get.
A guiding principal is not to make things worse. And insofar as hardly anything is worse than a war, it is wise to avoid that if at all possible. To be sure, it isn''t always possible. Some participants in politics are so stubborn, or so ideological, or so fixed on a religious fantasy as to make the normal process of give and get impractical.
There is good reason to wonder if Iran falls outside of the political realm, due to the extreme role that religion plays in the present regime, and the irrational denial of history in the case of the Holocaust. If regime leaders truly are crazy, then war may be the only way to keep them from creating nuclear weapons that they will use in the expectation of religious fulfilment.
A similar assessment might be made of North Korea. Instead of an extreme brand of Islam, its leadership has been guided by an extreme variety of authoritarianism. It has succeeded in keeping its population on something close to starvation rations while it has pursued expensive programs of research and development in nuclear weapons and the missiles capable of delivering them. Its rhetoric is hardly different from that of the Iranian leadership, although the targets of its apocalyptic threats are a different set of enemies.
Also in the case of North Korea, there is a history of outside pressure, distrust, and a great lack of certainty about intentions and capacities. While it is widely believed that North Korea has successfully tested a nuclear device, there is dispute about the size of the explosions and even their success.
Japanese, American, and South Korean officials have expressed their great concern and sense of threat on account of the North Korean program, and they have joined in efforts to constrain the North Koreans with counter-threats and inducements. Money and food lead the list of inducements, along with joint projects providing employment and industrial development on North Korean soil bankrolled and managed by South Koreans.
Given the history of animosity and the highly destructive Korean war, one would expect the South Koreans to be at a fever pitch of concern. Yet my own contacts with South Korean academics, government personnel and others have given me an untested feeling that they are less fearful about their relatives to the north than are more distant observers.
The North Korean model may work for Iran.
Its ingredients include persistent pressure to give up the development of nuclear weapons, demands for inspections, and positive inducements in exchange for cooperation. The record in the case of North Korea is pledges of cooperation, perceptions of cheating on a grand scale once aid has been delivered, along with claims by North Korea that the aid promised was not delivered. Most recent has been another commitment of giving up the nuclear option in exchange for promises of substantial aid.
No doubt that the North Korean model is imperfect.
But so far so good, which is a decent standard for judging cooperation between governments or other political actors in a setting of great differences in ideology and regime character, against a background of distrust.
Those who have suffered most from the awkward and unsatisfactory impasse are the people of North Korea. Many of them are close, or actually over the line of starvation, as well as being deprived of minimum forms of individual liberties and opportunities to improve the living conditions of themselves and their families.
All that sounds like what may be brewing in the case of Iran. Existing sanctions have produced high inflation, and the most recent and severe limitations on international banking may not yet have begun to bite. Like North Koreans, Iranians have suffered due to the resources allocated to nuclear programs, and Iranians have suffered due to considerable other resources allocated to regime friends like Hezbollah and Hamas, seemingly meant to realize the regime''s fantasy of destroying Israel. New restrictions on currency transfers may limit the regime''s capacity to sell oil, as well as the import of food and other consumer goods.
It is difficult to judge the credibility of threats from Israel and the United States concerned with military action. That is, we don''t know if Israel or the United States are close to, or distant from taking action, and we don''t know how Iranian officials view their threats.
If the North Korean model works for Iran, its officials may increase the credibility of their statements about not developing nuclear weapons, perhaps in exchange for some moderation of sanctions or other benefits. In the best of conditions, we can expect that inspections will be imperfect, and that some observers will remain unconvinced. As in the case of North Korea, there may be a continuing series of commitments made and broken, then made again, with each side blaming the other for a lack of compliance and credibility.
One can imagine further into the future, and expect politicians in Israel and the United States to claim credit for turning Iran away from its nuclear option, even while others express their lack of certainty or their lack of belief.
And again, we may not get to the point of self congratulations. War may come due to the enormous gaps in political culture between an Iran governed by Shi''ites who view the world in apocalyptic terms, Israelis who know the apocalypse from the experiences of parents and grandparents, and Americans who see a nuclear armed Iran as an existential threat to pax Americana.
We can hope for the best, without being sure of what we expect.