Strategic Clarity on Nuclear Iran

By Michael Miner

Governor Romney recently laid out a scathing critique of President Obama’s efforts to curtail the Iranian nuclear program. In addition to identifying how the administration has failed in prevention, Governor Romney has offered a solution of bold leadership and increased overt pressure on the regime. This is one school of strategic thought, yet President Obama and his national security team have pursued a remarkable course of action to overcome known and unknown challenges.

It is unfair and inaccurate to portray these efforts as total failures, but lest we forget it is election season. There are realistic dangers to recognize, and distressing fears being exploited by a number of interested parties. Where both sides have failed is their abridgement of a scenario that demands substantive coherence: a strategic clarity that frames the core issue for practitioners and citizens without falling prey to the pitfalls of electoral politics.

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Existential Threat

The primary concern is direct use of a nuclear weapon on a nation-state. Inflammatory statements by Iranian leaders, coupled with the specter of religious fanaticism, create an aura of dread in Tel Aviv. Some have even suggested Iran could strike the United States in an overt or covert manner. Would Tehran use nuclear weapons on another state, or specifically against the United States and Israel?

Iran would be highly unlikely to pursue such a course of action; especially given the consequential reaction by an Israeli state armed with nuclear weapons. Such action would invite an overwhelming response by Israel's own arsenal, evaporating invaluable aspects of contemporary Iran and Persian heritage. The level of condemnation by the global community would be unprecedented. Any leader minimally sensitive to costs would understand these ramifications, implicitly, and therefore the likelihood of such actions are almost zero barring the impending demise of the state by outside forces. If the U.S. and its allies respect the deterrence factor at play, the direct use of nuclear weapons should be a non-factor.

The leadership in Tehran is of the worst sort, on numerous grounds, but this does not mean they are not rational in their pursuit of power. In the nuclear age vigorous and contentious leaders have held control of such weapons but never sought their use. Americans lived in the shadow of the Cold War for a half-century, balancing against a much larger and more serious power than Iran in every respect. That a thuggish regime like Tehran can underpin similar levels of anxiety does not reflect the nature of this danger. The current argument for preventive war, steeped in combative rhetoric, fuels the theocratic forces of tyranny and repression America seeks to curtail: enemies of freedom and democracy that menace a shining city upon the hill.

Lessons of History

The Iran nuclear program does not represent the biggest danger to national security in the twenty-first century. It remains undesirable and preferably avoided at serious cost, but the overt use of military force is not enough to halt the program in its entirety – an action that would invite a disproportionate conventional response on U.S. targets and provide a dramatic shock to fragile global markets. Nonproliferation efforts currently underway should continue and, if circumstances prescribe, be increased on fronts that do not involve significant military buildup. Until such threats provide a tangible, verifiable and imminent threat to clear vital interests, large aerial or naval strikes should be avoided.

President Obama and Governor Romney must remember that restraint in the face of overwhelming temptation defines a courage displayed throughout decisive moments in American history. Clarity fused with purpose and direction will chart a clear course around the dangers of a nuclear Iran – and hopefully the dangers of partisan politics. This reinvigorated sense of practical idealism would not only resonate American greatness at home; but also strengthen responsible democratic governance around the world.

Michael Miner is a Teaching Fellow at Harvard University and a graduate of Dartmouth College. He is a member of The International Institute for Strategic Studies and The International Society for Iranian Studies.

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