IRAN’S apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons is the gravest security challenge facing the Obama administration, and a turning point is fast approaching. Earlier this month, the US envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran’s uranium enrichment activities are nearing “breakout capacity.’’ The same week, Iran coyly offered to negotiate about everything except its nuclear program.
President Obama is running out of time to persuade Iran’s leaders to accept safeguards such as outside inspections of nuclear sites and tight controls on enrichment that can keep the country’s nuclear program from being used to build weapons. Obama’s offer to negotiate with Iran is the right first step, but he also needs a backup plan if Iran refuses to budge.
Two outcomes must be avoided: an Iran with nuclear weapons, and a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities by the United States, Israel, or both. A nuclear-armed Iran would make the Middle East far more volatile. Apart from the risk that Iran might use or transfer nuclear weapons, some of its neighbors would likely seek their own nuclear weapons - multiplying the chance that a device will fall into the wrong hands.
Bombing nuclear sites in Iran is no solution. It would lead to retaliation against Americans by Iran’s terrorist proxies in Iraq and elsewhere, and to attacks on oil tankers off Iran’s coast, causing a worldwide shortage with serious economic repercussions. And Iran would almost surely revive its nuclear program in covert sites.
Given the stakes, the administration made the right move earlier this month by declaring it would take part in multilateral talks with Iran even if the nuclear program is ostensibly off the table. But Obama must be prepared to impose more stringent sanctions if Iran’s leaders continue to refuse to curb their nuclear ambitions. In canceling the Bush administration’s flawed missile defense plan for Europe last week, Obama improved the chances of obtaining Russia’s assent to tough new UN sanctions on Iran.
But if Russia refuses to cooperate, the United States has other options. Obama should be ready to hit Iran with serious banking sanctions. Companies that trade with Iran would have to cut off that trade or be blacklisted by Western banks. The effect on Iran’s investment-starved economy would be severe. And Revolutionary Guard commanders who have taken control of many of the most lucrative enterprises in Iran would suffer a direct economic blow.
Obama has no illusions about the nature of the Iranian regime; he billed his own new version of missile defense as a way to counter threats from Iran. He should put two options before Iran’s truculent leaders: isolation if Iran pursues nuclear weapons, or security, peaceful nuclear energy, and international acceptance if Iran forgoes them.