There is still a great deal of gray area surrounding Iran's nuclear intentions. It is impossible to know definitively whether Iran is merely considering building a nuclear weapon, whether they have decided to stop at “breakout capacity,” or whether they intend to go nuclear as soon as possible. Nevertheless, acts such as creating a secret nuclear plant and foiling International Atomic Energy Agency inspections do not suit an innocent party wrongly accused. This brings up the inevitable question: What should the U.S. do about it?
PolicyMic pundit Joe Sarkisian recently advocated allowing Iran to build a nuclear weapon. He makes the case that Iran is a rational actor and allowing them to build nuclear weapons would be a means to improving U.S.-Iranian relations. Sarkisian points out that we are ultimately unable to stop Iran from completing a nuclear weapon, and therefore, we should support them in the hopes that they will become a responsible power in the region. Although I agree with his initial point on Iran's rationality (at least in terms of avoiding mutually assured destruction with a nuclear strike), I believe the West should prevent, rather than facilitate, Iran from building a nuclear weapon.
If Iran does create a nuclear weapon, it will be a major destabilizing force in the Middle East. Iran has hardly been a stabilizing force even without a nuke. This is especially true in terms of our nonproliferation efforts. Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal has said publicly that if Iran even comes close, Saudi Arabia would follow. Considering Saudi Arabia's relative wealth and close relationship to Pakistan, this is not just bluster either. Even if it is never fired, simply having a nuclear weapon will give Iran significantly more leverage with its neighbors. Iran's elite are politically fractured, their economy is struggling, and the Green Movement is far from dead. This does not bode well for Iran's long-term stability, or for their ability to keep a nuke safe.
However, preventing a nuclear Iran is far from simple. It is unlikely that a U.S.-led military air strike would be effective. Even if the air strike succeeded initially, it would only unite Iranians behind their government and provoke a newly enraged Iran to build nukes more discretely. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had originally agreed “in principle” to a nuclear swap deal with the West in 2009, but it soon fell apart amid (apparent) internal political pressures on him. It's also unlikely that stronger international sanctions will be able to pass the veto of China or Russia in the United Nations Security Council so long as Iran has not actually completed a nuclear weapon.
Still, it is not a hopeless situation. One option we have not attempted is utilizing Turkey's unique position to mediate conversations between America and Iran. Turkey is a regional power, has generally positive relations with both Iran and America, and has attempted to broker a compromise already, although it was unsuccessful and done without consulting the United States. A diplomatic solution that might be politically untenable in America or Iran through direct negotiation could become possible through a third party.
At the end of the day, Iran might not have any real intention of honest diplomacy. If sanctions fail as well, we could still confront a nuclear Iran. If that happens, we should work with the international community to contain Iran, rather than embrace it. If Iran were to build nuclear weapons they will have broken the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, given the U.S. an important vindication on the international stage, stoked huge fears amongst its neighbors, and turned itself into an instant worldwide pariah. Under these circumstances, a far more severe international response will become feasible.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons