Editors Note: Art Keller is a former case officer in the CIA's Counter Proliferation Division. He currently is a writer on intelligence and national security issues and recently published his first novel, "Hollow Strength."
By Art Keller, special to Security Clearance
As a new round of nuclear negotiations with Iran is set to begin this month, it brings up the question: In the not-unlikely event that this round of diplomacy collapses, as all previous rounds have, where would that leave the West? Is bombingIran's nuclear facilities the unavoidable final recourse?
Despite an abundance of saber-rattling, Western leaders have yet to convincingly explain why policy toward Iran should differ from policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Did we start bombing the Soviets because they acquired nuclear capability in 1949? Even though the Soviets regularly claimed their objective was the defeat of the West? Even though Soviets gave arms and money to proxies around the world, including direct support to terrorists? Even though they posed a far greater threat than Iran ever could? Are we doing that with North Korea? Even though the North Koreans have "the bomb" and have often used rhetoric that is even harsher than the Soviets?
Nuclear capability is no guarantee of intent to use that capability. Nor has harsh anti-Western rhetoric, or even support for terrorist organizations, been a reliable guide to deciphering such intent.
The Soviet Union of the 1960s was full of hope as Nikita Khrushchev came to power and proclaimed a new era. Khrushchev even managed to initiate some (wildly unsuccessful) reform policies. Yet less than 30 years later, the Soviet empire crashed under the weight of pervasive disaffection, despite President Mikhail Gorbachev's last-ditch reform attempts.
In contrast, Iran's reformers, like former President Mohammad Khatami, and the "Green Party," do not have one single major reform to their credit, successful or otherwise. Meanwhile, Iran's economy is in a steep nose-dive. Most Iranians alive today were born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and have no personal stake in it. As they move into "middle management" over the next decade, that same rot of deep disaffection that destroyed the Soviet Union will spread with accelerating speed through Iran.
The Iranian regime's corruption and mismanagement, despite large oil revenues, make Iran's convoluted theocracy simply unsustainable in the long run, and as tight as the supreme leader's current grip on power may be, he and his cronies cannot stop the tectonic shifts undermining the Islamic Republic.
When contemplating airstrikes on Iran, our politicians should therefore first recall that sage military maxim:
"Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."
The one thing that can give the current regime a major "shot in the arm" is a military attack on Iran. In fact, as the regime's control deteriorates, Iran's leadership may engage in provocative action designed to lure the West into conflict, solely to garner the "rally round the flag" effect.
Despite Iran's claims to the contrary, the evidence strongly suggests that the country wanted the know-how to build nuclear weapons and that its centrifuge program was constructed toward that end. That is most definitely NOT a good thing ... yet neither is it the end of the world.
With both the Soviet Union and North Korea, the West tried to implement a policy of "containment." Many Western leaders, including President Barack Obama, now decry "containment" as too passive a strategy for dealing with Iran (in the face of Israeli pressure to act).
In truth, the West's ever-tighter stranglehold on Iran's economy, access to sensitive technology and regional influence is already a de facto policy of "containment," whether the West is willing to admit to that label or not. Containment worked on the Soviet Union, and it will work on Iran, assuming we are not so impatient to see the last of the Islamic Republic that we shoot ourselves in the foot by an unnecessary armed intervention.
This is not to say there are no circumstances where strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities make sense. If Iran develops a bomb, and if the Western intelligence community develops credible information that Iran intends to use the bomb, or put it in the hands of some group that intends to use it, swift and disruptive strikes are called for.
But short of that kind of damning evidence, keeping up subtler pressure on Iran, while it may be confused for inaction, is probably the smartest way of dealing with the regime, and fortuitously, also the route that is both the cheapest and easiest to implement.
It is pointless to bomb Iran with the notion of forestalling Iranian understanding of how to build a bomb; most estimates say that Iran already knows, and some say that Iran knew how as far back as 2004. If the goal is to keep Iran from going the last step and actually making a bomb, there are still several unmistakable "redlines" that Iran would have to cross before that could happen.
First, Iran would need to quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty, then eject international inspectors, and then spend months enriching uranium, just to have enough for one bomb. There is plenty of time to target Iran's nuclear facilities, if and when Iran crosses those redlines.
The alternative - airstrikes on Iran before it withdraws from the treaty and kicks out inspectors (yet another preemptive war to guard against hypothetical weapons of mass destruction ... and look how well the last one worked out) - is a hugely risky strategy with potential costs that have yet to be honestly addressed by any Western leader.
The next president, prime minister or presidential candidate who dares to mention the Millennium Challenge 2002 war game will be the first. Millennium Challenge 2002 was the most comprehensive war game ever run, and it predicted the U.S. would suffer 10,000 casualties and lose a multibillion-dollar aircraft carrier battle group in a war with Iran, but few leaders have proved willing to even mention such losses as a plausible repercussion of war with Iran, let alone openly discuss them.
And Western political leaders are equally remiss at the lack of discussion of the how the oil shocks arising from war with Iran could strangle the infant economic recoveries of the U.S. and Europe in their cribs.
Western nations can and should work to put as many obstacles into the path of Iranian nuclear weapon development as possible, but not because there is any long-term hope of success. The idea that such technology can be permanently dammed up is wishful thinking. The West's strategy should simply be to delay and degrade any capability Iran does develop until the Islamic Republic collapses and a government that will be transparent in its use of nuclear technology replaces it.
In the meantime, I'd like to see the political leader who, when pressed for military action on Iran, has the courage to stand up and say, "I think the threat has been overhyped, and that military action will get too many people killed and cost too much. I think bombing Iran is a stupid idea. I choose to do nothing instead."
Irony of ironies, getting Western leaders to do nothing while Iran slowly self-destructs, to stand with firm resolve in the face of accusations that they are "soft on Iran," may be the biggest challenge in solving the Iranian nuclear dilemma.