The Worst of All Options

The investigative reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story just as Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that his country had succeeded in enriching uranium. The Bush administration, Hersh wrote, is planning a preventive military attack against Iran, possibly with the use of tactical nuclear weapons, to block the Iranians’ quest for nuclear weapons (The New Yorker, 4/17). President Bush responded with a nondenial denial. The story was speculation, he said.

But U.S. military analysts and British war planners familiar with the effort confirmed that such a plan is probably already in the operational stage. That is, preparations are already underway to put the plan into effect.


Citing the maxim Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me, Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argued that because the administration’s behaviordenying warlike intentions while pursuing a military agendafollowed the pattern it used in advance of the invasion of Iraq, the prospect of an attempted knockout blow against the Iranian nuclear program is very real. After the debacle in Iraq, one would think the administration would have better sense. But, as if possessed by folly, it appears ready to take the military option.

Military action is the worst possible alternative, especially if it involves the use of tactical nuclear weapons. A million or more people might die in such a bombing campaign. Furthermore, war gamers conclude there is no way to win in the sense of eliminating Iran’s nuclear potential. Buried below ground and shielded in population centers, the system is already so vast and so well protected that it virtually insures the program’s resumption even after an attack. Such an assault would likewise stir anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world and provide an incentive for terrorism on an unprecedented scale.

Finally, if tactical nuclear weapons were used, U.S. attempts to deprive Iran of nuclear capability would appear hypocritical in the extreme, since the United States is the only nation ever to have used atomic weapons. Such an attack would also very likely turn Iran into a pariah state, supplying others with a pretext to brand the United States a threat to international peace. Most disturbing is the view of some military analysts that the Pentagonin an act that, if carried out, can only be described as pure wickednesswould not have leaked word about the possible deployment of nuclear weapons unless some there wanted to break the taboo against their use. All in all, a military attack on Iran is a nightmare scenario that ought to be resisted in the strongest possible way by the whole American public.

What is the alternative? The likelihood that diplomacy will succeed in the short run is low. Nuclear proliferation is only the latest in a series of grievances dividing the two sides. Since the C.I.A. plot to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, through more than two decades of support for the Shah, the hostage crisis of 1978-80 and the nearly 30 years of severed diplomatic relations, the hostility between the two sides has repeatedly revived itself. We will probably have to live with an Iranian bomb, just as we have done with nuclear weapons in the hands of other adversaries.

Any medium- or long-term solution will certainly involve negotiation. The Europeans were right to attempt to broker an agreement, but talks were bound to fail in the absence of the United States. Senator Richard G. Lugar, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was likewise justified in proposing bilateral talks on a range of issues. While diplomacy will probably not prevent the development of an Iranian bomb, it will prepare the way for more stable U.S.-Iran relations; and after the Bush administration’s belligerence and criminal neglect of the nonproliferation regime, it can open a path toward nuclear sanity.

The administration’s arms control policies are calamitous. If there is a danger of a bomb in the hands of terrorists, it comes from Pakistan, a proven proliferator. The network led by the father of the Pakistani bomb, A. Q. Khan, was the source of weapons technology and expertise for Iran, South Korea and Libya. But the administration turned its back on Pakistan’s lenient treatment of Professor Khan, a national hero. It is an open secret, moreover, that Pakistan’s intelligence services, or at least significant elements in them, maintain their support of terrorists, especially the resurgent Taliban. If there is to be a hard-headed confrontation over nuclear weapons, it ought to be with Pakistan. But where nuclear weapons are concerned, armed confrontation is not the way to proceed. What is needed is slow, patient cultivation of ties that reduce tensions, address grievances, nourish relationships and diminish incentives for possessing the bomb. That applies especially to Iran.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
13 years 5 months ago
I was astonished on reading your editorial “The Worst of All Options” (5/8), describing Iran’s nuclear future and American response options, to find not one mention of Israel. Given that nation’s multiplicity of actual and potential roles in this matter, the absence of reference to Israel is at best an intellectual sin of omission. It would be foolhardy for the United States to omit Israeli considerations in drafting its policy regarding this situation, as you did in drafting your editorial.


The latest from america

The precedent for attacking an opponent on religious grounds is more apt than you might think.
Every conversation my mother and I had about religion drifted into an argument about Pope Francis. Being unable to talk about God with the person who gave me my faith as she lay dying was agonizing.
Mike LewisAugust 13, 2020
“It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus told her. Yet she is not repelled by his parable. She engages it.
Terrance KleinAugust 12, 2020
Catholic composer David Haas is shown in a concert at the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City, Philippines, in this 2016 photo. (CNS photo/Titopao, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Mr. Haas has denied any wrongdoing, calling the accusations “false, reckless and offensive.”