Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- A specter is haunting the presidential race -- and it is not just the economy. It is the specter of a nuclear Iran.

Economic downturns are wrenching, but eventually cyclical. Nuclear proliferation is more difficult to reverse, creating the permanent prospect of massive miscalculation and tragedy. America's next leader may be known to history as the president who had to deal with Iran.

This topic received glancing attention in the second presidential debate. Barack Obama called a nuclear Iran "unacceptable." John McCain said this would raise the prospect of "a second Holocaust." But neither man seriously confronted the choices ahead.

Days earlier, at an event at the Nixon Center here, the former chief weapons inspector for the United Nations, David Kay, delivered a bleak assessment of Iranian capabilities and intentions. The Iranian regime, he argues, is about 80 percent of the way toward its nuclear goals -- perhaps two to four years from "effective, deployable weapons."

Kay believes that the reaction to this threat by both political parties is unrealistic. By simply saying a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, America is set up for a choice between "suicide" (a disastrous military attack on Iran) and "humiliation" (a galling acceptance of the unacceptable). Instead, Kay calls for a new round of "skillful diplomacy" to convince Iran to stop at what he calls "virtual capability" -- a global recognition that it could produce nuclear weapons in short order, without all the drawbacks caused by actually producing those weapons.

But this would be the third major attempt at diplomacy, not the first. Russia has offered Iran enriched nuclear material for use in its civilian nuclear plants in exchange for abandoning its fuel enrichment program. Iran refused, demonstrating, at the least, that it wants the technical know-how -- the "breakout capability" -- to produce nuclear weapons. The Bush administration has offered direct, face-to-face talks with Iran if it would merely suspend (not abandon) its enrichment program. This also has been turned down. Another diplomatic effort -- perhaps offering normalized relations and the lifting of sanctions in exchange for Iran's full cooperation -- might further isolate Iran if it refuses the deal. But even many supporters of such an initiative admit Iran is likely to refuse.

So Kay seems resigned to a policy of containment -- holding Iran directly responsible if it transfers nuclear weapons to terrorists, providing nuclear guarantees to our friends in the region so they don't feel pressured to develop their own. Past nuclear proliferation to nations such as France and India, he argues, proved less destabilizing than many first feared.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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