A sane and studious observer of the international scene addressed the dinner guests and concluded his optimistic analysis of our Iraqi venture with an arresting afterthought. "What we will not be seeing, when President Bush leaves office, is an Iran with a nuclear bomb."
Almost all discussion of pressing strategic concerns touches down on Iran. The drumrolling on nuclear Iran makes it retrospectively incredible that when Pakistan joined the nuclear club, we simply heard about it, roughly speaking, the day after they exploded one. By contrast, Iran is almost every week in the news on the matter of its determination to have a bomb. Most recently there was a setback, when Moscow declined to provide some of the help that Iran had asked for. It was this development, in the opinion of some analysts, that caused Tehran to agree to send a mission to Baghdad to confer with our ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad.
This hardly means that Iran is ready to negotiate an end to its nuclear development. Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to the president, caught the spirit of U.S. reaction to this development: "We're talking to Iran all the time. We make statements, they make statements."
But repeated statements by the president on the matter of U.S. concern over a nuclear-armed Iran bring up the question: What do we intend to do about it if Iran, departing from its bluster, adopts the Pakistani mode and proceeds noiselessly to nuclear armament?
The conversation turns to military intervention. A year ago, The New Yorker ran an extensive essay on the subject by Seymour Hersh, the salient finding of which was that to bring off an interdictory operation is very nearly impossible:
Item No. l: The Israeli air force does not have airplanes with a range sufficient to complete a round trip to Iranian targets. Israeli culture does not sanction suicide missions, and it is inconceivable that planes would fly from Israel on suicide missions.
Item No. 2: Nuclear sites in Iran are spread about, so that what the Israelis did in the 1981 bombing of Osirak, aborting the whole Iraqi nuclear operation, cannot be reproduced in Iran. An air strike superior to anything the Israelis could mount would be required.
And Item No. 3: To get on with such an operation, requiring aircraft carriers and strategically useful bases on the perimeter of the target area, could not conceivably be done stealthily. The whole world would be ongoing witness to the impending operation, and pacifist anti-American capitulationist forces would rise to put almost impassable diplomatic obstacles in the way.
Well, then, can we get on with sanctions? These would seem to be scheduled, with the reiterated threat to call to the attention of the U.N. Security Council the illegality of Iran's program, as a signer of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In the first place, Moscow, in its anfractuous way, would probably veto sanctions. But what if it didn't? A determined international anti-Iran effort would hurt Iranians and Iranian interests, but how decisively? We aren't going to refuse to consume Iranian oil. Economic boycotts mostly do not work, and if and when they do (e.g., against Rhodesia), they require great stretches of time to generate real pain, and time is what we do not have.
The point insufficiently pressed is this: Why does the United States need to shoulder the critical burden here? If Iran gets the bomb, probably a new set of strategic relationships would arise. Saudi Arabia and Egypt would clamor for the bomb, perhaps also Turkey. Regional internecine pressures would mount hugely. What it comes down to is that the United States would be critically affected, but other nations would be more directly affected, and the question repeats itself: Why do they not take on the responsibility of intervening in Iran?
Why should France not interrupt its August holiday to participate in a military mission? The interests of Germany and India are clearly affected. Where is U.S. diplomacy going with all of this? It's one thing that the United States is the ultimate deterrent power, but we act as though there were no others, and this is both emasculating and psychologically subversive.
Ideally, the initiative would be taken elsewhere, a forceful European or Middle Eastern leader mobilizing continental and Asian concern.
But failing that, the initiative would necessarily fall on us, and the question then becomes: Is it something Mr. Bush is going to handle before the end of his term in office?