Iran announced officially this week that they have enriched (at a low grade) small quantities of uranium, for use in nuclear power facilities. This announcement has been a nightmare scenario, as far as the Bush administration is concerned, since the President named his "Axis of Evil" at the beginning of his presidency (two of those three countries have now become nuclear powers on his watch -- good job, us). In response to Iran's announcement and questions about what a world with a nuclear Iran looks like, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that a nuclear Iran is "unacceptable."
The problem with this statement is that it is meaningless -- ultimately beside the point. Iran has the capability to enrich uranium. We don't know exactly how much uranium they can enrich, to what level they can enrich it, or any other details about the scope and consistency of their operation. In the past couple of days, officials have speculated that Iran could have a nuclear weapon "within 16 days," but most of us have filed that hysterical statement on the same shelf as Rice's Iraq "mushroom cloud," or Blair's biological warfare attack in "45 minutes." But what no one is willing to face right now, with hawks on one hand calling for surgical strikes against Iran's known nuclear facilities (or, in crazier circles, full-scale invasion and overthrow of the current government), and more moderate voices calling for negotiation, sanctions, inspections, UN Security resolutions, or some combination of all of those, is that it is already too late. Iran has nuclear capability, and there's no putting this cat back in the bag.
Diplomacy with Iran won't shut down the nuclear program, whether the negotiating is done by Russia, EU states, or the US: Iran's leaders believe strongly in their right to develop peaceful nuclear technology, as do Iran's people. What's more, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to which Iran is a party, specifically allows that country (or any country party to the treaty) access to peaceful nuclear power. That Iran is enriching its own uranium, rather than using enriched uranium from countries which were already nuclear powers at the time of the treaty's creation, is an important violation of the letter of the NPT (if not its spirit). But even if that were not so, even if the NPT specifically disallows Iran's route to what it claims are peaceful nuclear pursuits, that treaty is not so strong now as it was ten or even two years ago, in letter or in spirit, thanks to our own refusal to substantially downsize our nuclear arsenal (which is required by the treaty), our renewed nuclear weapons testing (which is not allowed under the treaty), and President Bush's recent announcement that the US will trade in peaceful nuclear technology with India, who is not a party to the NPT (also not allowed under the treaty). Why should Iran comply with this treaty when the United States is currently and flagrantly violating it?
Sanctions are pretty much off the table -- even if we could convince other nations to go along, sanctions against a country so rich in the world's most desirable currency, oil, are unlikely to be very effective. China and Russia have already said they will not participate in such sanctions, so the point is more or less moot. Also, though the US imports no significant amount of its oil from Iran (the vast majority of our Gulf oil comes from Saudi Arabia, with the rest from Kuwait, UAE and Iraq), Iran has continually stated that, should it become necessary, it could effectively close off the Persian Gulf, stopping almost 100% of the ship-transported oil traffic from that region, and cutting off a gigantic portion of the US's oil supply. With the longest Persian Gulf coast-line of any country, and the ability to easy sink two or three big oil tankers in the gulf's narrowest spots, this threat is very serious (though it could well alienate Iran's neighbors and potential allies).
Violence won't work either. With the US Army stretched to the breaking point in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one, including Iran, seriously believes that a full-scale invasion and forced regime change is in the works. That leaves only one real military option on the table: missile strikes (some have hinted at the crazy possibility of nuclear missile strikes) against known Iranian nuclear facilities. The US would not have to perform these strikes directly -- many believe Israel will take it upon itself to act in this fashion, and act soon. Whether the strikes are committed by the US or by Israel, they will not destroy Iran's nuclear programs, or its nuclear ambition. Iran is an old country, and very nationalistic. Its people, a majority of whom favor pursuit of nuclear power right now, would rise up in almost unanimous support of it (and possibly of its pursuit of nuclear weapons), should the US or Israel attack. In fact, should we bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, it is possible, even likely, that the entire Muslim world, including many countries we currently call allies (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia) would rally in support of Iran. What's more, such strikes could not be effective in destroying any program. While we know the locations of some of Iran's nuclear facilities, there's no guarantee we know them all (keep in mind how bad our intelligence was in Iraq -- why should Iran be any different?), so strikes are highly unlikely to destroy all existing equipment. In addition, Iran knows our feelings about its nuclear program, and it knows that surgical strikes are an option being considered; surely it is right now relocating portions of its industry to secret hiding places, fortified against or hidden from attack. That is, if it has not done so already. Even if we should succeed at destroying all of the known facilities, Iran will rebuild (with that strong support I discussed above), and this time the entire program will be constructed in complete secrecy, and with a renewed righteous fervor that can only be born of a fiercely nationalistic response to another nation's bloody interference on holy soil. At best, military action buys us a few years -- at worst, it changes a nation whose people honestly want nuclear technology for peaceful purposes because they believe it is their right (whatever the true motivations of Iran's leaders) into a nation whose people advocate the aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons technology in order to retaliate against a colonial interloper. And none of these speculations even begin to factor in the response from non-governmental terrorist groups, who would surely react savagely to any attack on Iran.
So what are we left with? Simply, a world in which Iran has nuclear capabilities -- nuclear power and likely, in time (somewhere between 16 days and several years), nuclear weapons. What then?
In a world which is increasingly fragmented, increasingly nationalistic, increasingly dangerous, the United States of America has a hard lesson to learn: how to work and play well with others. There is no doubt that Iran's coming of age as a nuclear power makes the world a more dangerous place, for us and for everyone. The same can be said of North Korea, of Pakistan, even of India and Israel, both our close allies. Nuclear weapons in the hands of any nation, especially a nation which feels threatened, bears long-standing grudges against its neighbors, is led by a megalomaniac or religious zealot, has colonial aspirations or self-righteous ideological motivations, makes the world a more dangerous place. Diplomacy has long been a dangerous game, one we have not always played well, or fairly. Learning that game has become more important than ever. How we conduct ourselves in the arena of foreign policy has never been more important. We must cross our fingers and hope that the Bush administration doesn't blow it, that our elections this year and in 2008 offer candidates who will steer a more careful course, and that we all choose wisely among them. We as a nation must learn to live with our neighbors on this planet, to cooperate with our friends and find a way to work peacefully with those who we now call our enemies (or work with our friends to peacefully contain them) because, frankly, in a world where our enemies, our allies and everyone else has the bomb, we no longer have any other choice.