Arms Control and Iran

| Mon Dec. 12, 2005 5:58 PM EST

Oh good, the eternal question: What to do about Iran's nuclear program? Kevin Drum picks up reports that Israel is considering air strikes against Iran's facilities to stop the program, and thinks it's unlikely. That's probably true: A while back Kenneth Pollack pointed out to me that it's not even clear that Israel can conduct days or weeks worth of bombing raids from 1000 miles away, unless its pilots are allowed to refuel their jets over Iraq with our permission—in which case the U.S. might as well bomb Iran itself. My guess is that the Israeli government keeps leaking these stories to spur the EU and United States into keeping pressure on Tehran, and isn't actually serious, but who knows?

At any rate, going to war with Tehran sounds like a terrible idea, but so long as analysts are convinced that a nuclear-armed Iran would start setting off bombs all over the region and annihilate Israel at the first opportunity, then of course people will think that the benefits outweigh the costs here. But honestly, why would Iran do that? If for some reason Khamene'i, Rafsanjani, and the rest of the Tehran leadership really were bored with living and really did want their country incinerated by retaliatory nuclear fire, there are plenty of ways they could make that happen right now. But odds are they want no such thing.

For the record, I think it would be a bad thing if Iran got nuclear weapons. It's a bad thing when anyone gets nuclear weapons. It's a bad thing that the United States has nuclear weapons—or France, or Russia, or Israel. They're horrific weapons, and even the slightest risk that someone might detonate one again is unacceptable. But that goes for everyone. Ideally the U.S. would recognize this and get serous about global arms control. Bennett Ramberg, a State Department official in Bush's first term, has laid out a proposal for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, which would include disarming Israel and Iran. There might be practical problems with Ramberg's plan, but for once it would be nice to see world leaders take this sort of approach to disarmament.

The Bush administration, by contrast, has few grown-ups on this subject. As one defense expert close to the administration told William Potter, the current White House has reversed the Clinton administration's "undifferentiated concern about proliferation" with one that "is not afraid to distinguish between friends and foes." In other words, there are "good" proliferators, like India and Israel, and "bad" ones, like Iran. The former can build away, but the latter need to be stopped at all costs. To put it lightly, that's insane. Among other things, it ignores the fact that today's friends are often tomorrow's foe. The goal has to be a universal reduction in nuclear weapons, by multilateral means—as has been done with the NPT for the past 30 years.

Arms control treaties may have their flaws—although the NPT has worked much better than people think—but in the end, something like it is the only practical "solution" for Iran in the long run. If the U.S. fears the possibility that Iran might develop nuclear weapons, then eventually it will need IAEA inspectors in the country under an NPT regime to make sure that doesn't happen. There's no getting around this. Even after an air-strikes against Iran, inspectors would still be needed to make sure the program doesn't reappear (after all, Saddam Hussein quickly ramped up his nuclear program after the Osirak raid). Unless the U.S. plans on bombing Iran every few years, the arms-control treaty route is the way to go. But getting there requires so many steps—a détente between Washington and Tehran, and probably the U.S. releasing its grip on the Middle East—that it seems unlikely.

MORE: Here's yet another "pacifist" proposal for dealing with Iran: Jack Boureston and Charles Ferguson argue that the United States should offer to help Tehran with its current, perfectly-legal, nuclear program, in order to improve the safeguards and monitoring. Seems worth a look.