September 5, 2004 | Forbes.com

Ticking Bomb

The news from Iran is grim. This Islamic dictatorship–the biggest source of terrorist training and financing in the world and the nation that's doing all it can to stir up trouble in already combustible Iraq–is clearly on the cusp of becoming a nuclear power. The clerical fascists running the country have dropped just about all pretense of their atomic programs being energy-related only. Tehran announced in July that it had resumed making the centrifuges needed to produce highly enriched uranium, a key ingredient for nuclear bombs. It is, in essence, tearing up last fall's agreement with the UN International Atomic Energy Agency to keep its nuclear program transparent and to do nothing that could be construed as developing nuclear weapons.

Iran, more than Iraq or the reorganization of our intelligence agencies, is the crisis flashpoint in our war against Islamic fanaticism. What to do? John Kerry's advisers and many Bush Administration officials think we should deal directly with Iran. The Europeans would support us. The goal: to persuade Iran–through cash, trade agreements (its economy is a mess) and pats on the back–to halt its nuclear arms program. These so-called realists in this instance are the dreamers, the fantasizers.

Why wouldn't Iran go nuclear? Our ten-year dawdle over North Korea's nuclear adventurism hammers home to Tehran's corrupt, totalitarian-minded thugs this inescapable conclusion: Nukes mean respect, mean security–and they grant blackmail power to shake down billions in booty from the U.S. and other Western moneybags.

The implications of a nuclearized Iran are appalling. Fanatics in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere will be emboldened to undermine existing governments. Israel may well feel the need to strike, just as it did against Iraq's nuclear facility in 1981.

The all-too-real possibility of a violent Israeli reaction–Israel has long considered Iran's black-robed fascists to be its ultimate enemy–may be the only possible deterrent to Iran's final nuclearization. But that's not likely, given that the mullahs have probably dispersed their nuclear capabilities around the country. Iran, moreover, is not defenseless; it has missiles that can hit Israel.

Bottom line: Through every avenue possible, we should make clear to Tehran that continued nuclearization will mean the U.S. will back any Israeli response to the hilt. Furthermore, we will strike, perhaps even before the Israelis do. For starters, we will embargo Iranian oil exports, crippling Iran's economy and its source of military funding. We should also forthrightly support Iranian democrats and opposition groups, which have a considerable following, especially among the young. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty-like broadcasts should bombard Iran 24 hours a day via the airwaves and Internet.

Our European “allies” will blanch at such realistic responses. We must be prepared to go it alone.

Dithering in Iraq–one day exhibiting firmness, the next Jimmy Carter-like indecisiveness–has eroded our credibility. Indeed, Iran may have convinced itself that our Iraq experience has put the U.S. once again in a Vietnam/can't-see-it-through-anything-tough mode, thus there is little to fear from Washington. In fact, Tehran may believe that its soon-to-be nukes may put pressure on Washington to restrain the Israelis in the name of multilateral, bring-along-the-Europeans diplomacy.

The situation is extremely dangerous, and both presidential candidates should be questioned persistently and hard over how we should deal with it. To let Iran go nuclear would have profoundly unpleasant consequences for our safety and that of the rest of the civilized world.

 

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Iran