Magazine article The American Conservative

Missing the Target

Magazine article The American Conservative

Missing the Target

Article excerpt

ACCORDING TO President Bush, "the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons." Testifying before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said, "Iranian conventional military power constitutes the greatest threat to Persian Gulf states and a challenge to U.S. interests," "Iran continues to support a number of terrorist groups," has "conducted a clandestine uranium enrichment program for nearly two decades," and "seeks nuclear weapons." And according to secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Iran is "the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism" and "the world does not want, and must work together to prevent, a nuclear Iran."

If it all sounds eerily like the rhetoric leading up to the war in Iraq, it's because the logic is exactly the same and demonstrates the problem with current nonproliferation thinking. If a nonproliferation regime is failing, the use of force may be necessary; otherwise it is a hollow threat. But if there is no consensus on or an aversion to the use of force, for whatever reasons, then the only recourse is to redouble nonproliferation efforts. But if the previous efforts have already failed, why would simply trying harder be any more effective? Furthermore, if renewed efforts fail, then the only option left is military action, which was previously unacceptable; and so on, ad infinitum.

In the case of Iraq, the Bush administration argued that United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) efforts had failed to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, including the possibility of a nuclear weapon-the now infamous nonexistent smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud. The allegation was not based on any discovery of WMD but on the presumption that the Iraqi regime was engaged in an elaborate deception to prevent UN weapons inspectors from finding WMD. The administration's argument rested on not being able to prove a negative: just because WMD could not be found does not mean they did not exist Unable to accept the risk of failed nonproliferation, the Bush administration decided that the only alternative was military action.

Much of the arms-control and nonproliferation community, on the other hand, strongly disagreed. Most felt that the inability to find any WMD meant that inspections were indeed working, and if there were any problems, they could be remedied by strengthening the inspection regime. But if the nonproliferation regime was, in fact, failing, this is akin to a definition for insanity: continuing to do the same thing but expecting different results. Moreover, the arms-control and nonproliferation community could not disagree with the Bush administration's assertion that Iraq's possession of WMD was a threat that required a response because to disagree would have meant admitting proliferation was an acceptable outcome. Instead, they were left to disagree about the evidence that Iraq was in violation of UN security Council resolutions and the appropriate response.

Unlike Iraq, however, the case against Iran is much stronger-especially with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluding that Iran obtained documents on the nuclear black market that serve no other purpose than to build a nuclear weapon. And unlike Iraq, there is more consensus about the need to take action against Iran. The United States has more international consensus-including agreement from all five permanent members, as well as 27 other nations, on the 35-nation IAEA board-as well as domestic consensus. A Los Angeles Times poll showed that 57 percent of Americans favor military intervention against Iran to stop its nuclear program. But is the use of military force-even limited strikes against Iran's suspected nuclear facilities-the only answer?

In a word: no. Just as the question never should have been whether Iraq had WMD, a contention that presumed that if Iraq did then it was a threat, the fundamental issue is whether a nucleararmed Iran, however undesirable, represents a threat to the United States that cannot be deterred. …

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