Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran has made significant progress toward a nuclear weapons capability. International reaction to the report has been mixed. Several European countries have expressed concern and President Obama on Monday promised a new effort to isolate Iran. Despite the report's damning conclusions, Russia and China, long a focus of President Obama's efforts to obtain more stringent sanctions against Iran, appear reluctant to ramp up pressure on Tehran.
This muted reaction to reports that Iran has essentially done much of the work necessary to weaponize a nuclear device is just the latest evidence of the failed Iran policy of successive U.S. administrations. We are in a vicious cycle with Iran. The regime makes provocative advances in its nuclear program and the international community responds with the diplomatic equivalent of a collective shrug—sometimes expressing dismay, sometimes pursuing new sanctions. The message to the mullahs is clear—there are no serious penalties as they get closer and closer to their nuclear goal.
At this point, the only action that might dissuade Iran from taking the final step is the viable threat of military action. The IAEA report notes that Iran likely halted its program briefly in 2003 "owing to growing concerns about the international security situation in Iraq and neighboring countries at that time."
The problem now is that under the Obama administration, the military option has essentially been removed from the table. Press reports in recent weeks cite Obama administration efforts to dissuade Israel from conducting an attack and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke of the "unintended consequences" of military action and the potential "serious impact" on the Middle East and U.S. forces in the region.
A military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be a significant undertaking and the costs should not be underestimated. But these costs must be weighed against the implications of a nuclear Iran to U.S. security and interests and to our allies. A nuclear Iran would lead to a cascade of proliferation in the Middle East as Iran's neighbors raced to get the bomb. Iran's terrorist proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, would likely be emboldened. Iran's efforts to influence developments in Iraq and Afghanistan would be strengthened.
Some Americans, fatigued by 10 years of the war on terror and continued economic problems at home, may be tempted to outsource this problem to Israel. But Israel lacks the military capabilities to carry out the sort of attack that would significantly set the program back.
America cannot shirk its responsibility when it comes to Iran. To so would be irresponsible and dangerous. Military action should be the last resort, but increasingly appears to be the only option that will prevent a nuclear Iran.
About Jamie M. Fly Former Director for Counterproliferation Strategy at the National Security Council
Matthew Duss Director of Middle East Progress at the Center for American Progress