Iran Must Know the U.S. Means Business

Talks without the threat of force don't work, says Elliott Abrams.

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Every American seeks a negotiated solution to the dangerous problem of Iran's nuclear weapons program. Iran is the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism, the main backer of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other such groups. What's more, the Iranian regime repeatedly threatens to eliminate the State of Israel. Never before has a country sought nuclear weapons, supported terrorism, and simultaneously stated repeatedly that a nearby nation must be destroyed.

So two questions must be asked: How do we seek successful negotiations to avoid an Iranian nuclear weapon, and what do we do if negotiations fail?

The dilemmas facing the world today concerning how to approach Iran are not new. We are not sailing in uncharted waters. On the contrary, almost every policy being advocated today has been tried and failed, and negotiations have to date merely provided time for the Iranian nuclear program to advance. For years, we and our negotiating partners--the European countries, Russia, and China--have offered incentive packages to try to draw the ayatollahs away from their nuclear agenda. Rounds of sanctions have proved inadequate. Diplomatic overtures like those of the Obama administration in the president's recent broadcast to Iran have fallen on deaf ears; in fact, the regime's leaders responded by reiterating their grievances against the United States and their threats against Israel. The apologies the Iranian regime insistently demands were issued by President Clinton and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and ignored. There is simply no reason to believe that we will be able to sweet-talk the Iranian regime into giving up its nuclear program. Rather, force may be needed, and the threat of force may be the key element in a successful negotiation.

Another round of negotiations with Iran will be tried, and there is time for them to succeed. President Obama has appointed an Iran team and made it clear that he is open to direct bilateral negotiations as a supplement to the "P5+1" talks that have involved Germany, France, Britain, Russia, and China along with the United States. Perhaps the apparent willingness of President Obama to grant legitimacy to the oppressive and unpopular regime of the ayatollahs will make them more flexible at the negotiating table. But critical to the success of any talks is pressure--the economic and financial pressure of sanctions. Perhaps with oil now at $50 a barrel, not $140, those sanctions will have a greater impact on Iran; perhaps our new president will be able to persuade Russia and China to support and not block tighter sanctions. We all hope so.

But it should be obvious that the military option must be left on the table if negotiations are to succeed. Having a real military option will keep the negotiations serious by making it clear what may happen should Iran approach the nuclear weapons threshold. The incentive for Iran to compromise is far stronger if the ayatollahs believe their own interests are at greater risk should negotiations fail.

Our leaders must also plan for what should be done if and when diplomacy fails. What do we do if one day, perhaps not far in the future, the director of national intelligence walks into the Oval Office and tells the president that there is now incontrovertible evidence that Iran has or is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons? On that day, a lot of things change.

Questions of Iranian hostility toward America and its allies would gain a new significance. Today, statements issued by the Iranian regime calling for Israel to be wiped off the map are disgusting, but we can all be comforted by the fact that Iran cannot follow through on its threats. The world of a nuclear Iran, however, would carry with it the possibility of a second Holocaust. "We have repeatedly said that this cancerous tumor of a state should be removed from the region," Iran's supreme leader has said. We would no longer be able to write off such threats as vile but empty.

The Iranian regime is responsible for countless deaths in Iraq, and it threatens the stability of the entire Middle East. We must ask ourselves if we are really prepared to live with this country possessing nuclear weapons. What if all the apocalyptic rhetoric is true? What if the Iranians don't themselves launch an attack but rather proliferate to a terrorist group, hoping that we'll never quite know who hit us? What if Iran's protective procedures for its nuclear weapons are imperfect and terrorist groups attempt to steal a weapon (a fear we have had about Pakistan)? And how many other countries in the region will seek and develop nuclear weapons if Iran does so? It is certainly reasonable to wonder whether nations such as Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia would be willing to face an aggressive nuclear Iran without seeking nuclear weapons programs themselves. In truth, our efforts to avoid a global nuclear arms race are doomed if Iran becomes a nuclear power. Decades of diplomacy and pressure to stop the spread of nuclear weaponry will have been lost, and we will face a far more dangerous world.