The peril increases daily that Iran will become a nuclear power. Arab leaders are as alarmed as Israel. The West huffs and puffs, and huffs and puffs again, but is nowhere near blowing the house down. It is behaving as if it has all the time in the world. It does not. The year-end 2009 deadline set by the West for resolving the Iranian nuclear issue came and went and nothing happened. While the Iranians are enriching, the United States is hesitating. When Barack Obama became president, Iran had perhaps several thousand centrifuges enriching uranium. Now it may have thousands more.
It has long been said about diplomacy that the most dangerous course, even more dangerous than risking a tough response, is to raise a warning fist and then lose nerve. Iran sees the red lines the United States sets and crosses them with impunity. In the years since sanctions were imposed, Iran has blatantly circumvented them. It has purchased sophisticated technology for its nuclear programs through front companies in Dubai, and apparently also in Bahrain and Kuwait. Its leaders and enterprises use banks in these countries for illicit transactions and to launder money.
What is at stake here is too menacing for the world to delude itself that Iran will somehow change course. It won't. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, does not want a seat at the negotiating table with the great powers, he wants to overturn the table. He is a messianic revolutionary, not a leader. As Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of the Dubai-based Al Arabiya news channel, put it, "The Ahmadinejad regime aspires to expansion, hegemony, and a clear takeover on the ground, and to do this he needs a nuclear umbrella."
A nuclear Iran, already a neighborhood bully, would export its revolutionary ideology and destabilize the Middle East. It would be more effective in its subversion of neighbors and its fomenting of worldwide terrorism. We'd see even bolder interference in Iraq and Afghanistan, more meddling in Lebanon, more incitement and aggressive support for Hamas and Hezbollah—both of which it already funds, trains, and arms to conduct terrorist attacks against Israel. It would sabotage any dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It would incite the Shiite populations in the Persian Gulf states and altogether threaten the survival of modern Arab governments there. Iran already plays an extensive role in Shiite southern Iraq. When American forces withdraw fully, likely over the longer term, an uprising may be fomented in Iraq that might well lead to a full takeover by an Iranian-dominated Iraqi government, which would then pressure its neighbor, Jordan. It would put at risk the whole international nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, foreshadowing a nuclear arms race all over the Middle East and nuclear weapons getting into the hands of non-state actors. A nuclear Iran, emboldened by its success in fooling and defying the world, might well be tempted to challenge its neighbors in the Gulf to reduce oil production and limit the presence of U.S. troops there.
The United States has declared that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. So if Iran succeeds, it would be seen as a major defeat and open our government to doubts about its power and resolve to shape events in the Middle East. Friends would respond by distancing themselves from Washington; foes would aggressively challenge U.S. policies.
As far as the war we're fighting in Afghanistan and its spillover into Pakistan, Iran has tremendous potential to make a very difficult situation even worse, given its influence on the western side of Afghanistan, some of which is linked to Iran's electrical grid. It could strengthen the Taliban with weapons such as surface-to-air missiles.
Why should Iran halt a nuclear program that would give it such new power in the region? The essence of the regime's policy is to keep the talks going and keep the centrifuges spinning until Iran completes its sprint to the finish line. It is taking the politics of procrastination to a whole new level.
From an American point of view, the issue is not just the nuclear program. It is the hostile intentions of a regime that since 1979 has waged war persistently against the United States and its allies. Iran is directly responsible for killing many Americans in Iraq by supplying guerrillas with high-tech roadside bombs and rockets. The savage irony that no good deed goes unpunished has played out in Iraq to the benefit of Iran. Our overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Sunni dictatorship liberated Iran on one border from the threat he posed to its Shiite regime. On Iran's eastern border, our ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan removed another potential threat. The result has been to free up Iran's ability to meddle in the broader Middle East.