In the early morning hours, as the dawn breaks over the Iranian capital of Tehran, scientists and military officials gather at a weapons facility at Parchin. They are surrounded by a mountainous desert, some distance southeast from the capital. They feel a sharp tremor, which sends a spurt of data from seismometers throughout the area to the control center where they are assembled. Those gathered erupt in loud cheers. Clocks in Washington read 10 p.m., but President Obama will soon be meeting with his national security adviser and within twelve hours he will be chairing a meeting of the National Security Council. Iran has the bomb. The day is the first of a new, far more dangerous world, in which the balance of power—and the balance of terror—has shifted more suddenly to the disadvantage of the U.S. than any time since the Soviet Union unexpectedly tested its first bomb, “Joe One,” in August 1949.
“Mahmoud One” will have similar ramifications. A regime that has been viewed as a regional menace to security and freedom will emerge as a much stronger, more consequential power. In addition to its new nuclear capability, Tehran will gain impunity to wage war and spread terror through its proxy networks throughout the Middle East and beyond. President Obama’s dream of a nuclear-free world will be further laid bare as a naive fantasy. The event will mark the beginning—not the end—of a nuclear proliferation cycle. In the U.S., amid copious finger-pointing in Washington, the American people will see they have been betrayed by a foreign policy and intelligence elite that maintained obviously ineffective policies as mortal threats drew ever nearer.
Is it too late to stop this scenario? From a military perspective, it almost certainly is not. From a political perspective, it almost certainly is.
On Wednesday in Washington, a Senate committee took up the issue of Iran. But is not the armed services, intelligence or foreign relations committees, which might presumably have interest in this matter. Rather, the hearing will took place in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, whose jurisdiction is being used creatively to address a national security issue by focusing on why the U.S. government does business with companies operating in Iran. The committee is chaired by Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), one of very few people in the present Democratic caucus willing to consider firm action against the Iranian threat.
But Lieberman is the odd man out, and he and Republicans face an uphill battle. The Democratic-controlled Congress has dragged its feet on enacting additional sanctions on Iran, even though legislation to that effect has passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have deferred almost entirely to the Obama administration. The White House, in turn, remains seized with the belief that the Iranian regime can be talked out of its nuclear aspirations. The talk phase of Mr. Obama’s attempt at an entente-cordiale with Iran was supposed to last only for the first year of his administration. Four months past that deadline and well into the year that was supposed to involve sanctions, the Obama administration has accomplished nothing. Sanctions via the United Nations, weak as they would be, are going nowhere—despite fealty by Mr. Obama and his envoys to the governments of Russia and China, among others, in an attempt to win support.
Even if sanctions emerge from the U.N. or Congress, it is no longer plausible that they could prevent or significantly delay Iran from getting the bomb. Military options exist. Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen said in April that “military options would go a long way to delaying” Tehran’s nuclear program. But he also made clear that diplomacy would continue indefinitely. No one expects the Obama administration to use force to defend America from this threat.
That in turn leaves only the Israeli military to halt or delay the Iranian program. Many in the U.S. and the broader Middle East see this as a safety catch that will prevent the calamity of a nuclear Iran, regardless of the mistakes Washington makes. While likely, it is unwise to gamble on this outcome. First of all, as a MIT study assessed in 2006, an Israeli strike would come at a significant cost and its success is far from assured given Israel’s limited means. Furthermore, Israel is under intense pressure from the Obama administration not to act, and faces the prospect of the White House refusing to replenish the systems and materiel lost in a strike. This would come at the precise point they were needed most, given the prospect of eventual Iranian retaliation against Israel through its proxy forces and terrorist networks.
That Israel might proceed despite these risks is hardly a sufficient plan on which to pin the security of the United States and our allies in the Middle East and Europe. Neither is relying on sanctions, which appear to be going nowhere fast. By not even considering military options seriously, and by dithering as grave threats draw ever nearer, President Obama and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill are all but ushering in a new and far more dangerous world. The “new beginning” President Obama has sought in the Middle East might end up happening after all.
Christian Whiton was a State Department official in the George W. Bush administration. He is a principal at DC International Advisory and president of the Hamilton Foundation.
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Christian Whiton was a senior advisor in the Donald Trump and George W. Bush administrations. He is a senior fellow for strategy and public diplomacy at the Center for the National Interest and the author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.”