Stopping an Iranian bomb

In a thoughtful dissection of the seemingly endless debate on Iran's nuclear program (and the various proponents of military action), Andrew Sullivan says "For my part, I cannot see how we can prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb." Sullivan is no fan of military action, but I suspect his view is widespread. Some think the inevitability of Iran's getting the bomb is a reason to attack them now; for others, it is an argument for turning to robust containment.

I'm against the former and would favor the latter if necessary, but I do not think it is a foregone conclusion that Iran will actually go forward and acquire a nuclear weapons capability. In particular, I can think of two good reasons why a smart Iranian leader would not want to cross the nuclear threshold.

First, an Iranian nuclear weapons capability means that they will automatically be suspected if a nuclear detonation takes place anywhere in the world. Right now, Iran does not have to fear retaliation should an act of nuclear terrorism occur, because we know with high confidence that they have no weapons at present. But if the Islamic Republic were known to have a nuclear weapons capability, and a terrorist used a weapon somewhere, I'd bet that it would be pretty high up on the suspect list. Nuclear forensics could in theory rule them out, but these techniques are not perfectly reliable and it's not obvious how clearly anyone would be thinking at that awful moment. Powerful countries like the United States have a way of lashing out when they are attacked, and they might not be all that careful to make sure they had the right perpetrator. After all, Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, but the Bush administration used that attack as a pretext to gin up a campaign against him. So Iran might want to think twice about crossing the nuclear threshold and inviting retaliation, even for acts in which it was not involved.

Second, and equally important, Iran has by far the greatest power potential of any country in the Persian Gulf. It has more people, more economic potential, and plenty of oil and gas too. If it ever had competent political leadership it would easily be the strongest conventional power in its neighborhood. But if it gets an overt nuclear capability, that act would raise the likelihood that other states in the region (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, even Iraq) would follow suit. It is far from certain that they would, but it would certainly make it more likely. And if they do, this step would partially negate Iran's conventional advantages.

Accordingly, a farsighted Iranian strategist should want to acquire a "latent" nuclear capability (and thus the ability to get a bomb quickly if needed), while making it clear to others that it had not crossed the line. (If I had to guess, that is what I think they are trying to do.) This means that it may be possible to convince them not to weaponize, mostly by not creating a situation where they decide that having an overt deterrent is worth the costs and risks. Needless to say, U.S. and Israeli policy is the exact opposite today: we ramp up sanctions, talk openly of regime change, conduct various acts of sabotage and/or covert action against them (the STUXNET virus, assassinations of Iranian scientists, etc.), and basically behave in ways that we would regard as acts of war if anyone did them to us. And then we wonder why Iran's leaders are so reluctant to end their nuclear program.

There are valid reasons to be concerned about Iran, even though the actual threat is poses is vastly overblown. Iran is an increasingly brittle and sclerotic regime of old men, who are mostly desperate to preserve an aging "revolution," and it is no longer an inspiration for anyone. Its economy is presently troubled and its military budget is about 2 percent the size of our own. Those who now seek to portray it as some vast Islamic menace really do not deserve to be taken seriously.

But it is also too early to conclude that there is "no way to prevent Iran" from getting the bomb. Ten-plus years of pressure and rhetoric haven't gotten us anywhere, and a military strike would solidify support for the regime, give it even more incentive to get a nuclear deterrent, and unleash all sorts of unpredictable forces within the region.

The only approach that stands any chance of success is genuine diplomacy (as opposed to the Obama administration's half-hearted version of same). Sadly, we aren't going to see any serious diplomacy in an election year, and probably not afterwards. Sullivan may turn out to be right, but not because there was no way to prevent an Iranian bomb. If Tehran eventually joins the nuclear club, it will be at least in part because we never made serious, smart and sophisticated effort to persuade them not to.


Stephen M. Walt

Fiddling while the euro burns

If you're confused about where Europe is headed, join the club. Last week at a seminar a colleague with considerable knowledge of European affairs confidently told me "Don't sell your euros ... the Germans will eventually step in and rescue the whole thing." He may be right, but the head of the Bundesbank isn't stepping up yet and there are significant political obstacles to the level of integration that would be necessary to make the European Central Bank a true "lender of last resort."

My concern is more long-term. It's possible that Germany is bluffing, and that Europe's leaders will find a way to stagger through the current crisis. But as I've noted before, the underlying issue isn't just the rickety structure of the euro itself. In addition, it is whether economies like Greece and especially Italy can generate enough economic growth to make it plausible that they will ultimately repay their debts. An all-European guarantee (funded largely by Germany) might help in the near-term, because holders of Greek and Italian debt are less likely to panic if they think a bailout is available if needed and reduced fears of default will lower spreads on Italian and Greek bonds and thus allow them to continue to finance the debts they already have.

Unfortunately, economic growth in the entire eurozone is sluggish, and troubled economies like Italy aren't likely to see sharp increases in growth, especially if they are being forced to adopt austerity budgets that shrink public sector spending and/or throw more people out of work. Plus, over the longer term most of Europe --including Greece and Italy -- are going to decline in population, while the median age will rise sharply. For example, Italy's population will decline by about 1 million by 2035 and its median age will rise from 43 today to nearly 50. A growing population of retirees and a shrinking number of active workers is not exactly a formula for robust economic growth, even in the best of circumstances.

Even if my friend is right and the Germans eventually go "all-in" to save the euro, isn't there likely to be a point where the more prosperous European countries are no longer willing to finance bailouts in perpetuity? And what if a situation arises where they aren't in such great shape themselves and aren't able to fund a bailout? This is where nationalism will really kick in: it is one thing for wealthy New Yorkers or Californians to subsidize poorer U.S. states more-or-less forever, because the subsidies are mostly hidden from public view and in the end we all think of ourselves as part of the same country. But I don't think the existing sense of common European identity is powerful enough to neutralize stubborn local nationalisms, even when the bond market is pushing in that direction. I continue to hope that Europe's leaders will find a way out, but I've yet to hear a convincing story that tells me how.