Now that a short-term deal with Iran about its nuclear program has been reached, the timing is right for the U.S. to turn over the lead on these negotiations to China, India and Russia, who live in the neighborhood. When the wrangling over Iran’s nuclear capabilities began a few decades ago, in a very different geopolitical landscape, it may have made sense for the U.S. to play helicopter parent. However, that time has passed, especially with so much to do here at home, from rebuilding the economy and creating jobs to fixing the debt problem. In the meantime, here are some thoughts worth pondering about Iran’s nuclear program as an imminent threat to the U.S.
Why is Iran an imminent threat to America, which is thousands of miles away, but not to China, Russia or India? Washington exhibits intellectual laziness when they call the leaders of Iran crazy, psychopathic or unpredictable. These sorts of descriptions may provide good sound bites but they hardly serve the American public. Moreover, Iranian leaders are not so stupid that they would risk what could amount to their nation’s collective suicide by attacking the U.S. It should be evident that Iran has no reason to attack the U.S. — nor do they have the capability to do so, just like Iraq.
As for the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, it’s worth remembering that warnings about “Iran’s imminent nuclear threat” have loomed for years, however dubiously, as a review in the Christian Science Monitor pointed out:
- 1984: Jane’s Defence Weekly quotes West German intelligence sources as saying that Iran’s production of a bomb “is entering its final stages.” U.S. Senator Alan Cranston echoes that with the claim that Iran is seven years away from making a weapon.
- 1992: Israeli parliamentarian Benjamin Netanyahu tells his colleagues that Iran is three to five years from being able to produce a nuclear weapon – and that the threat had to be “uprooted by an international front headed by the U.S.”
- 1992: Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres tells French TV that Iran was set to have nuclear warheads by 1999.
- 1995: The New York Times conveys the fears of senior U.S. and Israeli officials that “Iran is much closer to producing nuclear weapons than previously thought” – about five years away – and that Iran’s nuclear bomb is “at the top of the list” of dangers in the coming decade.
- 1997: The Christian Science Monitor reports that U.S. pressure on Iran’s nuclear suppliers had “forced Iran to adjust its suspected timetable for a bomb. Experts now say Iran is unlikely to acquire nuclear weapons for eight or 10 years.”
- 1998: The New York Times says that Israel was less safe as a result of the launch even though Israel alone in the Middle East possessed both nuclear weapons and the long-range missiles to drop them anywhere.
- 2004: Secretary of State Colin Powell tells reporters that Iran had been working on technology to fit a nuclear warhead onto a missile. “We are talking about information that says they not only have [the] missiles but information that suggests they are working hard about how to put the two together,” he said.
- 2007: An unclassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran is released, which controversially judges with “high confidence” that Iran had given up its nuclear weapons effort in fall 2003.
- 2011: When Meir Dagan steps down as director of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, he says that Iran would not be able to produce a nuclear weapon until 2015. Later he said that attacking Iran would be “a stupid idea. The regional challenge that Israel would face would be impossible.”
Well, what if Iran does develop a nuclear bomb? Would the U.S. really be helpless to defend against it, in the unlikely event of an attack? If so, then why are we spending billions of dollars on defense? Even if there was no real threat of an attack, some will argue that a nuclear Iran will destabilize the Middle East. But the Middle East has been unstable for decades so let the U.N. do what it can to enhance stability since we do use U.N. to justify the sanctions against Iran.
In the meantime, the U.S. would do well to focus on restoring stability at home, where the effects of economic fallout and any number of other challenges pose more imminent threats than anything coming out of Iran’s distant nuclear facilities — real or imagined. As former chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said, “The biggest threat we have to our national security is our debt.”