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Military Rumblings on Iran

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New York Times – EDITORIAL: President Bush began his second term with speculation rising about future military moves against Iran. Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney placed Iran first on the list of world trouble spots and darkly hinted that unless tougher measures were taken to curtail its nuclear program, Israel might launch its own pre-emptive airstrikes. Earlier this month, Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker that secret reconnaissance operations have already gotten under way inside Iran, as the Pentagon prepares target lists of nuclear sites that could be attacked from the air or by
ground-based commando units.
New York Times

EDITORIAL

President Bush began his second term with speculation rising about future military moves against Iran. Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney placed Iran first on the list of world trouble spots and darkly hinted that unless tougher measures were taken to curtail its nuclear program, Israel might launch its own pre-emptive airstrikes. Earlier this month, Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker that secret reconnaissance operations have already gotten under way inside Iran, as the Pentagon prepares target lists of nuclear sites that could be attacked from the air or by ground-based commando units.

Thus far, Mr. Bush has kept his own counsel. But these hawkish rumblings eerily recall the months before the American invasion of Iraq when some of the same officials pressed hardest for military action, while the president remained publicly uncommitted. Given that experience, it would be foolhardy to dismiss the current rhetorical buildup. We hope that this time, wiser heads in the administration will intervene before it is too late.

There is no question that Iran has been covertly developing the capacity to build nuclear weapons, and that diplomacy has so far failed to end these efforts. But precipitate American military action would almost certainly do far more harm than good. No major American ally, including Britain, favors such an approach. American planes and missiles alone cannot knock out all of Iran’s many secret nuclear sites.

An invasion of a country almost three times as populous as Iraq is well beyond the means of America’s depleted ground forces. And an American military attack is probably the one thing still able to unite Iran’s restive but nationalist population behind the unpopular clerical dictatorship.

The most effective leverage available to Washington is international economic sanctions. If American diplomacy can line up traditional European allies, there is a fair chance that the Iranian nuclear program can still be stopped.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions predate the 1979 Islamic revolution. With crucial help from Pakistan and perhaps other countries, Iran now has centrifuges capable of enriching uranium to weapons grade. It also has considerable supplies of uranium ready to be enriched. Iran has promised not to enrich any of that uranium for now, under the terms of an agreement recently negotiated with Britain, France and Germany, and some experts believe there are still technical hurdles to overcome. Even if it mastered enrichment, Iran would still have to design, build and test a usable weapon. The best guess is that Iran remains at least three to five years from having the bomb.

A nuclear-armed Iran is an alarming prospect, given the radical nature of the Iranian regime, with its long and continuing record of sponsoring international terrorism, its undiluted hostility to the United States and Israel, and its intense regional rivalries with Iraq and Saudi Arabia. So effective crisis diplomacy needs to move into high gear.

The freeze on uranium enrichment that Iran agreed to is only temporary. Its duration depends on the results of talks in which the Europeans are seeking a more definitive renunciation of nuclear enrichment. The Iranians, in return, want economic and trade rewards.

Expanded commercial ties with America and Europe are very appealing to Iran’s ruling mullahs. Having marginalized the reformist political parties, they now see economic sluggishness and high unemployment as the only remaining threat to their continued grip on power. But the mullahs are unlikely to give up their nuclear weapons efforts, which are popular among Iranians of all political persuasions, unless they are plainly told that refusing will bring punishing economic isolation in the very near future. European leaders have not been willing to send that firm message yet, and need to do so.

The next step should be a unified European-American stand that forces Iran to make a clear choice. Either fully renounce its nuclear enrichment programs and win significant trade and economic incentives or fail to do so and suffer severe economic penalties.

The Iranian nuclear challenge could not be more dangerous or more pressing. It is time to put aside unilateral American military bluster and European wishful diplomacy and get serious.

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