What is our policy on Iran?

Fareed Zakaria pronounces U.S. policy on Iran “wise.” That policy, he says, consists of “doing nothing.” Specifically, according to Zakaria, we will not negotiate with Iran, given the domestic turmoil there and, more generlly, we will do nothing to stop Iran from “inching closer to a bomb.” (Zakaria states that there is no “imminent” threat of Iran getting a nuclear bomb, but NPR has reported that U.S. intelligence estimates Iran to be only one to three years away from having one).
Instead of trying to talk Iran out of developing nuclear weapons or taking action to prevent this, Zakaria says that our policy is, and should be, to deter Iran from using nuclear weapons, as we did with Stalin and Mao. This is particularly true, he contends, because in Iran “time is not on the current regime’s side.”
Zakaria’s description of U.S. policy towards Iran is at odds with that of top U.S. officials. President Obama has often said that it is unacceptable for Iran to obtain nukes. Secretary of Defense Gates, on a visit to Israel in which he urged patience regarding Iran, took the same line, citing the destabilizing effect that a nuclear Iran would have on the region.
Hillary Clinton, during her appearance on Meet the Press at the beginning of this week, also said “it is unacceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons.” Clinton rejected the notion, advanced by Zakaria, that the current political situation in Iran makes it unwise to press ahead with negotiations:

Our hope is–that’s why we’re engaged in the president’s policy of engagement toward Iran–is that Iran will understand why it is in their interest to go along with the consensus of the international community. . . .We continue to believe that very intensive diplomacy, bringing the international community together, making clear to the Iranians what the costs of their pursuit of nuclear weapons might be is the preferable route. . . . You don’t get to choose the people [with whom you negotiate]; that’s up to the internal dynamics within a society. . . .We also know that whoever is in charge in Iran is going to be making decisions that will affect the security of the region and the world.

None of this rhetoric means, however, that Zakaria’s description of U.S. policy is incorrect. In fact, I think he is right when he says the U.S. is quite prepared to accept a nuclear Iran. First, the administration surely recognizes that the regime cannot be talked out of developing nukes, and it plainly lacks the appetite for military action against Iran (as did President Bush). Second, Iranian nukes don’t pose a direct threat to the U.S. and, in any event, Zakaria is right that deterrence would probably work with Iran, as it has in the past.
Finally, her general adherence to the party line notwithstandking, Clinton’s Meet the Press appearance contained hints that the U.S. accepts Iran’s status as a soon-to-be nuclear power. She argued that a nuclear Iran would gain no large advantage in the Middle East because the U.S. would “extend a defense umbrella” over the rest of the region.
Although Clinton couched this argument as a talking point with which to persuade Iran that developing nukes is futile, Iran has reasonably interpreted it as a concession by the U.S. that, in the words of newspaper that spouts the regime’s line, “the Obama administration is prepared to accept the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran” and deal with Iran through deterrence.
It may, indeed, be reasonable for the U.S. to accept a nuclear Iran, given the options. But what about Israel? Unlike the U.S., it will be within the reach of Iranian nukes. And the low odds (if they are low) that Iran would bomb Israel are of little solace given the devastating consequences of such an attack. Clinton’s offer of the U.S. nuclear umbrella is of little value. Israel is itself capable of inflicting great damage on Iran. In any event, Israel can have little faith that the U.S. would protect it from much of the mischief Iran could accomplish as a nuclear power.
Nor does the possibility of regime change provide much comfort to a state that faces an existential threat from the current regime. Regime change is probably coming, but who knows when? And who knows whether a new regime would be significantly less hostile to Israel than the current one? Nothing in the record of the leading opponents of the current leadership suggests it would be.
In sum, I believe that the U.S. is resigned to a nuclear Iran, but that Israel should not be. Israel, then, is on its own.

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