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A case for containing Iran

WASHINGTON — Critics of the agreement with Iran concerning its nuclear program are right about most things but wrong about the most important things. They understand the agreement’s manifest and manifold defects and its probable futility. Crucial components of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure remain.

U.S. concessions intended to cultivate the Iranian regime’s “moderates” are another version of the fatal conceit that U.S. policy can manipulate other societies. As is the hope that easing economic sanctions will create an Iranian constituency demanding nuclear retreat in exchange for yet more economic relief. Critics are, however, wrong in thinking that any agreement could control Iran’s nuclear aspirations. And what critics consider the agreement’s three worst consequences are actually benefits.

The six-month agreement, with ongoing negotiations, makes it impossible for the United States to attack its negotiating partner. Hence the agreement constrains Israel, which lacks the military capacity to be certain of a success commensurate with the risks of attacking Iran. Therefore there is no alternative to a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran.

Iran’s claim that its nuclear program is for power generation and medical uses is risible. So is the notion that negotiations have any likely utility establishing the predicate for containment of an Iran with nuclear weapons or with the capacity to produce them quickly.

There is a recently published primer for the perplexed: “Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy” by Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution.

Measured in his judgments, scrupulous in presenting arguments with which he disagrees, Pollack comes to this conclusion: “Going to war with Iran to try to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear arsenal would be a worse course of action than containing Iran, even a nuclear Iran.”

Some advocates of war seem gripped by Thirties Envy, a longing for the clarity of the 1930s, when appeasement failed to slake the dictators’ thirst for territorial expansion.

But the incantation “Appeasement!” is not an argument. And the word “appeasement” does not usefully describe a sober decision that war is an imprudent and even ultimately ineffective response to the failure of diplomatic and economic pressures to alter a regime’s choices about policies within its borders.

Israel’s superb air force is too small, when striking over great distances at hidden and hardened targets, to do more than set back Iran’s program a few years, at most. And an attack might cause Iran to expel the international inspectors, and might accelerate the crumbling of the sanctions, thereby speeding the reconstitution of the weapon program.

A U.S. attack could do much more damage but could not prevent reconstitution. So, if stopping the program is important enough for war, is it important enough for an invasion of a nation with almost three times the population of Iraq and nearly four times the size?

In December 2011, Leon Panetta, then secretary of defense, said that if Iran were seen “proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon” or had decided to do that, the United States would “take whatever steps are necessary to stop it.” In March 2012, Barack Obama said: “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” His red line was the weaponization of fissile material.

Yet in his Nov. 23 statement celebrating the new agreement, Obama spoke of wanting to be able to “verify” that Iran “cannot build a nuclear weapon.”

If so, he rejects not only containment but allowing Iran to stop near — “a screwdriver’s turn away from” — weaponization. But Pollack, writing many months before the recent agreement ratified Iran’s right to enrichment, said:

“As long as Iran is left with the capacity to enrich uranium, the right to perform some enrichment activity, and a stockpile of LEU (low-enriched uranium) … then Iran will have a breakout capability. It could be a breakout window as wide as many months, perhaps even a year, but Iran will have the capability to manufacture the fissile material for a nuclear weapon.”

The agreement will not stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; only a highly unlikely Iranian choice can do that. The agreement may, however, prevent a war to prevent Iran from acquiring such weapons.

If Pollack is right, and he certainly is persuasive, we have two choices, war or containment. Those who prefer the former have an obligation to clearly say why its consequences would be more predictable and less dire than those in the disastrous war with Iraq.

George Will’s email address is georgewill@washpost.com. (c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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