Reality Check

Want Closure? Go Talk to Dr. Phil.

You won't find it on the Iranian nuclear issue.

IIPA via Getty Images
IIPA via Getty Images

If you’re looking for clarity, change the channel now — you’re on the wrong station. When it comes to dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, we may be living with great uncertainty for some time to come. Regardless of who’s elected president in November, 2013 may be no more determinative in deciding the fate of the mullahs’ bomb than 2012 was. And here’s why.

For some time now, the Obama administration and the Iranian mullahcracy have shared, indirectly, a common objective: preventing an Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear sites.

Even though the mullahs have flaunted the IAEA and much of the international community on the nuclear issue, they’ve left enough ambiguity about their intentions and demonstrated sufficient interest in negotiations to play for time — a kind of Tom and Jerry cat-and-mouse game.

And the world’s big powers have only been too willing to play along. Nobody wants war when sanctions and the prospects of diplomacy hold out even the slightest hope of changing Iran’s course, least of all the United States. In the process of extricating America from two of the longest and most profitless wars in its history, President Barack Obama will go to great lengths to avoid getting America into another one.

Nor, despite some muscular rhetoric on Mitt Romney’s part, is there much reason to believe he’d want to quickly green-light an Israeli strike or conduct one of his own. Right now, there’s little clarity in the governor’s position. Is it Iran’s nuclear capacity he seeks to prevent, or the weapon itself?

I suspect that once the Pentagon and CIA go through their horrific ratio-of-risk-to-reward briefings and his political advisors think through the uncertainties that might be triggered in the wake of a U.S. strike, the least of which might be rising oil prices and plunging financial markets, much of Romney’s campaign risk readiness will be converted into the more sober risk aversion of governance. Given the domestic challenges that the next American president will face, there’s more than a little reason to believe that war with Iran might not be priority No. 1.

Throw in a healthy dose of serious divisions within Israel about the wisdom of an Israeli strike without U.S. approval or the real effectiveness of any military option that doesn’t involve America in a major way. Add a pinch of Iranian caginess when it comes to keeping the international community guessing about its nuclear intentions and enrichment levels. And finish it off with a natural American penchant these days for the talking cure instead of a shooting war, and next year may well provide a recipe for diplomacy, not conflict.

The point is: Without an Iran much further along in its quest for nuclear weapons, nobody with the possible exception of Israel — and again, there’s no consensus there, let alone in Washington — has the inclination, let alone the will, to go to war right now. And while the issue of who’s got bigger balls on what to do about Iran has already figured prominently in the campaign and in the debates, caution should be the watchword for now.

If a U.S. president at some point makes a decision that stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon requires military force — that is to say it is in the highest category of what constitutes America’s vital national interest — he almost certainly will try every conceivable approach before acting, including the possibility of direct secret diplomacy with the mullahs. But I don’t think we’re there quite yet.

Americans love clarity. But clearly there’s not much of it when it comes to so many dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program. Does Iran want an actual weapon? (I think so, but who really knows?) How much highly enriched uranium do the Iranians really possess? How far along is their weapons research? How long would it take Iran to get a few bombs? One to three years? Take your pick. How does military action — "mowing the grass," as the Israelis put it — prevent Iran from reconstituting its program?

We’ve been conditioned to think in terms of binary choices: bomb or accept the bomb. And without a negotiated deal on the enrichment issue or some unilateral capitulation, it may well come down to that, in large part because though there are clearly risks to using military force, there are also risks to inaction. Given the fact that both Obama and Romney have repeatedly committed themselves to preventing Iran from acquiring a weapon, failure to do so would be a huge blow to America’s credibility. Keep in mind this is the third administration that has vowed to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

If a military strike on Iran by Israel or the United States is the option that is ultimately contemplated, then there are two issues in the uncertainty department that need to be carefully considered. Both involve the end-state objective; that is, what we’re ultimately trying to achieve. First, if in fact Iran’s quest for a weapon is a matter of identity driven by profound insecurity and grandiosity, what is to prevent the regime from reconstituting its weapons program — this time with more legitimacy, more determination, and more resolve? And second, once knowledge is acquired and technical and scientific processes mastered, how do you "bomb" that information and knowledge from a society’s collective consciousness and memory? It seems logical that unless you can change the acquisitive character of the mullahs when it comes to nuclear enrichment, an attack, certainly by Israel, would indeed be akin to mowing the grass. The Iranians will simply plant the seeds again and the grass will grow back.

Nothing about this logic chain should rule out consideration of using force. A negotiated settlement is preferable, but even that may not be able to provide the kinds of iron-clad guarantees that will reassure the United States, let alone the Israelis, that Iran has abandoned its nuclear-weapons aspirations. We have to get used to the fact that without a fundamental change in the Iranian regime, it’s unlikely that we will ever reach this level of certainty and assurance.

And no one — not Benjamin Netanyahu, not Barack Obama, not Mitt Romney — has the capacity and power to produce that. Iran fashions itself a great power profoundly insecure and entitled. Had Ayatollah Khomeini not overthrown the shah in 1979, Iran would have already been a nuclear weapons state. And even if you somehow resolve the nuclear-weapons issue, there are a variety of other matters, from Iran’s meddling in its neighbors to its support for terrorism, that divide Iran and the West.

Nukes or no nukes, this situation is likely to guarantee a continuation of a cold war between Iran and the West and the ever-present risk of a hot one. If I had to bet the mortgage, however, I’d say we’ll still be in a twilight zone on the Iranian nuclear issue this time next year — suspended somewhere between a war nobody wants and can afford and negotiations and sanctions that have not been able to stop the mullahs’ search for a nuclear weapons capacity. Yet?

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author, most recently, of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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