It's time for a realistic appraisal of options regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The current approach being pursued by the Bush administration, international pressure ultimately backed by U.N. sanctions, is highly unlikely to work.
That's because two members of the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China, are highly unlikely to support meaningful sanctions.
As a backup, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has floated the possibility of a sanctions regimen by a coalition of the willing. But the Europeans, who are supporting U.N. sanctions, are highly unlikely to go along with an independent effort.
Moreover, any sanctions regimen, whether U.N. blessed or independent, is likely to be very leaky. Iran has a lot of oil and a lot of oil revenue. It will find those willing to do business with it.
Nor do sanctions, even coupled with economic benefits for abandoning its nuclear ambitions, seem likely to alter Iran's course. Iran appears to place a very high priority on its nuclear program and seems willing to endure whatever international criticism, pressure or ostracism it brings.
The unlikelihood of international pressure or sanctions deterring Iran's nuclear ambitions has stimulated some discussion on the neoconservative right for direct U.S. military action. That, however, is also highly improbable.
Not even the neoconservatives are saying that military action in Iran would be a cakewalk. There is no confidence that the location and function of Iran's nuclear facilities are well-enough known to count on the effectiveness of a surgical strike. The only way to make sure that Iran doesn't develop a nuclear capability through military action would be to occupy the country.
The possibility of U.S. military action might have served as a deterrent nevertheless. After the Iraq war, however, the Bush administration would face a tsunami of international and domestic opposition to a military invasion of Iran. The Iraq war has largely dissipated whatever deterrent value uncertainty about the U.S. military response to Iran going nuclear might have had.
Part of the problem is that what Iran says it wants to do, develop a fuel cycle for nuclear power, it has a right to do under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has documented Iranian reporting and notification treaty violations. And it has documented at least a high interest by the Iranian government in looking at how to make nuclear weapons. Developing such weapons would be a violation of the basic trade-off of the non-proliferation treaty: access to nuclear energy technology in exchange for eschewing nuclear weapons.
This points out the vulnerability of the current non-proliferation structure. The same processes that generate fuel for nuclear energy can be used to produce the material for a nuclear weapon. Moreover, as a matter of energy security, nations are highly unlikely to give up their right to control the nuclear power fuel cycle.
Rather than pursuing undoubtedly fruitless attempts to deter Iran through international pressure, the United States should instead be concentrating on depriving Iran of the strategic advantages it might hope to gain by developing nuclear weapons. And the best way to do that is through missile defenses.
In the public's mind, missile defense is still Star Wars, a space-based umbrella shield against ballistic missiles. In reality, there has been good progress made in subspace missile-defense capabilities.
There's a decent capability in land-based defense against short-range missiles in their descent phase. There's a basic capability in land- and sea-based defenses to intercept longer-range missiles in their midcourse phase, or after boost and before descent. And an air-based ability to destroy missiles in their boost phase is thought to be near at hand.
Production, however, remains limited, and this needs to be boosted, as well as renewed vigor shown in research and development.
Missile defense won't stop countries from going nuclear if they perceive an important strategic value in so doing. If Iran believes that developing a nuclear weapon reduces the likelihood of U.S. military action against it, it's undoubtedly correct.
Missile defense can, however, create substantial uncertainty about the value of nuclear weapons as a first-strike or offensive capability. That could both limit the extent to which new nuclear powers build up their arsenals and the extent to which others feel obligated to join the nuclear club, one of the feared consequences of Iran going nuclear.
Developing and maintaining a nuclear arsenal is a difficult and expensive proposition. Missile defense can help contain the spread of nuclear weapons by substantially reducing the strategic value of them beyond serving as a defensive deterrent. Moreover, improving missile defenses and ramping up production isn't an expensive proposition, at least by Pentagon standards.
The most actionable U.S. response to the breakdown of the nuclear non-proliferation structure, with regard to Iran and others, would be to become a missile-defense proliferator.