A consensus seems to be developing that only a "regional solution" embracing Iran and Syria can extract the United States from Iraq without jeopardy to those who have stood with us and without damage to both our reputation and Bush's place in history.
But at what price? Nobody seems willing to say what "engagement" with Iran for a regional solution would entail. We cannot ask Iran's help while we bomb its nuclear reactors or impose tough sanctions on the country.
The price of Iranian cooperation will be complicity in Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Iran will gladly assure Bush it does not intend to develop an atomic weapon. But we shouldn't believe it.
By quitting Iraq with Iranian help, we let a regime get atomic weapons that has promised to wipe Israel off the map. By going hat in hand to Iran, we sacrifice Israel.
Israel will have only one course to bomb Iran in hope of delaying its acquisition of nuclear weapons. Israel's nuclear deterrent will be of little use. Israel could easily be wiped out by a few dozen nuclear explosions, while Iran, widely dispersed demographically, would likely survive an Israeli attack with half or more of its population alive. Israel cannot bet that Iran's good sense or the Israeli deterrent will stop Tehran from using nuclear weapons. It will be forced to strike now.
An Israeli strike would produce waves of nationalist sentiment in Iran and inflame Arab hatred of the Jewish state. It is precisely what we don't need now in the Middle East.
Nor would an Israeli attack necessarily stop Iran getting nukes. If Iran gets the bomb, Tehran will not only wipe out Israel, but will cow non-nuclear neighbors and gain control over the Gulf.
What should the U.S. do?
We need to organize a Buyers Club, a kind of reverse OPEC to shun Iranian oil until Tehran dismantles its nuclear effort. Iran sells 2.7 million barrels of crude each day. That is a relatively small share of the 90 million barrels of daily world output. Merrill Lynch predicts that world oil production will rise by 2.6 million barrels a day in 2007 (1.1 million from OPEC countries and 1.5 million from the rest of the world). Its two-year phase-out of reliance on Iranian oil is feasible.
Japan, Iran's biggest customer, trimmed its purchases of Iranian oil by 15 percent in March. The Buyers Club would have to help importers to make sure shortages don't develop in any one country. (The U.S. does not buy any Iranian oil.) Prices will rise somewhat, but this is a small price to pay to avoid a nuclear war.
And about Iraq? An Iranian bomb is no way to save face! We need to pull out of Iraq and understand that we have lost the war there. We are unable to fight for a nation unwilling to fight for itself. We must accept the loss of face, do our best to stabilize the nation, help it stand on its feet for another year or so, and then pull out.
But we must be sure not to accept the siren song, reportedly being pedaled by former Secretary of State James Baker, that we can have a regional solution by getting our two old friends, Iran and Syria, into the act. That way lies disaster!