With Iran stubbornly spinning its nuclear centrifuges, despite nearly a decade of diplomatic efforts and sanctions, time is short to avoid another Middle East conflict that could spin disastrously out of control, leave many dead, and send oil prices skyrocketing. But the U.S. can still resolve this combustible crisis by using much bigger carrots and sticks to convince Iran to change course before it's too late.
Only a credible threat of devastating force against Iran will peacefully prevent a potential doomsday scenario from becoming reality, and only the US can deliver such a threat. Unlike the Israeli military, the overwhelming power of the US military can completely destroy - rather than merely delay - Iran's nuclear program and Iran's ability to retaliate.
Unfortunately the signals of weakness out of Washington have only emboldened Iran.
Last August, Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a dangerously counterproductive message to Iran when he said, referring to an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear program, "I don't want to be complicit if they choose to do it." According to reports last summer, the US used diplomatic back channels to ask Iran not to attack the US should Israel choose to strike unilaterally.
More recently, President Obama has nominated former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. The Senior Republican Senator from Texas, John Cornyn, detailed Hagel's abysmal voting record and stated positions when it comes to Iran and Israel in a CNN op-ed titled "Why I can't support Hagel." Senator Cornyn concludes that "the president has sent the worst possible message to our closest Middle Eastern ally and our greatest Middle Eastern enemy."
Thus, rather than projecting unity and strength, the US has signaled division and weakness to Iran.
If Israel must act alone, the odds are far higher that a regional conflagration will result because Iran's retaliation will be that much more easily supported by one or more of its regional allies: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza, and possibly even Syria. Such an explosive regional war would undoubtedly draw in the US, notwithstanding its meek diplomatic requests to the contrary.
Paradoxically, if Iran believes that the US is about to launch a massive attack, it will back down, and no force will be needed. But if Iran doubts American resolve, the Islamic Republic will continue on its nuclear warpath.
The threat of force should be used to achieve something far more effective than the illusory "arrangement" settled on with North Korea in 1994. The goal with Iran must be a Libya-style total disarmament, removing equipment and material from Iran's nuclear weapons program, with independent verification by the IAEA.
Such a disarmament is the only way to eliminate the many risks posed by the Iranian nuclear program. These dangers potentially include: (i) nuclear proliferation, because other countries in the volatile Middle East will feel threatened into wanting their own nuclear programs; (ii) the transfer of nuclear materials from Iran – the world's chief sponsor of terrorism – to terrorist organizations and/or states; (iii) bolder attacks by terrorist groups protected by an Iranian nuclear umbrella; and (iv) an even more belligerent Iran that flexes its nuclear arsenal to: export its radical Islamic ideology, acquire disputed territories and resources from neighboring countries, and/or undertake actions like blocking the Strait of Hormuz to increase the price of oil.
Iran violently quelled the democratic aspirations of its citizens in 2009 and has actively supported the brutal crackdown on Syrian protesters. The Islamic Republic directly and through its proxies threatens stability in Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Iraq, and the Gulf area. Iran is also responsible for many deaths of American and coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As clear as it is today that a nuclear weapon in the hands of the Third Reich would have spelled catastrophe, so should it be clear with the Iranian theocracy. Even reformers with the best of intentions would need time to transform Iran's governing system and political culture. The world must wait for major changes before concluding that Iran can be trusted with the world's most dangerous weapons.
In the interest of fairness and good faith, the threat of overwhelming military force for non-compliance should be complemented by generous rewards for co-operation. In exchange for the verifiable dismantling of Iran's entire nuclear program, the US should compensate Iran financially for related losses, offer adequate guarantees for Iranian security (adopted by the Security Council if needed), and provide economic benefits (like replacing economic sanctions with US and EU free trade agreements) that are collectively far more advantageous than a nuclear weapon would be. If the Iranian regime is peaceful (or rational), then it should readily accept such an attractive bargain. Otherwise, the regime clearly has bellicose intentions for its nuclear activities and must be stopped by the only world power that can do so swiftly and decisively.
Iran has frequently called for the destruction of Israel and has – despite the sanctions against it – actively worked to acquire the means to annihilate Israel whenever it chooses. Thus, every day the Middle East moves closer to an Armageddon-type showdown that could force Israel's hand. Only the U.S. has the power to resolve the matter peacefully, with a grand bargain, and decisively, if necessary, with overwhelming force. Our world depends on such an intervention, and history is watching.