A Time for Diplomatic Renewal
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Preventive military action, by either the United States or Israel, in the event that this diplomatic initiative fails, appears unattractive given its risks and costs.However, the option should be examined closely, both for what it could accomplish and given the dangers of living with a near or actual Iranian nuclear weapons capability. Because of Israel’s vulnerability to an Iranian nuclear first strike, its fuse will necessarily be shorter than America’s. And negotiations—as well as stepped-up sanctions— will inevitably take time to work. To increase Israel’s tolerance for a more drawn-out diplomatic engagement, President Obama should bolster Israel’s deterrent capabilities by providing a nuclear guarantee and an enhanced antiballistic missile defense capability.
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Israel, which has maintained a nuclear monopoly in the region through preventive military strikes on Iraq and Syria, will be sorely tempted to take preventive military action again before Iran has developed a full-fledged weapons capability. That is especially so because Iran's leaders have gone out of their way to declare their intention of "wiping Israel off the map." If Israel strikes, Iranian retaliation could spark a war in Lebanon, closure of the Straits of Hormuz (through which oil tankers exit the Persian Gulf), dramatic increases in the price of oil, and attacks on American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. If Israel does not strike, Iran and Israel will be on hair triggers, with a high potential for miscalculation. Meanwhile, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—the region's other powers—will likely accelerate their own nuclear programs, fueling a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race. Brandishing a nuclear deterrent, Iran may feel emboldened to step up its efforts at subversion across the region. Tehran would also have the potential to provide nuclear materials (the core of a "dirty bomb") or even a crude fission device to one of the terrorist organizations that it supports.
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In this context, it will be important for the next president to attempt to reach an early understanding with the world’s other leading powers about the importance of capping Iran’s nuclear advance. Unfortunately, recruiting Russia has become an even greater challenge since its use of force in Georgia in August 2008. Moscow could revert to its cold war approach of backing destabilizing actors in the Middle East (such as Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah) with supplies of offensive weapons systems and diplomatic protection in the UN Security Council. Preventing Russia from playing this spoiler role may not in the end be possible, but it is at least worth testing whether Moscow is willing to join a constructive partnership in the Middle East. It may even be possible that Russia’s leaders will welcome that invitation as a way of overcoming the negative repercussions of their Georgian adventure.