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Why Buying Time on Iran Matters

There may be good reasons to forgo military action against Iran’s nuclear program, but the one that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen reiterated for the umpteenth time this week isn’t one of them. Speaking at Columbia University on Sunday, Mullen said that while a military strike could delay Iran’s nuclear program, “that doesn’t mean the problem is going to go away.” Given his further statement that an attack would be “incredibly destabilizing,” the implication was clear: the gain isn’t worth the cost.

Nor is Mullen alone: this is the argument most frequently cited by all opponents of military action (see, for instance, the New York Times’s editorial two days later).

It is unarguably true that military action cannot conclusively end Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, any more than Israel’s strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 ended Saddam Hussein’s quest for nuclear weapons. But that doesn’t mean buying time is pointless. On the contrary, buying time can be critical.

In Iraq’s case, for instance, Israel’s attack bought just enough time for Saddam to make one critical mistake: the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which sparked the 1991 Gulf War. That war ended with Iraq’s defeat by the U.S.-led coalition, enabling the victors to impose an intrusive regimen of weapons inspections on Iraq that discovered and dismantled Saddam’s reconstituted nuclear program. Subsequent inspections, conducted after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, concluded that the program had not been reconstituted.

In Iran, a military strike would probably buy less time than it did in Iraq, given that Iran may well have uranium stockpiles and/or processing facilities unknown to foreign intelligence agencies. But it is also very possible that less time is needed.

President Barack Obama, for instance, will certainly be replaced by 2017 at the latest (and possibly as early as 2013), and his successor may be willing to impose the kind of truly painful sanctions on Iran to which Obama currently appears unalterably opposed.

Moreover, while Saddam’s grip on his country was rock-solid in 1981, the mullahs’ grip on Iran is looking decidedly shaky these days. No one can predict when regime change will occur, but it now seems far more plausible than it did a year ago. And since regime change is the development most likely to permanently end the nuclear threat posed by Iran, buying time for it to happen makes a lot of sense.

Finally, of course, there is the unforeseen. No one in 1981 could have predicted Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait a decade later, or its consequences for his nuclear program; similarly unforeseen events could affect Iran’s nuclear program in ways unimaginable today.

There is obviously no guarantee that any of the above will happen, but buying time at least gives such developments a fighting chance. Whereas if we don’t buy time, given how things stand now, a nuclear Iran looks like a certainty.


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