Commentary Magazine


Isolationism and a Nuclear Iran

Columnist George Will is right when he writes today that the nuclear deal that the Obama administration has struck with Iran won’t stop the Islamist regime from getting a nuclear weapon. The notion that the U.S. can foster moderation in countries ruled by despotic ideological regimes is, as he says, a “conceit” of a blind faith in diplomacy and good will. But rather than call for tougher diplomacy or greater pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear ambition, the venerable conservative pundit advises us to simply give up trying to stop the ayatollahs from getting a bomb. If possible, that might be an even worse policy than the feckless pursuit of détente with Iran currently being attempted by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry.

It’s difficult to argue with Will’s belief that no agreement conjured up by the current diplomatic efforts will prevent Iran from eventually going nuclear. Nor would the use of force by either Israel or the United States to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities be easy or cost-free. But his conclusion that the U.S. has no choice but to accept a nuclear Iran as an inevitable, if regrettable, reality and adopt a posture of containment is one that even President Obama has rejected as not a viable or sensible option. In this case, Will’s normally rigorous reasoning is flawed both in terms of his estimation of what could be done short of war to stop Iran as well as the impact of effective strikes on their nuclear infrastructure. Even more troubling, however, is the sense that his willingness to accept a nuclear Iran has less to do with despair at the options available to policymakers than it does with a worldview that is drifting toward isolationism.

Let’s first agree that diplomacy with Iran is a doubtful bet no matter whether it is being conducted by tough-minded leaders or weak ones. Both Obama and Kerry have little appreciation of the nature or goals of the Iranian regime and what little common sense they have is dwarfed by their hubristic belief in their own diplomatic prowess. As Will states, a deal that leaves in place Iran’s nuclear facilities and its stockpile of enriched uranium, and even grants it the right to create more is a formula for failure. It’s difficult to imagine any such scheme will not be either evaded or violated by the Iranians in a push to get the weapon their leaders have always dreamed of. The Iranians have spent the last 20 years deceiving and stalling Western negotiators. Any thought that the selection of a faux moderate in their fake presidential election presages a genuine shift on the part of the true rulers of Iran is a product of wishful thinking.

But however dubious we should be about Iran’s intentions, it is simply not true to claim, as Will does, that “any agreement” would be as futile as the one Obama has foolishly embraced. A deal that dismantled Iran’s centrifuges and nuclear plants and that resulted in the export of their uranium stockpile would be one that would prevent them from getting a bomb. Granted, the Iranians may well have more facilities than the ones under discussion. Intelligence agencies take it as a given that there are secret facilities where unknown nuclear activities are being conducted. Yet a negotiated end to the international sanctions on Iran that produced a genuine and strict inspection of the country might well root out most of the ayatollahs’ nuclear toys or at least enough to severely restrict their ability to reconstitute their program.

Such a deal might be possible if, rather than weakening sanctions in a vain effort to encourage Iranian moderates, the West tightened the economic restrictions on trade with Tehran and instituted a comprehensive embargo of Iranian oil. That kind of an embargo would be tough to enforce without the full support of Russia and China. But we’ll never know whether it could work or if such crippling sanctions would bring the regime to its knees until it is tried.

As for the use of force, Will is probably right that Israel may not be able to stop Iran on its own. It is also true that even a far more comprehensive strike by the U.S. wouldn’t necessarily end the threat for all time. But in dismissing the possibility that a series of strikes could stop Iran in the long run, Will is ignoring the fact that it is highly unlikely that a country already nearing bankruptcy could afford the massive costs involved in reconstituting a nuclear program it took them decades to build. There is no reason to believe that Iran could simply rebuild everything in a few years. And even if strikes did merely put off an Iranian bomb for a few years or a decade, that would buy the world badly needed time to prepare for the Iranian threat. It would also give the Iranian people an opportunity to perhaps unseat a tyrannical regime.

An armed conflict with Iran is not a scenario anyone should regard as anything but a last resort. But the assumption that it would be worse than a nuclear Iran is the real fallacy here. Will agrees with the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack that the only choices the West has are containment or war and thinks the former a better idea than the latter. That’s why, despite his criticism of Obama’s diplomacy, Will likes the nuclear deal with Iran because he rightly believes it forestalls any use of force whether by Israel or the United States.

Will castigates those who call for a more vigorous response to the Iranian nuclear threat as being “gripped by Thirties envy” because they decry the Obama policy as a new appeasement. Obviously, the circumstances before us today are different than those faced by the West in 1938 when appeasement of Nazi Germany was on the table. But the notion that all that is at stake here is, as Will says, an attempt to  “alter a regime’s choices about policies within its borders” is utterly misguided.

Iran’s nuclear program is not merely a domestic policy choice that the West regards with distaste (which was the way many in Britain and the U.S. regarded the Nazi treatment of Jews in the 1930s), but a genuine threat to the stability of the regime and the security of the West. After all, the Iranians are not building ICBMs to hit Israel, whose existence would be placed in mortal danger by a bomb in the hands of an anti-Semitic regime pledged to its destruction. Those would be aimed at Europe and the United States. Such a weapon would also provide a nuclear umbrella to Iran’s terrorist auxiliaries in the region and allies such as Syria.

In this respect, Barack Obama’s understanding of the stakes in this question is greater than that of the venerable conservative sage. The president knows that a nuclear Iran would be a catastrophe. He just lacks the will or the smarts to pursue the right policy to prevent it. Will is wrong to write off tough sanctions and diplomacy without their being tried. He’s even more wrong to think the use of force would be worse than a nuclear Iran.

Unlike the Soviet Union, a nuclear Iran could not be neatly contained. Not could the U.S. or Israel be sure it could deter it with nuclear or conventional counter-attacks. But unlike liberals who labor under the delusion that the Iranians could be charmed out of their nukes, Will seems to think the issue doesn’t really matter. In making that case, he seems to be endorsing the mindset of isolationists like Rand Paul or trying to resurrect the foreign policy of Republicans of a bygone era like Robert Taft would have preferred. As such, his appeal for acceptance of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is a distressing indication of the collapse of the consensus on the right about foreign policy that can only give comfort to America’s foes.

Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.