With the passing of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1737 on December 23, the world moved ever closer to an all-out war in the Middle East. The resolution, which reaffirmed the commitment of the United Nations to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, imposed a regime of weak sanctions against Iran for its refusal to stop the enrichment of uranium, a critical component of any nuclear weapons program.
While the resolution was a largely symbolic effort that did little more than present a seemingly unified Security Council response, the real effect of the measure was the removal of a major diplomatic hurdle to the use of force to stop or delay Iran's nuclear progress.
There is little doubt among the world's nations that Iran has become the greatest threat to stability in the Middle East. In its push to become the most powerful nation in the region, Iran has fomented unrest among Iraq's Shia, supported terrorist ally Hezbollah in a brutal summer war with Israel, and aggressively pursued a nuclear program that it claims is for peaceful purposes, but which the world strongly suspects is a concerted effort to acquire nuclear weapons.
In dealing with Iran, there are simply no good options available. Negotiations have thus far yielded no progress, with Iran rejecting very attractive incentives packages from the European Union and the west, and with any additional offers such as normalized diplomatic or economic relations likely to be rejected as well. The Iranian leadership, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and chief nuclear negotiator Ari Larijani, have repeatedly stated that Iran will never give up its right to nuclear technology.
Sanctions, especially the ones recently imposed by the Security Council, will have a negligible effect at best. Historically such measures have proven ineffective, particularly when the goal is to target something the sanctioned nation deems as vital or extremely important. Russia and China, both heavily invested in Iran, will not undertake actions that will harm their financial interests, no matter what is expected of them under the provisions of the U.N. resolution. Unless a great majority of other nations is willing to actively enforce a real sanctions package, Iran will be unaffected by such measures in its quest for nuclear weapons.
The futility of continued negotiations and the minimal effectiveness of U.N. sanctions make the use of force a much more likely option. But is a military strike a realistic possibility, and what are the potential consequences of preemptive action?
An attack against Iranian nuclear facilities would likely be carried out by the United States, with possibly an assist from our British allies. Any sort of ground invasion involving U.S. forces is highly improbable, with major ongoing American troop commitments to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States could opt for air strikes, with either limited attacks on critical facilities such as Bushehr and Natanz, or a more comprehensive set of strikes against many of Iran's known and suspected nuclear sites. Any attack, though, would require complete surprise, so there would probably be no indication of an impending strike or bellicose rhetoric from Washington.
An attack by the United States would incur serious repercussions, not only within Iran, but also across the entire Middle East. To begin, the Iranian people would likely see an attack as an attempt to interfere in their country's internal affairs, resulting in increased support for the clerical regime and Ahmadinejad as citizens rushed to "rally around the flag."
Iran would no doubt promote more violence in neighboring Iraq, especially among the Shia in the south, and could use proxy Hezbollah to launch attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets, forcing an Israeli response that could prompt Syrian intervention and Muslim outrage, both at Israel's involvement and what would be perceived as yet another U.S. attack on Islam, throughout the entire Middle East. The Russian government would be infuriated about an attack on its financial investment in Iran's nuclear program, and would provide covert and possibly overt support for Iranian actions that would create problems for the United States in the region as the conflict quickly spiraled out of control. Nations friendly to, or at least tolerant of the United States, would find it difficult not to alienate the United States while appeasing populations supportive of their fellow Muslims.
In the end, the consequences of a military strike against Iran probably outweigh any benefits to be gained by delaying the Islamic Republic's progress toward a nuclear weapon capability. The risk of a Middle East war means the United States and Europe may have no other option but to accept the reality that Iran will one day join the club of nuclear powered nations, knowing that the massive arsenals of the west will likely prevent an Iranian first-strike against Israel or any other nation. Such an act by Iran would be an invitation to the west to retaliate in a manner that would guarantee the demise of the Iranian regime.
Make no mistake about it, though. A nuclear-armed Iran will be emboldened in its quest to become a regional, and ultimately global power, and will take advantage of every opportunity to challenge U.S. interests in the Middle East. Israel will no longer be the region's sole nuclear state and will have to accept that the fundamental balance of power in the Middle East has shifted. None of this bodes well for a long-suffering region desperately in need of peace and stability. But the reality is that of all the options facing the United States and the west, the acceptance of a nuclear-armed Iran is the one fraught with the fewest perils.