A Radioactive Question

Now that the presidential debate hysteria has died down, politicos across the nation await the vice-presidential debate tonight. Last weekâÄôs debate was supposed to be about national security and foreign policy, but was disappointingly lacking in substance. The next president will face a fair litany of complex foreign policy challenges, but last Friday they were whittled down into two-minute sound bites. Not least among those challenges is that of Iran and its quest for nuclear capability. Barack Obama and John McCain sparred over the usual talking points like talking with or without preconditions and whether sanctions need support from Russia. The Islamic Republic could quite quickly turn into a large problem for the next administration, and how to deal with it deserves more sophisticated debate. The root problem, of course, is IranâÄôs nuclear ambitions that it has pursued askance the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which it is a signatory. Nuclear capability is a massive asset for any state, as it gives great ability to punch above its diplomatic weight. It is national pride fueling the desire for nuclear technology. Most experts agree that Iran seeks to assert imperial control over the Middle East, and a nuclear weapon would be paramount. That in itself presents a massive dilemma. IranâÄôs possession of a nuclear weapon is not an existential threat to the United States. The danger is how the rest of the region would react âÄî the last thing the world needs is a nuclear arms race in one of the worldâÄôs greatest geopolitical hotspots. Deterrence, like that in the Cold War, will be next to impossible among the contiguous Middle Eastern states. It is true that Iran is not controlled by religious fanatics who are hell-bent on destroying Israel âÄî no, in fact only its president has publicly stated such a thing. But as North Korea has proven, dealing with nuclear proliferation is maddening. Unlike the Hermit Kingdom, though, IranâÄôs geographical location makes it a far more pressing matter. Multilateral efforts have been hamstrung by politics as usual. Russia is always eager to undermine what America seeks. The Iranian government has been surprisingly obstinate, allowing sanctions to wreck the economy in an effort to stand up against the world, not unlike Saddam Hussein in the late 1990s. Information on IranâÄôs capability is opaque, and revelations, at times, are contradictory. With America bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranian government seems to have found the free pass it was looking for. Talk it out America has had no formal relations with Iran since 1979, the year of the revolution. Many baby boomers still hold a grudge against the country that held Americans hostage for 444 days. Current discourse over whether talking to Iran is right is pathetic. Of course itâÄôs necessary to talk, if not only to demonstrate both sides are willing to broach the issue with the other. Preconditions, preparations, or whatever you want to call them will be needed, but they have to be realistic. Expecting Iran to come to the table willing to abandon its line of thinking is naïve. Talking, however, is not solely the answer, either. In the wake of the Iraq war, even mentioning the use of force by policymakers is toxic. But taking the option off the table entirely, as many on the left feel it should, is wrong. For talks to be little more than rhetorical boilerplate, America needs to show it is truly committed to its word. Otherwise, talks would be as effective as walking into the National Rifle Association with nothing more than a smile and asking members to hand over their guns. The lack of possible enforcement is a recurring theme in international law. Of course, publicly brandishing the intent to use force as last resort means eventually you might have to make good on your word. While force should not be taken off the table, it also should not be blatantly advertised either. Talking to Iran itself may prove difficult. The government has, in recent years, proved amorphous. The supreme leader of the nation is the Ayatollah Khomenei. Because of the stubbornness and rash populism of Ahmadenijad, Khomenei has had to play an increasing role in politics. Though designed as a republic, some experts now see it as a monarchy. Negotiating with an ever-changing power structure may prove pointless. With friends like these Another key component of the nuclear problem is Israel. Israel legitimately believes that a nuclear Iran is an existential threat, and history shows that the Jewish state will not hesitate to strike. That is both a boon and a burden to the United States. While it can credibly remind Iran that it has no absolute control over Israel as way of coercing Iran to talk on American terms, it also runs the gambit of tacitly giving a green light for Israel to attack. Israel is typically seen as a great victim in the Middle East, though that is untrue. The Israelis will not bear the consequences of an attack on Iran directly. America, on the other hand will, especially diplomatically. Even if Israel attacks without American consent âÄî which it can do âÄî not a soul in the Middle East would believe America was not complicit. Speaking recently before the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, HarvardâÄôs Ashton Carter gave an ominous prediction that Israel would attack while the American government is in transition: âÄúI’ve said that between our elections and the inauguration of our president, I’d put 50-50 the Israelis (would) do that.âÄù How you would respond to that, Messrs Obama and McCain, is a question that desperately needs answering. Those at St. JamesâÄô Street welcome comments at [email protected]