Iran: Not Another Iraq

Jon Wolfsthal, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues that Iran's potential development of nuclear weapons is not an imminent crisis for the United States. Wolfsthal says we have the information and the time to develop a coherent policy and should proceed cautiously.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Iran's Islamic government said it will resume research into generating nuclear power. Some Worry Iran will use its nuclear technology to develop and atomic bomb. Commentator Jon Wolfsthal is the author of the book DEADLY ARSENALS and he thinks the United States has plenty of time to come up with a coherent strategy.

JON WOLFSTHAL reporting:

Iran's nuclear maneuvers are leading people to wonder if we are headed for another pre-emptive war in the Middle East. A nuclear Iran would present exactly the kind of threat the White House alleged existed in Iraq. But this time the evidence is real and compelling. But Iran and Iraq are very different situations. While it is hard to overstate the dangers of a nuclear Iran, Iran is not likely, unless handled very poorly, to turn into another Iraq.

Unlike the run up to the Iraq war, we have a much more accurate picture of Iran's nuclear program. In Iraq, the public were at he mercy of rumor mongers and nameless sources, some with private agendas. In Iran, thanks to the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the pace and direction of Iran's program, though alarming, are well documented and known. Based on real evidence, we can have some confidence that Iran may still be several, perhaps even 10 years away from being able to build a nuclear weapon. This means that policy can be based on the real pace of Iran's actions, not on worst-case assumptions on what might be happening.

Another difference is that with Iran, the United States and Europe are united. The administration learned from past mistakes that left the U.S. isolated both during and after the war. This time the administration supported diplomatic efforts led by the United Kingdom, France and Germany. And as a result, Washington can now count on European support for referring Iran's case to the U.N. Security Council. This will make it easier to get Russian support and to convince China not to blindly protect Iran. This united front is vital. Only the broadest international consensus can convince Iran to change its direction and avert a nuclear crisis.

Another key distinction is that today, there are no viable military options in Iran. Even the most pessimistic pre-war scenarios assumed that the U.S. military would be able to depose Sadam's regime, occupy the country and thereby end its suspected unconventional weapon programs. Today, with out military commitments in Iraq and elsewhere, no credible voices are suggesting that things would go easily in Iran or that Tehran would not have effective means of retaliating against American interests.

Furthermore, no one can credibly suggest that invading U.S. troops would be welcomed in Iran as liberators. The only thing likely to unite Iranians around their new president is U.S. military action.

The final difference is that in the run up to Iraq, the majority of the American people and the American Congress were ready to support the president in the war. Today, even those who support the president politically are going to think long and hard before supporting another military invasion in the region.

The challenge of a nuclear Iran is in many ways far greater than the risk alleged in Iraq. Requiring that the United States and its allies remain united and convince Iran to change course. The poor options available to the United States are due, in part, to the decisions made previously in Iraq. But by learning from those mistakes and remembering that the two situations and dynamics are very different, there is still a chance of heading off a nuclear Iran.

BLOCK: Jon Wolfsthal is the author of DEADLY ARSENALS. He is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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