Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Iran's enriched uranium and the possibility of preventive war

Well, it was only a matter of time, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. If you missed it, Iran has announced that it has "succeeded in enriching uranium to new levels," according to The Washington Post.

Is this a crisis? Yes. We simply cannot accept a nuclear Iran and, obviously, Iran is well on its way to becoming a nuclear state. So what to do? Reports suggest that the Bush Administration is preparing for war and that a plan to use nuclear weapons against Iran's nuclear facilities is on the table. Our guest blogger J. Kingston Pierce, responding to a Seymour Hersh piece in The New Yorker, recently addressed those reports here. At Slate, one of our favourites, Fred Kaplan, argues that we are probably not going to use nuclear weapons against Iran, that, in fact, there may be any number of reasons why the nuclear option is on the table. Eric Alterman, contra Kaplan, thinks that it's all quite possible.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Iran has apparently succeeded in enriching uranium to 3.5 percent, "an amount consistent with a fuel cycle and far below the level needed to produce a nuclear weapon". This is an improvement, from Iran's perspective, but there's still a long way to go: "Iran had previously enriched uranium to a level of about 2 percent, using a smaller cascade, and separately enriched uranium to about 15 percent during laser experiments in 2002. Bomb-grade uranium must be enriched to a level of well over 80 percent."

This development is indeed "a significant breakthrough in Iran's nuclear program," and we do need to take it seriously. But it's imperative, I think, that we roll back the incendiary rhetoric and consider what other options should be on the table. I would not and do not rule out a military strike, or perhaps even a more significant military campaign, but the use of military force should be the last resort, not the first -- and certainly not in this case, given what repercussions a military strike could have.

As Kaplan argues: "Pre-emptive war -- attacking a country to keep it from attacking us or an ally -- is sometimes justifiable. Preventive war -- attacking a country to keep it from developing a capability to attack an ally sometime in the future -- almost never is." We need to be extremely careful not to cross the line from the former to the latter. Think how a U.S.-led strike would play throughout the Muslim world. What would happen in Iraq? How would al Qaeda respond? Those two questions alone should give us pause to consider other, non-military options.

Thankfully, there is still time. Perhaps not much, but having even a little time is better than having none at all.

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