In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama declared, “Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” Yet Iran is fast approaching the nuclear threshold, despite new, tough international sanctions.
The clock must be stopped. The best hope for doing so is a triple-track strategy of diplomacy, sanctions and a more credible threat of force by the U.S. and Israel. The time has come for American leaders to begin preparations for, and a robust public debate about, military action against Iran.
From its inception, the Islamic Republic has terrorized its citizens, killed American soldiers, supported terrorist groups, and repeatedly undermined the stability of our Arab allies. Last October, American authorities uncovered an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States on U.S. soil. And just last month, Iranian military leaders threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a critical energy shipping lane. An Iran with nuclear weapons capability, overconfident behind its own nuclear deterrent, would act even more aggressively, threatening our allies and vital interests.
President Obama entered office pledging “to use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.” We applaud his sincere diplomatic outreach and support for stricter sanctions passed by Congress. But it is now time to engage other elements of our power.
Though Iran’s economic condition may be worsening, its centrifuges continue to spin, unimpeded. International Atomic Energy Agency reports indicate that in the last two years Iran’s nuclear program advanced dramatically—doubling its uranium enrichment rate, enriching uranium to ever higher levels, testing advanced centrifuges, beginning enrichment at a fortified facility, and continuing its weaponization program.
While important, recent sanctions—a European oil embargo to possibly take effect July 1 and U.S. measures designed to limit Iran’s oil exports by targeting firms dealing with its Central Bank—are unlikely to suffice on their own. China, which buys over a quarter of Iran’s oil exports, has refused to cooperate. Other top buyers of Iranian crude, like India, South Korea and Japan, have promised to lower their Iranian imports but are unlikely to do so in significant quantities soon. We support additional tough sanctions but believe that as Congress considers further measures it must also regularly assess the effectiveness of sanctions in bringing a halt to Iran’s nuclear program.
Contrary to public perception, Iran’s reported interest in resuming talks is not an indication of the sanctions’ success. Historically, Tehran has used negotiations to stall and defuse pressure before international consensus for more drastic action can be reached. Both the reluctance of other nations to wean themselves from Iranian oil and Iran’s latest diplomatic gambit are evidence of the need for much greater pressure.
As we argue in a new Bipartisan Policy Center report, Meeting the Challenge: Stopping the Clock, to prevent a nuclear Iran the U.S. needs to demonstrate its resolve to do whatever is necessary, including military action. Gaining international support for tougher sanctions and convincing Iran to accept a diplomatic solution requires making clear that military conflict is the only other outcome.
Additional pressure needs to come from the credible threat of military action—whether by the U.S. or Israel—against Iran’s nuclear program. Such threats can enable peaceful, diplomatic solutions. After U.S. and coalition forces toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, fear of military action apparently led Iran, briefly, and Libya, permanently, to halt their nuclear programs.
Making credible the military threat will require strengthening our declaratory policy, making clear our willingness to use force rather than permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and requiring all U.S. officials to adhere to that policy publicly. Congressional hearings on the viability of the military option would further underscore our seriousness.
Also, while we do not advocate an Israeli military strike against Iran, we believe that enhancing Israel’s military capabilities—by providing it with 200 advanced GBU-31 bunker-busting munitions and three KC-135 refueling tankers to extend the range of its jets—would improve Israeli credibility and help convince the Iranians to pursue a diplomatic solution. The Obama administration, under a prior commitment from President Bush, already delivered less-advanced GBU-28 bunker busters to Israel.
If more pressure is needed, a quarantine could block refined petroleum imports into Iran, sending a clear signal and ensuring the effectiveness of sanctions on gasoline imports. Should even that fail to persuade Iran’s leadership, the U.S. military is capable of launching an effective surgical air strike against Iran’s nuclear program and its military installations. Such action would set back Iran’s nuclear program, but continued monitoring and vigilance would remain necessary for an extended period.
We recognize the risks of this approach. We are also aware that our country is war-weary and saddled with economic challenges. But we cannot wish this problem away, nor should we fall prey to the inertia of resignation. It is time to begin a serious public debate about what it will take to prevent a nuclear Iran. Avoiding hard choices today can only lead to significantly greater costs in blood and treasure tomorrow.
Mr. Robb, a former Democratic senator from Virginia, and Mr. Wald, a retired general and air commander in the initial stages of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, are co-chairs of a new Bipartisan Policy Center report on Iran, Meeting the Challenge: Stopping the Clock.