Thomas Friedman: Nuclear Iran

Get used to it. Iran is going nuclear. And our bumbling, credibility-challenged administration is impotent to stop it, thanks mainly to their screw-up in Iraq.

Iraq II or a Nuclear Iran?
Published: April 19, 2006

If these are our only choices, which would you rather have: a nuclear-armed Iran or an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites that is carried out and sold to the world by the Bush national security team, with Don Rumsfeld at the Pentagon’s helm?

I’d rather live with a nuclear Iran.

While I know the right thing is to keep all our options open, I have zero confidence in this administration’s ability to manage a complex military strike against Iran, let alone the military and diplomatic aftershocks.

As someone who believed — and still believes — in the importance of getting Iraq right, the level of incompetence that the Bush team has displayed in Iraq, and its refusal to acknowledge any mistakes or remove those who made them, make it impossible to support this administration in any offensive military action against Iran.

I look at the Bush national security officials much the way I look at drunken drivers. I just want to take away their foreign policy driver’s licenses for the next three years. Sorry, boys and girls, you have to stay home now — or take a taxi. Dial 1-800-NATO-CHARGE-A-RIDE. You will not be driving alone. Not with my car.

If ours were a parliamentary democracy, the entire Bush team would be out of office by now, and deservedly so. In Iraq, the president was supposed to lead, manage and hold subordinates accountable, and he did not. Condoleezza Rice was supposed to coordinate, and she did not. Donald Rumsfeld was supposed to listen, and he did not. But ours is not a parliamentary system, and while some may feel as if this administration’s over, it isn’t. So what to do? We can’t just take a foreign policy timeout.

At a minimum, a change must be made at the Pentagon. Mr. Rumsfeld paints himself as a concerned secretary, ready to give our generals in Iraq whatever troops they ask for, but they just haven’t asked. This is hogwash, but even if the generals didn’t ask, the relevant question, Mr. Rumsfeld, is: What did you ask them?

What did you ask them when you saw the looting, when you saw Saddam’s ammo dumps unguarded, when you saw that no one had control of the Iraq-Syria border and when you saw that Iraq was so insecure that militias were sprouting everywhere? What did you ask the generals? You didn’t ask and you didn’t tell, because you never wanted to send more troops. You actually thought we could just smash Saddam’s regime and leave. Insane.

So if our choice is another Rummy-led operation on Iran or Iran’s going nuclear and our deterring it through classic means, I prefer deterrence. A short diplomatic note to Iran’s mullahs will suffice: “Gentlemen, should you ever use a nuclear device, or dispense one to terrorists, we will destroy every one of your nuclear sites with tactical nuclear weapons. If there is any part of this sentence you don’t understand, please contact us. Thank you.”

Do I wish there was a third way? Yes. But the only meaningful third way would be to challenge Iran to face-to-face negotiations about all the issues that divide us: Iraq, sanctions, nukes. Such diplomacy, though, would require two things.

First, the Bush team would have to make up its mind on something that has divided it for five years: Does it want a change of regime in Iran or a change of behavior? If it will settle only for regime change, then diplomacy has no chance. The Iranians will never negotiate, and our allies will be wary of working with us.

Second, if the Bush team is ready to live with a change in Iran’s behavior, diplomacy has a chance — but only if it has allies and a credible threat of force to make the Iranians negotiate seriously. The only way Iran will strike a grand bargain with the U.S. is if it thinks America has the support at home and abroad for a military option (or really severe sanctions.)

The main reason Mr. Rumsfeld should leave now is because we can’t have a credible diplomatic or military option vis-à-vis Iran when so many people feel, as I do, that in a choice between another Rumsfeld-led confrontation and just letting Iran get nukes and living with it, we should opt for the latter.

It may be that learning to live with a nuclear Iran is the wisest thing under any circumstances. But it would be nice to have a choice. It would be nice to have the option of a diplomatic deal to end Iran’s nuclear program — but that will come only with a credible threat of force. Yet we will not have the support at home or abroad for that threat as long as Don Rumsfeld leads the Pentagon. No one in their right mind would follow this man into another confrontation — and that is a real strategic liability.

The Discussion: 13 Comments

In Iran’s nuclear issue, i do think china and russia are two irresponsible guys. everytime they would veto any proposals in UNSC. what they care is their interest in Iran, not the threat which could brought by the nuclear spreading. a nuculearized world defintely is not a peaceful world, especially those nuclear weapons are on the hands of extremists.

April 19, 2006 @ 12:06 am | Comment

I have to say, this is one of the best columns I’ve seen from Friedman in…well, maybe ever.

April 19, 2006 @ 12:09 am | Comment

Excellent post as always.
At the expense of repeating myself, I cannot live (happily) with a nuclear Iran.
However, you make a strong argument to avoid the immediate bombing of their facilities.
I would certainly like to see a diplomatic resolution to the issue. But I also have zero confidence in G.W.Buxing & Co., Inc. being able to pull it off.
Perhaps in 2008, if we get a decent change in leadership, it can be done.
My concern is that if Iran moves forward with th 50,000 centrifuge plan, we won’t have until 2008.
I can only hope that the UN Security Council led by the European powers can do something between now and then.
I think that if a Franco-German-Russian team leads the charge (and they seem to be doing a good job) then Economic Sanctions and/or political pressure from other less fundamentalist backed rulers of Middle Eastern countries can stop the enrichment.
I still feel that any proliferation or use of Nuclear Weapons by Iran, must result in an attack, though it will certainly result in civilian casualties…
Remember only 1006 days left…

April 19, 2006 @ 12:11 am | Comment

Finally Thomas has it right.
Saddam Hussein was a monster who had to be removed… Even Madeline Albright figured removing Saddam would happen sooner or later. Bush decided to do it. However, it is not clear why our military is still in Iraq…

After you see what Bush and company have done in Iraq and New Orleans… do you really want to trust Bush and company to fix Social Security or medical care?

April 19, 2006 @ 2:22 am | Comment

Friedman has taken so long to see the light and he is still thinking there was a right way to have done the war in Irak… he is not against war with Iran, he just does not trust Rummy. Friedman is one funny character. Now to the gentleman talking about vetoes and nuclear proliferation. The US supported Israel in its nuclear programme and has used its veto power more that anyone else in the history of the UN and most of the time just to negate even the weakest form of reprimend against Israel no matter what Israel had done. You ceirtanly can not blame anyone for looking the other way in the case of Iran.

April 19, 2006 @ 4:28 am | Comment

There are lots of folks who figured on war with Iraq. Saddam had invaded lots of countries and had WMD way back when. And Saddam was a monster, without doubt. After he passed on, his evil kids and grandkids were bound to inherit the place. Eliminating Saddam was part of lots of reasonable people’s thinking in the ’90s.

The problem is… how to do get rid of Saddam. Could it have been done right? I have no idea. The only thing I am certain of is that Bush did not do it right.

April 19, 2006 @ 6:44 am | Comment

Living with Saddam in Iraq was working; we had him in a box. Living with a nuclear Iran under the current leadership is a different matter. Who can imagine a ‘box’ that could contain them?

As far as Saddam-ism living on in an Iraq ruled by his sons – that is very doubtful. Saddam himself was an unstable ruler who feared – and had good reasons to fear – a military coup which would have removed him from power.

The Baathists who took over would likely have cut a deal with the west – by renouncing WMD and/or future regional military actions – got the sanctions lifted and the oil money flowing again.

The Iraqi military knew that the West, ie, the US, would NEVER normalize relations so long as Saddam was in power. Just as we’ll never deal with Cuba so long as Castro is in power.

Saddam was not the threat in 2003, but, the one threatened.

But, Rummie and the Neo-Cons believed that toppling him and creating a democratic and friendly Iraq would be a piece of cake.

He and Bush and the rest of them really believed that the mission had been accomplished in May of 2003.

April 19, 2006 @ 9:29 am | Comment

What Jerry said.

It would be very nice if we could somehow wave our magic wands and get rid of every dictator who terrorized his subjects. But regime change at gunpoint doesn’t have a good track record.

Actually, there’s a new book out by a NYT reporter about the US’ sorry record in that regard. He’s a very credible guy, not a wild-eyed lefty. I’ll find the name and post it after I get to work.

April 19, 2006 @ 10:28 am | Comment

America I feel should stop thinking about Iran. Why doesn’t it mind its own personal affairs? Let us have peace please.
Iran is no threat to America. America wants to use Iran as an excuse to steal Iranian oil.
It is very clear.

April 19, 2006 @ 3:05 pm | Comment

it’s about time US soldiers entered iran as well. and establish real democracy amongst the persians.

April 19, 2006 @ 5:52 pm | Comment

@Muslim Unity

Why do you say Iran is no threat to America?
Let’s check the dictionary here:

Pronunciation: ‘thret
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English thret coercion, threat, from Old English thrEat coercion; akin to Middle High German drOz annoyance, Latin trudere to push, thrust
1 : an expression of intention to inflict evil, injury, or damage
2 : one that threatens
3 : an indication of something impending

#1: Let’s see….Your president says death to infidels [Americans]. Your crowd at his speech say “death to americans”
#2: That would be the people in the crowd mentioned above, including their leader.
#3: Nuclear Weapons enrichment plan that exceeds ANY civilian reator requirements.

I can’t find any situation or group of people that better meets the definition of the word “threat”.

April 19, 2006 @ 7:42 pm | Comment

No problem for me for another nuclear country.
Even for Iran; in fact, I can really understand WHY they want (and need) nuclear.

For the “nuclear weapon case”, it’s kinda difficult to admit but it could really help the Iranian people feel more secure, regarding to their neighbours (indian, pakistan, china, russia, israel) and to their “far away neighbours friends” (no need to say).

On fact, only brainless anarchists would use the bomb to attack another country: it will certainly bring the end of the world.
I’m sure the Iranian people and governement aren’t this type of madmen.

April 19, 2006 @ 10:14 pm | Comment

I’m not crazy about a nuclear Iran for the same reasons that I’m not crazy about a nuclear Pakistan – thanks to AQ Khan (and the ineptitude of the US to a certain degree), all kinds of bad actors now have access to nuclear weapons technology. Same reason we should worry about weapons in the former Soviet Union, where the facilities are so cash-strapped that all kinds of things could have gone missing by now.

The worry isn’t so much states having nuclear weapons as it is stateless organizations like Al Qaeda. What I worry about is extremists in a nuclear country passing on the technology to stateless actors.

If Iran, say, dropped a nuke on Tel Aviv, the retaliatory strike would be awesome and severe. But Al Qaeda? What do you attack?

That said, if I were the Iranians, looking at George Bush (another religious extremist) in the White House, I’d want nuclear technology too. I’m sure the Iranians look at North Korea and look at Iraq, both charter members of the so-called “Axis of Evil.” Hmmm….look who got invaded?

But I think Friedman says it pretty well. Given the choice between Iranian nukes and another US invasion/attack…I’ll take the nukes.

April 19, 2006 @ 10:39 pm | Comment

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