Two years ago, President Bush told a large audience in Cincinnati that “America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”
For months leading up to the Iraq war, Bush administration officials continued to use scare tactics such as this to describe the growing nuclear threat in the Middle East. They detailed illicit attempts to obtain nuclear material on the black market, violations of nonproliferation agreements with the international community and the possibility of terrorists obtaining nuclear arms. All these depictions represented an accurate account of developments at the time, except there was one monumental error in the president’s claims: None of these applied to Iraq or to Saddam Hussein. Rather, each was — and still is — applicable to Iran and the insidious regime in Tehran.
While Bush focused solely on Iraq for the next two years, Iran exploited America’s diplomatic and strategic failures to further develop its own weapons of mass destruction. Iran pursued its nuclear agenda knowing that American deterrence had been diminished by an overextended military and weakened credibility in the eyes of the world. Iran relied on strained international alliances as a means of delaying punitive sanctions at the United Nations. And the Iranians took advantage of the postwar rift between the United States and Europe to buy time as France, Germany and Great Britain negotiated with Tehran to no avail.
Today, Iran brazenly vows to increase nuclear testing and to enrich more than 40 tons of yellowcake uranium in the next year — all in stark violation of its agreement with the Europeans in October 2003. Unlike Saddam’s unsuccessful attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, most experts agree that Iran is on an accelerated track to go nuclear in one to three years.
In targeting the wrong nation in the “axis of evil” in the Middle East and failing to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Bush has done for the Iranians what they never could have done for themselves. He has deflected international attention from their nuclear program, weakened America’s deterrence and fomented anti-American sentiment throughout the world.
With 53% of Europeans citing the United States as the second-biggest threat to global peace after Israel, according to a recent poll, America is hard-pressed to convince allies that Iran’s nuclear program undermines the stability of the Middle East. Unfortunately, American warnings regarding the perils of weapons of mass destruction ring hollow in the aftermath of the Iraq war.
The Bush administration must realize that if Iran develops even one nuclear weapon, it may instigate a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Terrorist organizations throughout the world will be emboldened, and countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey will feel pressured to create their own nuclear arsenals as a means of self-defense. It is also likely that Iran may transfer such weapons to Hezbollah, Al Qaeda or Hamas and use them as proxies to attack the United States, Israel or other allies in the Middle East.
The Iranian nuclear threat has been exacerbated by recent claims that Iran has developed and tested long-range missiles that could reach beyond Israel and into southeast Europe. Bush must be resolute in addressing this burgeoning threat, but is diplomatically and militarily incapacitated by the growing crisis in Iraq.
There is also the question of whether or not the Bush administration wishes to confront this issue, as demonstrated last month when the president addressed the U.N. General Assembly and failed to so much as mention Iran. It is also conceivable that administration officials are dragging their feet due to oil interests, especially given Vice President Dick Cheney’s adamant opposition to the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act and Halliburton’s lucrative business endeavors with Iran.
The president must realize that we cannot afford to accept a nuclear Iran, given the devastating impact it will have on America’s military power and deterrence in the world. As I see it, the only way to mitigate this crisis is to lead a strong coalition in the U.N. Security Council to impose stringent economic sanctions on Iran that would preclude its ongoing trade with Europe. Bush has demonstrated, however, that he is uniquely incapable of garnering international support, especially for American-led initiatives at the U.N.
Next week’s election will be a referendum on the Bush administration’s foreign policy — and I believe the answer is abundantly clear. The president has made egregious mistakes in Iraq that will have severe repercussions on America’s stature in the international community, regardless of who takes the oath of office next year.
Unfortunately, reverberations of our failures will be felt worldwide, but most acutely in Israel, where a nuclear Iran will pose the first existential threat to Israel since the Yom Kippur War. When I went to Israel in July, Prime Minister Sharon told me that the greatest challenge facing both the United States and Israel was Iran’s belligerent development of nuclear arms. If only Bush had considered this before rushing into Iraq, our future and that of Israel may have been far more secure.