At the heart of the Iran crisis is the concern that nuclear weapons will end up in the hands of terrorists. For years, when experts talked of nuclear weapons, they meant mounting numbers of ever more powerful nuclear warheads strapped atop increasingly sophisticated missiles. This is the high-tech nuclear threat. It was only after 9/11 that discussion shifted to the so-called dirty bomb, the notion that Al Qaeda, or another terrorist group, could do a lot of damage with a conventional bomb encased in radioactive waste--the low-tech nuclear threat.
On the high-tech side, the good news is that progress has been made reducing the worlds stockpile of nuclear weapons. In particular, Russia has greatly reduced their store of warheads and missiles. A recent Atlantic Monthly article noted, Compared with its forces in 1990, Moscow has 55 percent fewer intercontinental ballistic missiles, 39 percent fewer strategic bombers, and 80 percent fewer ballistic-missile submarines. The bad news is that while the US has reduced its stockpile, it still has more than 5200 operational nuclear warheads. In the meantime, our delivery systems have grown increasingly sophisticated.
Because Russia is well on the road to dismantling their nuclear weapons, and the US has developed a more technically robust arsenal, the old concept of mutually assured destruction has become obsolete. This was the notion that since Russia and the US could both wipe each other out, neither would pull the nuclear trigger, since whoever struck first would very likely get clobbered in return. Todays reality is that if the US attacked Russia--or anyone, for that matter--we would probably get away with it, in the short term.
Of course, the problem with the idea of a pre-emptive strike on Iran is that there would be dreadful side-affects. A US attack on Iran would fuel terrorism in three ways. The first is that it would become a lasting monument to Jihad. If America has not already fanned the fires of religious extremism in the Middle East, a bombing run on Iran, or any Muslim country would certainly do that. It would guarantee an infinite supply of candidates for suicide missions. US citizens and firms would no longer be safe anywhere in the Middle East.
The second problem is that an attack on Iran, particularly if the Israelis were involved, would further fuel hatred of Israel; probably end forever the hope that Israel can coexist with its Muslim neighbors.
The chilling reality is that there is a lot of loose nuclear material in the world. Its primarily in the former Soviet Union, but theres an unsettling amount in Pakistan. If the US leveled Iran, our action would backfire, accelerate the flow of nuclear material into the hands of baddies. The US would look like a winner immediately after the attack, but not for long.
In 2002, the Bush Administration used the supposed threat of Iraqi WMDs to beat the drums for war, and to provide Republicans with the decisive issue for the mid-term elections. The White House exaggerated the danger to the US, blew off diplomatic initiatives, and launched an ill-considered invasion. Now they plan to reprise their strategy.
The key question is whether the public has wised up. Whether they have learned from Iraq. Whether they remember the old adage, Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." Will Americans wake up and prevent an attack on Iran, which would destroy any chance of lasting national security?