Answering Iran

NEW YORK – We know quite a bit about Iran’s nuclear program, and what we know is not encouraging. Iran is reported to be enriching uranium at two sites – some of it to levels of 20%, far beyond what is required for civilian purposes. The International Atomic Energy Agency also reports that Iran is carrying out research to develop designs for nuclear warheads. In short, Iranian officials’ claims that their nuclear program is aimed solely at power generation or medical research lacks all plausibility.

Yet there is still much that the world does not know. For example, we do not know whether Iran is conducting secret activities at undisclosed sites, or when Iran could develop a crude nuclear weapon, with estimates ranging from several months to several years. We also do not know whether Iran’s divided leadership has decided to develop nuclear weapons, or to stop just short, calculating that the country could derive many of the benefits of possessing nuclear weapons without running the risks or incurring the costs of actually doing so.

Either way, Iran’s activities confront the world with difficult choices. None is costless or risk-free. Moreover, neither the costs nor the risks are possible to calculate with precision.

One option would be to accept and live with a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran. This assumes that Iran could be deterred from using its weapons, much as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. Missile defenses could be expanded; the United States could extend security guarantees so that Iran would understand that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be met with a decisive American response.