Will Iran's Nuclear Missile Test Trigger War?

In "The Guns of August," her much-quoted history of the start of World War I, Barbara Tuchman wrote that European leaders were "appalled upon the brink" by their own martial posturing and "attempted to back away" from the devastating conflict that was about to start. But at the eleventh hour "the pull of military schedules dragged them forward." A tipping point had been reached in which war had gained its own grim momentum. Cooler heads could no longer prevail. John F. Kennedy, drawing on his own searing experience during the Cuban missile crisis, several times referred to the influence of "The Guns of August" in private. In his famous speech in the spring of 1963 calling for a comprehensive test-ban treaty, JFK pressed for a more energetic diplomacy of peace in order to prevent heads of state from reaching such tipping points toward war.

But we seem to keep arriving at them anyway. The news of Iran's test Wednesday and the seemingly unstoppable nature of its nuclear program made me wonder whether we are close to another such tipping point. And whether it's too late to turn back. Tehran's test-firing of nine long- and medium-range missiles was intended to "demonstrate our resolve and might against enemies who in recent weeks have threatened Iran with harsh language," said Gen. Hossein Salami, the Air Force commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, on state TV. That was a reference to recent reports that Israel has been war-gaming an attack on Iran. "Our hands are always on the trigger and our missiles are ready for launch," Salami added. Coupled with recent Israeli signals--including former defense minister Shaul Mofaz's statement last month that Israel would have "no choice" but to attack Iran if it doesn't halt its nuclear program--the standoff has grown notably more warlike in recent months.

In testimony on Capitol Hill today, new Under Secretary of State William Burns sought to tamp down the crisis talk. While Iran is trying to foster the perception that its nuclear program is advancing, he said, its "real progress has been more modest." Iran has not yet perfected enrichment and U.N. sanctions have made getting missile technology far more difficult, he said. Burns reiterated the Bush administration's long-held view that there is time to avert an Iranian bomb through diplomatic and economic coercion. Similarly, Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency--who has been desperately trying to avert a military tipping point on Iran for years--continues to say that "from a technical proliferation view, Iran is not a clear and present danger, even to Israel," an IAEA spokesman said Wednesday. Even Israel's government spokesman, Mark Regev, said after the test that Israel "does not desire hostility and conflict with Iran."

But given the momentum of events, this is all starting to sound like whistling past the graveyard. Israelis, to whom Iran's nuclear program represents a threat to their existence, are coming to believe that the time for patient diplomacy is running out. According to David Albright, one of the most-heeded technical authorities on Iran's program, the Iranians are producing 1.2 kilograms of enriched uranium a day on average, which would give them enough for a bomb by late 2009. (In more technical terms, that means they would have enough low-enriched uranium--about 700 kilograms--to enrich up to the 20 to 25 kilograms of weapons-grade needed for a crude fission bomb by then.) Both the Israelis and the Bush administration have said that an Iranian nuclear weapon--Tehran still says it has no intention of developing one--is unacceptable. But there appears to be increasing daylight between Washington, which is eager to avoid military action, and Jerusalem, which is reluctantly coming to the conclusion that there may be no choice.

And that's because, frankly, nothing else seems to be working. The IAEA's talks on clarifying Iran's nuclear plans are going nowhere. According to one senior IAEA official, after a year of negotiations Tehran has remained relentlessly murky on key details--including what the IAEA's May 26 report called "administrative interconnections" between Iran's nuclear program and its alleged attempts to modify to Shahab-3 missile to carry a nuclear payload. "That's what we're stuck with," the official said. Similarly, the chief European negotiator, Javier Solana, is disappointed by the Iranians' impenetrable response to his latest offer, which includes a "freeze for freeze" proposal (the West will halt sanctions where they are if Tehran does not enrich any more than it is doing). The letter from Tehran, received last Friday, is filled with "Iranian-style rhetoric" that makes only indirect references to a freeze, according to a Solana aide, possibly to simply prolong talks. Solana plans to meet his counterpart, Saeed Jalili, by the end of next week, the aide said, "but the test is not going to influence the meeting positively."

And there is not much relief in sight on the Iranian front. With oil prices sky high--and spiraling higher every time there's an Iran-related crisis--Iran's ultra-hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been subsidizing his own popularity; he has managed to keep much of the country on his side. Iran analysts say it seems increasingly likely that Ahmadinejad will win re-election in 2009 (or, more accurately, will be anointed by Supreme Leader Khamenei).

So the bleak bottom line is this: barring a loss of nerve or political will by Israel--in other words, if the U.S. ally lets slide its long-established "red line" against permitting any nuclear rival to arise in the Mideast--things seem headed toward a war. It could happen as early as the fall, after the U.S. presidential election. In fact, right now there may be only one way left to stop hostilities: a direct diplomatic overture from Washington to Tehran. Iran has long made clear it wants what any sensible government wants: to negotiate with the power that has the ability to threaten it (the United States), as opposed to dickering with proxy powers that don't (the Europeans). It's time to stop playing around with pretend diplomacy. Just as JFK once did, the president must act decisively, approach Tehran on its own and put everything on the table. Otherwise we may be facing the Guns of November.