The world has the choice of deterring Tehran's pursuit of atomic weapons — with bombs, or with a big idea.

Last summer, the then chairman of the United States' Joint Chiefs of Staff laid out the world's most dangerous strategic dilemma in two simple sentences. “Iran getting a nuclear weapon,” Mike Mullen said, “would be incredibly destabilising. Attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome.”

This week, the case for western powers to choose the second awful prospect appears to have been strengthened: in a November 9 report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said that there is credible evidence that “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” The nuclear watchdog hints —though admitting no hard evidence exists to prove its case — that Iran may have conducted weapons-related research and components tests even last year.

Israeli denial

Israel's media has engaged in vocal speculation on the prospect of pre-emptive strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities. Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barack has denied the reports — but his country has initiated its largest-ever joint military manoeuvres with the U.S.

From a leaked diplomatic cable released last year, we know that Israel and the U.S. aren't the only nations backing military action against Iran. Saudi Arabia has frequently exhorted the U.S. to attack Iran's nuclear assets: in an April 2008 meeting with now Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief David Petraeus, its Ambassador to Washington DC Adel al-Jubair recalled that his King had told America “to cut off the head of the snake.”

Even if Iran is indeed pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities under the cover of a peaceful energy programme, there are several reasons why bombing it out of existence isn't either necessary or wise.

The ‘Iranian peril'

“More might be better,” wrote strategic guru Kenneth Waltz, in a controversial 1981 essay which argued that the post-1945 spread of nuclear weapons was a force for good. Dr. Waltz had argued that the fact that the great powers had not fought a war with each other in decades was a historical anomaly made possible by the appalling costs that war between nuclear-armed states entailed. In subsequent work, he marshalled evidence to show that the same factors inhibited new nuclear states like China, India and Pakistan from risking all-out war.

This nuclear-optimist proposition, so called because it posits that nuclear weapons are a force for peace, was — and still is — intensely debated. Nonetheless, the proposition underlines the need for a calm appraisal of what risks a nuclear Iran holds out to the global order.

Each new nuclear state's emergence has been greeted with cries that it posed an exceptional peril to the global security order. In the build-up to China's 1964 bomb test, many contemporaries persuaded themselves that a nuclear apocalypse was imminent. U.S. President John F. Kennedy believed that the Chinese attached little importance to life, and thus would not be susceptible to nuclear deterrence — a belief fuelled by Mao Zedong's rhetorical proclamation that even if “half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed.”

The U.S. considered pre-emptive strikes against the “Chinese Peril”— but eventually rejected this course of action as involving political and geostrategic risks that far outweighed the likely threat. In 1963, a State Department Policy Planning Committee argued that the great asymmetries between the two powers made it improbable that China would reach for its weapons except in the event of an attack upon the mainland.” Nor would China's new nuclear capabilities alter its “prudence in the use of military force”; if anything, they “could increase Chicom caution.”

The decision to do nothing, history has shown, was well founded. Like other nuclear-armed states, China's communists used their atomic weapons to deter external aggression by militarily-superior adversaries — not to invite mutual annihilation. Iran's regime is no different.

Bitter relationship

Ever since the revolution of 1979, Iran's relationship with the West has been bitter. The fallout from 9/11, though, opened a window of opportunity. Iran saw two states around it — Iraq and Afghanistan — crumble in the face of U.S. power. It suspended its secret uranium enrichment programme. Later, in 2003, Iranian leaders routed secret peace proposals through Switzerland's Ambassador to Tehran. In return for civilian atomic technology and an end to sanctions, the Iranians offered to stop supporting terrorist groups and to make their nuclear programme transparent.

But President George Bush's administration believed a bigger prize was within its grasp: regime change. Mr. Bush cast Iran as part of the “axis of evil” and spurned its overtures. Later, the U.S. became too mired in Iraq and Afghanistan to pose an existential threat to Iran — and Tehran's nuclear pursuit resumed.

For what end? Few experts believe Iran, despite the millenarian fervour of some of its leaders, intends to use nuclear weapons to obliterate its adversaries. “Iranians,” Israeli expert Avner Cohen wrote in a must-read essay, “are aware of the catastrophic consequences of such an act.” The Centre for Strategic and International Studies estimates that the Israeli nuclear arsenal, at more than 200 boosted and fusion weapons, is enough to annihilate Iran's cities.

There are real risks: for one, Iran's nuclear programme could set off a domino effect in the west of Asia. Mohamed Khilewi, a Saudi diplomat who defected to the U.S. in 1994, claimed that the Kingdom had funded Pakistan's nuclear programmes to gain access to a weapon if needed. Then, as Dr. Cohen has pointed out, “under the shadow of its bomb, Iran could become a source of political and military adventurism.” Iran, he argued, could aggressively pursue regional hegemony, hoping its nuclear weapons would shield it from retaliation.

Even though these are valid concerns, there is time for diplomacy to address them. Though the full IAEA findings have not yet been made public, its May 24, 2011 report gives us some idea of the kinds of research Iran is likely to be engaged in. Then, it said it had “received further information related to such possible undisclosed nuclear related activities.” It flagged seven specific areas of concern, for the most part related to explosives experiments associated with the fabrication of nuclear weapons.

Experts concur that the project is some years from fruition. U.S. Army General James Cartwright said in 2010 that it would take between three and five years for Iran to “actually create a detonation.” Meir Dagan, until recently Israel's spy chief, has suggested a 2015 timeline.

Building a bomb, moreover, is useless without the ability to deliver one. Scholar Bruno Tertrais has noted that Iran's missile programme has been fast-tracked by the need for a “de-facto replacement for [its] non-existent air force.” Its 20-odd missile-types give it the capability to deliver a nuclear warhead to targets up to 1,000 kilometres away — in effect, west Asia. Nonetheless, a reliable vehicle that would threaten targets in Europe or along the Mediterranean likely remains some years away. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile is “more than a decade away.”

These estimates aren't reasons to be sanguine. Dr. Tertrais has pointed out that the pursuit of nuclear weapons has an inexorable internal logic: just two countries that acquired the capabilities to make nuclear weapons didn't eventually assemble one.

But the fact is there is time. There is also a way.

A grand bargain?

For years now, the inelegantly-named P5+1 — the U.S., China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and Germany — has been seeking what is called a nuclear fuel-swap: persuading Iran to surrender its stockpile for enriched uranium, the basic building-block for a bomb, in return for access to technology and assured supplies of fissile material for its medical and energy needs. Iran, for a variety of reasons, has been loath to sign a deal on the terms the western allies in the P5+1 find acceptable.

Even a fuel-swap deal, though won't end the Iranian nuclear threat: if the terms of Iran's dysfunctional relationship with the West aren't fundamentally rewritten, a crisis will periodically erupt and inexorably push it to resume its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The diplomatic challenge, therefore, is securing a grand bargain with Tehran: a deal which would address Iran's legitimate security concerns in return for its renouncing its pursuit of weapons.

It is true, as scholar C. Christine Fair has pointed out, that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has “rarely missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Events in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, along with the emergence of political forces within Iran hostile to the clerical order, are likely to have fuelled the regime's fears of being swept aside by external military pressure.

There are enough points of convergence that exist between Iran's interests and those of the U.S. to attempt pragmatic engagement. Both states are, for example, hostile to Pakistan-backed jihadists in Afghanistan. Iran's Chabahar port could provide international forces a cost-effective and secure logistical route into Afghanistan. Iran's energy infrastructure needs western investment; the world needs its oil.

The world thus has a choice: it could deter Iran's nuclear pursuit by threatening to use bombs, or with a big idea. It takes little to see which one might lay the foundations for a stable, prosperous future.

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