[NY Sun headline: "U.N. Indecision on Iran Leaves Bush With Tough Choices"]
As the Iranian government announced last week a doubling of its uranium enrichment program, the United Nations Security Council bickered over a feeble European draft resolution. It would do no more than prohibit Iranian students from studying nuclear physics abroad, deny visas for Iranians working in the nuclear area, and end foreign assistance for Iran's nuclear program, oh, except from Russia.
Where, one wonders, will the desultory, perpetual efforts to avert a crisis with Iran end? With a dramatic calling of the vote at the Security Council in New York? Around-the-clock negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna? A special envoy from the European Union hammering out a compromise in Tehran?
None of the above, I predict, for all these scenarios presume that Tehran will ultimately forego its dream of nuclear weaponry. Recent evidence suggests otherwise:
Hostile statements provoking the West. Perhaps the most notable of these was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's warning to Europe not to support Israel: "We have advised the Europeans that … the [Muslim] nations are like an ocean that is welling up, and if a storm begins, the dimensions will not stay limited to Palestine, and you may get hurt." Yet more outrageously, the chief of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, threatened the United States that it stands "on the threshold of annihilation."
A mood of messianism in the upper reaches of the government. In addition to the general enthusiasm for mahdaviat (belief in and efforts to prepare for the mahdi, a figure to appear in the End of Days), reliable sources report that Ahmadinejad believes he is in direct contact with the Hidden Imam, another key figure of Shi'ite eschatology.
The urgent nuclear program. Bolstered by the economic windfall from oil and gas sales, the regime since mid-2005 has at almost every turn adopted the most aggressive steps to join the nuclear club, notably by beginning nuclear enrichment in February.
A focused, defiant, and determined Tehran contrasts with the muddled, feckless Russians, Arabs, Europeans, and Americans. A half year ago, a concerted external effort could still have prompted effective pressure from within Iranian society to halt the nuclear program, but that possibility now appears defunct. As the powers have mumbled, shuffled, and procrastinated, Iranians see their leadership effectively permitted to barrel ahead.
Nonetheless, new ideas keep being floated to finesse war with Iran. Los Angeles Times columnist Max Boot, for example, dismisses an American invasion of Iran as "out of the question" and proffers three alternatives: threatening an economic embargo, rewarding Tehran for suspending its nuclear program, or helping Iranian anti-regime militias invade the country.
Admittedly, these no-war, no-nukes scenarios are creative. But they no longer offer have a prospect of success, for the situation has become crude and binary: either the U.S. government deploys force to prevent Tehran from acquiring nukes, or Tehran acquires them.
This key decision – war or acquiescence – will take place in Washington, not in New York, Vienna, or Tehran. (Or Tel Aviv.) The critical moment will arrive when the president of the United States confronts the choice whether or not to permit the Islamic Republic of Iran to acquire the Bomb. The timetable of the Iranian nuclear program being murky, that might be either George W. Bush or his successor.
It will be a remarkable moment. The United States glories in the full flower of public opinion with regard to taxes, schools, and property zoning. Activists organize voluntary associations, citizens turn up at town hall meetings, associations lobby elected representatives.
But when it comes to the fateful decision of going to war, the American apparatus of participation fades away, leaving the president on his own to make this difficult call, driven by his temperament, inspired by his vision, surrounded only by a close circle of advisors, insulated from the vicissitudes of politics. His decision will be so intensely personal, which way he will go depends mostly on his character and psychology.
Should he allow a malevolently mystical leadership to build a doomsday weapon that it might well deploy? Or should he take out Iran's nuclear infrastructure, despite the resulting economic, military, and diplomatic costs.
Until the U.S. president decides, everything amounts to a mere re-arranging of deck chairs on the Titanic, acts of futility and of little relevance.