It's been said that a diplomat is a gentleman paid to go abroad and lie for his country. Sometimes, however, diplomats slip up and tell the truth. In response to a question at the hopefully named Aspen Ideas Festival this month, Yousef al-Otaiba, the ambassador from the United Arab Emirates, said bluntly: "We cannot live with a nuclear Iran."
Al-Otaiba went on to add that, if sanctions fail to stop Iran's drive for nuclear weapons, military force will be the only option left and it should not be ruled out. "A military attack on Iran by whomever would be a disaster," he said. "But Iran with a nuclear weapon would be a bigger disaster."
Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, director-general of Al-Arabiya TV, followed with an article for the English-language edition of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, in which he not only agreed with the ambassador, he declared the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran "the most dangerous threat that is facing our region in a hundred years." He called upon readers to "imagine what Tehran will do when it has nuclear capabilities!"
Al-Rashed then did a little imagining himself: Iran, he said, would soon "dominate . . . and perhaps take over" the Gulf states, the small, wealthy Arab countries so tantalizingly close to its borders.
Such an anschluss would not require tanks or troop deployments. As Ambassador al-Otaiba said at Aspen, the region's leaders will "start running for cover towards Iran" once it becomes clear that Washington, having said under both the Bush and Obama administrations that it would be "unacceptable" for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, has accepted that after all.
One can only imagine that other nations will draw the conclusion that being America's enemy is less risky than being America's friend. The implications for Iraq — where the U.S. has invested so much blood and treasure — are obvious. Imagine you are an Iraqi leader. American troops have departed and the mullahs next door are stockpiling nukes and commanding death squads. What would you do?
In Pakistan, Islamists will advance, while democrats will retreat. That will further complicate matters in Afghanistan, where Iranian interventions (e.g. the supplying of roadside bombs to insurgents) will escalate in an effort to frustrate an already challenging American mission. If America does not respond, Iran wins the battle of Afghanistan. If America does respond — well, since neither the Bush nor the Obama administration responded to Iran's interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past, there is no basis to imagine a policy change once Iran's rulers have their fingers on nuclear triggers.
Turkey's Islamist government already has moved closer to Iran. Syria has long been an Iranian client. Hezbollah, Iran's terrorist proxy, will be strengthened within Lebanon, within Latin America (where it has been making substantial inroads in recent years), and, of course, along the Israeli-Lebanese border.
In that regard: Four years ago this month, Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war. It ended with U.N. Resolution 1701, which called for Hezbollah's disarmament, prohibited Hezbollah from acquiring new missiles, and banned the group from operating near the Israeli border. International troops were dispatched to make sure all this happened. It didn't. Hezbollah has not been disarmed, thousands of new missiles have been imported, and Hezbollah forces go where they like. One has to imagine this is instructive to those who lead vulnerable nations.
Hamas, too, is funded by Iran. Hamas's leaders have never entertained the possibility of making peace with Israel. With a nuclear Iran supporting them, their bellicosity will increase. By contrast, the Palestinian Authority will become weaker than ever. A Hamas takeover of the West Bank is within the realm of possibility.
Israel will come under further pressure from both Hamas and Hezbollah, and perhaps Fatah as well. Military responses to terrorism and missile strikes will be denounced by Iran. The U.N. will agree. The Europeans will not disagree. The possibility of a direct conflict between Israel and Iran will rise. Could that escalate into a nuclear exchange? As Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis has noted: For those who hold the fanatical religious convictions of a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, "mutually assured destruction" is not a deterrent — it is an inducement.
Is there a chance that Iran will give nuclear weapons to anti-American terrorists — or attack the Great Satan directly? That is hard to imagine — almost as hard as it was a few years ago to imagine that a stateless terrorist group based in southern Afghanistan would organize the hijacking of passenger jets and use them as missiles to attack Washington and New York.
Jim Woolsey, who served as CIA director under President Clinton, and Rebeccah Heinrichs, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, recently noted: "Iranian military writings show the mullahs recognize the potential" of launching a nuclear-armed missile from a ship near one of our coasts to create an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would destroy "the electric grid and electrical systems across a wide swath of U.S. territory." The result: "unimaginable economic devastation" and tens of thousands of deaths.
At present, we are not building the missile-defense architecture that could prevent such an attack. Nor are we hardening the grid so that it could withstand such an attack. We are choosing to remain vulnerable.
Congress has passed, and President Obama has signed, legislation that would impose crippling sanctions on Iran. The questions now: Will Obama seriously enforce these sanctions? And will the Europeans help or hinder? If sanctions fail, there will be no good choices — only bad choices and worse choices. To figure out which is which will require imagination — more than most Western leaders have demonstrated in recent years.