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The question we are forgetting to ask: How will we handle this once Iran is nuclear?

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP
In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, center, visits an exhibition of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace achievements as he is accompanied by the armed forces commanders, in Iran, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Americans are debating whether President Biden’s retaliatory strikes against Iranian proxies for killing three U.S. service personnel will deter Iran. But they are asking the wrong question.

The current dispute centers on the best tactical approach to deter the theocratic regime and its Revolutionary Guards. The Biden camp believes that a significant strike in Iran is not worth the risk of entangling America in a full-scale war. The alternative and counterintuitive choice for the administration would be to attack the Islamic Republic directly and reinstate the full force of sanctions to deter the source of most of the mischief currently underway in the Middle East. 

As a Wall Street Journal editorial put it, “The real test will be whether these strikes and covert U.S. actions, such as cyber-attacks, will deter Iran. The rulers in Tehran are the terror masters behind these militias, and so far, they have paid no price for helping to kill Americans.” 

But this argument, while very important in the short term, is merely a tactical decision. It ignores the longer-term American strategic policy toward Iran and America’s ability to influence the Middle East. 

To make the point, imagine how this situation would be different if Iran had already successfully tested a nuclear device. At that point, there would be a couple of strategic questions: How we would respond, knowing Iran possesses nuclear weapons; how a nuclear Iran limits our options and undermines our interests and allies; and how our allies around the world would perceive us if we allowed Iran to go on and become a nuclear power?

Those questions aren’t in the news now, with everyone so distracted by Israel’s wars with Hamas and Hezbollah, even as Iran accelerates its nuclear program. As Ben Caspit wrote in Al-Monitor nearly a year ago, Gen. Mark Milley told Congress that Iran could make enough fissile material for four or five nuclear bombs in “less than two weeks.” But the part of his testimony that truly stunned Israel’s defense establishment was Milley’s claim that once Iran produces sufficient military-grade uranium, it could put together a nuclear weapon within “several more months.” 

International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi said in December that inspectors “confirmed…an increased production of highly enriched uranium at both of Iran’s main nuclear facilities.”   

Before Oct. 7, America’s primary concern in the Middle East was the Iranian nuclear program. Today, we focus on finding the right tactical strategy to deter Iran’s proxies without dragging the U.S. into another regional war. What we are failing to see is that taking our eyes off the rapidly developing Iranian nuclear program is just what Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has planned. Just knowing Iran can have a bomb at any time of its choosing changes America’s options. 

Revolutionary Iran’s goals are and always have been to chase America out of the Middle East, annihilate Israel, and dominate its Sunni neighbors. Nuclear weapons are a game changer in that respect, and they will be here much sooner than you think. American politicians rarely plan for the future, preferring to kick the can down the road to avoid dealing with consequential decisions that could draw us into another politically damaging “endless war.”

But what if the proverbial can has reached the end of the road? What if Iran has passed the threshold where diplomacy can address the situation? Obama’s and Biden’s desire for a temporary pause in their nuclear development and Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal without a Plan B have not served America’s interests. As Al Jazeera has reported, “a confidential IAEA report released last month indicated that Iran’s estimated stockpile of enriched uranium had reached more than 22 times the limit set out in a 2015 accord between Tehran and world powers.” 

We know Iran can produce enough enriched uranium for multiple nuclear weapons in a few weeks and the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the region with its vast ballistic missile arsenal. The only thing they are believed to be lacking is the final step for weaponization, converting the enriched uranium gas into a metal that can be compartmentalized into spherical metal objects placed on the warhead. And that can be done in a minimal workspace.

So now the question is, can America live with a nuclear Iran without being dominated by Iran’s proxy network?

Iran is not a rational state actor in the Western sense, but its behavior is logical if you put yourself in the mindset of the hegemonic Shiite Islamist power. American foreign policy experts forget that Iran’s Achilles heel is its need to survive indefinitely at all costs. The lack of sanctions enforcement, with America too timid to attack Iranian nuclear, military, or economic assets, makes the U.S. seem like a paper tiger to the Supreme Leader, who is more than willing to fight to the last drop of blood of his Arab proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. 

The Iranian populace is 45 percent non-Persian, and many of the 55 percent Persian majority would love to be free from the authoritarian regime. Yet we have taken regime change through the Iranian people off the table, even though it is our best strategic as well as moral foreign policy card. 

So, while we debate whether strikes against Iranian proxies are enough dissuade the mullahs from supporting their proxy network, we should pause and re-frame the question. In a short time, how will we deal with an Iran that is on the cusp of a nuclear arsenal that rivaling that of North Korea? 

Diplomacy only works with a credible military threat. If you believe in diplomacy as the path to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, then a limited military campaign targeting Iranian assets in Iran may now be the only choice.

Eric R. Mandel is the Middle East Political Information Network director and senior security editor of the Jerusalem Report. 

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