Too early to call it a day
The most dangerous scenario is not that of escalation, due to Iran's reaction to a more determined international stance. The most dangerous scenario is of Iran becoming a nuclear state.
Following the release last month of the watershed IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program, the level of certainty about that country's military ambitions has gone up several notches. For many observers there is no longer a question of where Iran is headed within the nuclear realm.
Oddly enough, at official levels, the report has only deepened the rift between the United States and its European allies, on the one hand, and the traditional holdouts, Russia and China, on the other. While the former are determined to further isolate Iran with harsher sanctions, Russia and China continue to lead the camp of the unconvinced. They have criticized the IAEA report for parroting U.S. and Israeli intelligence, and both states now refuse to join further measures against Iran, arguing that the sanctions track has been exhausted and proven ineffective.
A troubling shift is occurring at unofficial levels as well - in the media and in public debate. Recent weeks have seen the emergence of new themes in the discussion about Iran's move to acquire nuclear weapons. On the one side are those that now accept that Tehran has military intentions, but question whether the regime has actually decided to produce nuclear weapons. They emphasize the importance of this distinction, which underscores the fact that there is still no clear reason to move to more drastic measures, such as military force, and still time to change Iran's mind or at least keep it one step away from acquiring the bomb.
A parallel emerging theme is that the pressure on Iran must be reduced, based on the logic that if the country is pushed too hard, it may lash out and dangerously escalate the situation - an outcome some stress must be avoided at all costs.
Other commentators have gone to the opposite extreme. Some are suddenly proclaiming that it's time to wake up to reality, which is that Iran is going to get the bomb whether we like it or not. They point out that while the international community continues to repeat the mantra that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, in reality it has no means to stop this determined proliferator. As such, these columnists argue that it is time to start getting used to the idea that a new member will be added to the nuclear club.
In fact, both strands of this emerging debate are getting it wrong. Moreover, their lack of consensus over whether Iran necessarily intends to produce nuclear weapons is masking a disturbing common denominator in their positions. According to both lines of argument, the idea that Iran can or will achieve a military nuclear capability, with no real fear of consequences, is not subject to any real challenge. Indeed, the potential escalatory consequences of standing up to Iran with determination are increasingly being framed as the primary danger in the overall dynamic of Iran's progress toward a military capability in the nuclear realm - seemingly more of a threat than that progress itself. Both lines of argument, from different directions, are thereby rhetorically easing Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons.
A more accurate reading of the situation is: Yes, Iran is moving toward a military capability in the nuclear realm; and no, we don't know if it has decided to actually produce nuclear weapons. But the fact that Iran may not have made a decision whether to go all the way to weapons or rather to remain at some threshold close to that point, is no cause for comfort. While the international community has so far proven powerless to stop Iran and it is indeed very late in the game, it is also too early to concede that "Iran will no doubt become a nuclear state."
And most important, massive pressure on Iran - including credible threats of military action - is the only way to impress upon it that serious negotiation is preferable to moving unilaterally toward its goal.
Whether as a first stage to a more serious negotiation, or for purposes of general deterrence, Iran must be convinced that there are states in the international community that are willing to act on their convictions; states that understand that Iran is not just "another state going nuclear," but rather a dangerous revisionist regime that seeks to alter the face of the Middle East.
It is imperative that the international community communicate a message of international determination to Tehran. Even if it ultimately proves incapable at this late stage of reversing the program, Iran must understand that the international community does intend to fight back, and punish Iran severely for years of cheating and of deceiving and lying to the international community about its intentions.
The most dangerous scenario is not that of escalation, due to Iran's reaction to a more determined international stance. The most dangerous scenario is of Iran becoming a nuclear state. This menacing regime will then become virtually invulnerable to any kind of coercive pressure - not to mention military attack - in response to the large-scale trouble it will invariably stir up in the Middle East and beyond.
It's not time to give up. Communicating a message to Iran that it can no longer be stopped, and moreover, that the international community is loath to upset it, is a huge mistake. Tehran needs to understand that when the U.S. president says he is "determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons," as U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon reiterated just over a month ago - he really means it.
Emily B. Landau is director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS ), at Tel Aviv University.