America and its allies, empowered by the United Nations and the Arab League, are interceding militarily in Libya. But would that action have been delayed or even precluded if Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had access to nuclear weapons? No doubt Gadhafi is asking himself that same question.
Gadhafi unilaterally forfeited his nuclear weapons program by 2004, turning over uranium-enriching centrifuges and warhead designs. A dictator like him—capable of ordering the murders of 259 civilians aboard Pan Am Flight 103 and countless others in many countries including his own—would not easily concede the ultimate weapon. Gadhafi did so because he believed he was less secure with the bomb than he would be after relinquishing it. He feared that the U.S., which had recently invaded Iraq, would deal with him much as it had Saddam Hussein.
A similar fear, many intelligence experts in the U.S. and elsewhere believe, impelled the Iranian regime to suspend its own nuclear weapons program in 2003. According to these analysts, the program resumed only when the threat of military intervention receded. It continues to make steady progress today.
The Iranian regime is the pre- eminent sponsor of terror in the world, a danger to pro-Western states, and the enemy of its own people who strive for democracy. It poses all of these hazards without nuclear weapons. Imagine the catastrophes it could inflict with them.
The efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons have been obscured by the dramatic images emanating from the region, but the upheaval makes that campaign all the more critical. While cynically shooting its own dissidents, the Iranian regime is calling for the overthrow of other Middle Eastern governments and exploiting the disorder to extend its influence.
In Lebanon, Iran has installed a puppet government and gained a strategic foothold on the eastern Mediterranean—an achievement of historic gravity. Triumphantly, Iranian warships for the first time passed through the Suez Canal and maneuvered off the Syrian coast. Iran has also stepped up arms supplies to Hezbollah and Hamas, as revealed by Israel's recent interception of the freighter Victoria laden with Iranian missiles. And last week Iran welcomed—or perhaps instigated—the firing of some 100 rockets and mortar shells into Israel from Gaza.
All the while, Iran has remained the target of international sanctions designed to dissuade it from pursuing military nuclear capabilities. These strictures have affected Iran's economy, but they have yet to significantly slow the country's nuclear program or dampen its leaders' appetite for atomic weapons. In spite of some technical difficulties, according to International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano, Iran is enriching uranium "steadily, constantly."
America's policy, like Israel's, is that "all options are on the table." We know that only a credible threat of military intervention can convince nondemocratic regimes to abandon their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Sanctions alone are unlikely to prove effective unless backed by measures capable of convincing the Iranian regime that the military option is real. It is the very threat of such force that reduces the danger that it will ever have to be used.
The critical question then becomes: Does anybody in Tehran believe that all options are truly on the table today? Based on Iran's brazen pronouncements, the answer appears to be no. And while the allied intercession in Libya may send a message of determination to Iran, it might also stoke the Iranian regime's desire to become a nuclear power and so avoid Gadhafi's fate. For that reason it is especially vital now to substantiate the "all options" policy.
Now is the moment to dissuade the Iranian regime from obtaining a nuclear weapon that might deter any Libya-like intervention or provide the ayatollahs with a doomsday option. If Gadhafi had not surrendered his centrifuges in 2004 and he were now surrounded in his bunker with nothing left but a button, would he push it?