The top line at Davos this year is euphoria about the performance of global economies and financial markets and confidence that 2007 will bring more of the same. Beneath the surface optimism, however, a deeper unease has emerged repeatedly about Iran--and specifically about Iran's nuclear bomb.
However the war in Iraq ends, it is clear who the biggest winner will be: Iran. While certainly not its desire or design, the objective consequence of the US military campaign that toppled the Taliban was to eliminate Iran's major threat from the East: the result of America's toppling Saddam to eliminate Iran's major threat from the West. Since these developments occurred as byproducts of other ambitions, and without consultation with Iran, they have failed to engender gratitude or extract compensation. Nonetheless, Iran has emerged as the dominant state in the region with a sense that history is on its side.
The US intelligence community continues forecasting that Iran is 5 years away from a bomb; Israeli intelligence continues to say 6 months. Neither intelligence estimate has changed in the past 3 years. However far it remains from this finish line, there is no doubt that it is now 6 years further down this road than it was when George Bush became President in 2001 (minus the 18 month suspension when Iran was negotiating with the EU 3). Estimates about Iran's nuclear status remain uncertain because of acknowledged "known unknowns." While intelligence can attempt to estimate when the overt uranium enrichment activity at Isfan and Nantanz can produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb, the troubling uncertainty surrounds what is occurring at convert, undiscovered facilities. My own best judgment is that Russian estimates that Iran stands about 2 years away from the goal are closest to the mark.
It is likely therefore that before he leaves office, President Bush will face a fateful decision between acquiescing in Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, on the one hand, and attacking known nuclear facilities, on the other. The more one analyzes either of these options, the less acceptable it appears. My advice to the administration has been to take a page out of John F. Kennedy's experience in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In that eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between Kennedy and Khrushchev, on the final Saturday of the crisis, President Kennedy's advisors could devise only 2 options. Either the US attacked Soviet missiles in Cuba or the Soviet Union would succeed in establishing a base with nuclear-tipped missiles 90 miles off US shore in Cuba. At the final hour, Kennedy rejected both options and instead invented a middle way of his own: a public demand that missiles be withdrawn; a private ultimatum (threatening attach within 48 hours unless Khrushchev announced withdrawal); and a secret sweetener (a private pledge to withdraw US missiles in Turkey within 6 months of successful resolution of the crisis). The terms of that bargain would have been rejected by Kennedy himself at the beginning of the crisis. But when he finally faced the reality of an attack that carried with it substantial risks of war, even nuclear war, on the one hand, and acceptance of Khrushchev's reckless adventure that would have embolden him to even more recklessness over Berlin, Kennedy found a better way.
If Iran is to be prevented from building nuclear bombs without war, the US must now explore negotiating options that are unpalatable but nonetheless better than the options a President will face at the end of the road he is now on.