Before it’s too late: Stopping a nuclear Iran should be Bush’s top priority

Iran represents the clearest example of the nightmare that President Bush vows to prevent: an outlaw nation that could give nuclear weapons to terrorists with whom it works.

But instead of leading, Mr. Bush is laying back, commenting little while maintaining the fiction that perhaps our European allies will negotiate a verifiable non-nuclear deal with Iran. The longer he waits, the harder it will be to block Tehran’s ambitions.

Mr. Bush should lay the groundwork for action by educating Americans about the dangers of a nuclear Iran. The president would not have an easy time making his case, especially after arguing that Iraq presented an immediate danger due to weapons of mass destruction. But Iran is simply too big a problem to ignore, regardless of how big the sales job would be.

Simply put, America can’t tolerate a nuclear Iran.

“The world’s most active sponsor of terrorism,” as the State Department puts it, Iran has been at war with the United States for at least a quarter-century. It funds Hezbollah, which worked with the Palestine Liberation Organization to blow up the Marine barracks in Tehran in 1983, killing 241 Americans. It was behind the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans. And it is funding efforts to destabilize post-Taliban Afghanistan and post-Hussein Iraq.

Moreover, Iran threatens to do worse. Its leaders talk of “annihilating” the United States, and they vow to obliterate Israel, our key Middle East ally, through a nuclear attack. The United States has deported Iranian officials from the United Nations for suspiciously photographing potential terrorist targets in New York City.

The clock is ticking. Iran was on track to develop a nuclear bomb as early as this year, according to intelligence reports (though the limited inspections it has allowed may have slowed it down a bit). The time we have to knock Iran’s program off course is quickly dwindling.

But as the danger mounts, a president with a proud bent toward unilateralism, and whose national security strategy calls for pre-empting threats through military force, is banking on Britain, France and Germany to bail him out. The prospects for success are laughably low.

Iran deceived the world for nearly 20 years with its secret nuclear program. Our three European allies cut a deal with Iran to halt its nuclear program in late 2003, but the Iranians violated it by continuing to enrich uranium. While Iran is again “negotiating” with the Europeans, it has made clear that it won’t give up its nuclear program permanently.

To be sure, Mr. Bush would face big hurdles in educating Americans about the need for military action and in launching a successful military strike. Iraq has left Americans wary of intelligence reports about nuclear weapons and weary of war deaths. Our military is overstretched because of Iraq, our capacity to destroy all of Iran’s far-flung nuclear sites at once is problematic, and our efforts to do so could dampen pro-U.S. sentiment among Iranian students and dissidents.

A Bush public relations effort of this sort also would threaten the rest of his agenda. It would highlight fissures within the Republican Party between neoconservatives and isolationists, driving isolationists away from him. That would threaten his ability to find the votes in Congress to overhaul Social Security, reform the tax code and revamp our legal system.

But Mr. Bush has made the war on terrorism his highest priority. “My most solemn duty is to lead our nation to protect our citizens,” he said in a television spot during his 2004 campaign. “We must do everything in our power to bring an enemy to justice before they hurt us again.”

So his test of leadership is not whether he spends the “political capital” from the last election on Social Security and other issues on which he campaigned, as he has vowed to do. It’s whether he educates the American people about a true crisis that received precious little debate in 2004, and takes appropriate action before it’s too late.

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