The United States must continue to walk a tightrope in dealing with Iran's nuclear program, experts told the House on Wednesday: It must keep Iran from building a weapon without resorting to force if possible, but always keep the threat of force credible.
"To avoid war, Iran must believe in its heart the U.S. will strike if it builds nuclear weapons, and it doing this, it can stop Iran from even trying -- but it puts U.S. policy on a knife's edge," said David Albright, president of a think tank called the Institute for Science and International Security.
He and two other witnesses told House lawmakers that Washington has few easy options for dealing with Iran. The potential consequences of it wielding nuclear weapons might be unthinkable, but the potential consequences of attacking it might also be dire. Moreover, there's no guarantee an attack would actually end Tehran's nuclear aspirations.
"Surgical strikes, I would argue, simply would not work, at least by themselves," Albright said. "Sustained bombing could stop a 'breakout,' but that's dependent on the status and nature of Iran's program today and as we would envision it would be in the next year or so."
But the U.S. and the world might not be able to stop Iran from just restarting a nuclear program down the line, he warned -- "we can't just bomb and walk away" -- and in the meantime, it could use its influence in the Middle East to start a war and cause severe disruptions to the world's energy markets.
If there is a silver lining to the lingering standoff between Iran and the world, it's that Tehran has apparently not yet decided to attempt to build a nuclear weapon, even though it has enough fissile material to put toward building one. If Iran's leaders did decide to try to "break out" and build a weapon, it might take them a year to do so, Albright said -- and the U.S. and the world would probably catch on quickly.
So Washington must thread the needle carefully, the witnesses said -- it must keep using sanctions and other types of pressure to convince Iran not to build a weapon, but it also can't let Iran doubt whether it would be serious about attacks against its nuclear centrifuges and other installations.
"We're not advocating war," former Virginia Sen. Charles Robb told the House Armed Services Committee. "We're advocating a peaceful resolution to this crisis, but the only way you can be credible is to show you're not only talking about some of these consequences -- but you're prepared to follow through."
Robb, whose think tank the Bipartisan Policy Center has published studies on the Iran nuclear problem, recommended the U.S. send more aerial refueling tankers to the Middle East and strengthen the naval forces of the 5th Fleet. But he and his colleague, Stephen Rademaker, were caught off guard when House members asked for specifics about how much more the U.S. should strengthen its presence in the Persian Gulf.
Robb and Rademaker didn't bring a "punch list" spelling out how many more destroyers or aircraft the Navy should send, they said, which prompted skepticism from the House members. And a few of them said they worried that the ongoing threats about Iran brought back bad memories from the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
"I do not want to see a louder drumming toward war," said Georgia Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson. "Yet we hear 'diplomacy isn't working,' so we need to go back to rattling the sabers."
Isn't Iran negotiating even now on the possibility of restrictions for its nuclear program? he asked. Hasn't the world already imposed unprecedented sanctions against Iran that Pentagon leaders, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, have said are "taking a bite?"
Yes, Robb said, but the point is that Washington has a duty to be ready in case all of that doesn't work.
"We give the president full credit for what he has done for his negotiations for his diplomacy, for his increase in sanction," he said. "What we're saying is, this hasn't yet proven to be enough. While these discussions and negotiations have taken place there has been no evidence that Iran is prepared to make any kind of good faith effort to resolve this situation."
The committee's top Democrat, Washington Rep. Adam Smith, said he thought Iran could come to terms, because it is not willing to be completely shunned by the international community.
"I think they would like to be nuclear capable and they would not like to be a pariah state -- that's what makes them different from a North Korea. [It was] always a pariah state and they didn't care," Smith said. "Right now [Iran is] trying to have their cake and eat it too … what we have to make plain to them is, the cost will be, you have to be a pariah state."
The Obama administration and others hope that the "bite" of oil and other sanctions will create enough pressure inside Iran to prompt Iranians to force a change in their government and abandon their nuclear aspirations. Sanctions supporters have warned that an attack by the U.S. or Israel could ruin whatever progress has taken place toward that goal and galvanize public Iranian support for nuclear weapons.
Whatever happens, said committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon of California, Iran cannot be permitted to have nuclear weapons.
"The overall threat to the world is something we do not even want to contemplate," he said.