Iran’s uranium enrichment program has drawn much criticism, and there has been talk in both Israel and the United States of possible attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities. The drift toward a military solution seems to be gathering an alarming momentum, with little public discussion of alternative approaches in the mainstream US media. There would likely be very heavy costs associated with carrying out such attacks.
Iranian leaders have a variety of instruments available for retaliation, and there is little reason to think that these would not be used. It is highly probable that Israel would be attacked in response by Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which have the capabilities to inflict serious damage. Even more damage could be done by Iran itself, which is developing long-range delivery capacities by way of advanced missile technology and a type of bomb-carrying drone aircraft.
There exists also the Iranian option to block passage through the Strait of Hormuz through which two-thirds of the world’s imported oil travels, undoubtedly producing supply shortages, a spike in prices, long gas lines in countries around the world, and global economic chaos. Beyond this, there are a variety of unresolved conflicts in the region that could be easily inflamed by Iranian interventions, most obviously Iraq.
Attacks against Iran, as a non-defensive recourse to force, would violate international law and the UN Charter. Force is only lawful in international conflict situations if used as self-defense in response to a prior armed attack. The core Charter commitment in Article 2(4) prohibits threats as well as uses of force. By that standard, both Israel and the United States, by their threats alone, may already be viewed as law-breakers. The actual use of force would leave no doubt.
A far better option than attacking Iran would be attempting to negotiate a Middle East Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone. There is widespread support for this initiative among the governments in the region and the world. It was a priority goal agreed to by consensus at the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. But there is one large catch that has so far been a decisive inhibitor: Israel is unalterably opposed, as the establishment of the zone would require Israel to dismantle its own nuclear weapons arsenal.
Obviously, the idea of a Middle East Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone has little regional appeal if it does not include Israel. Israel’s insistence on retaining nuclear weapons while being ready to wage a war, with menacing repercussions, to prevent Iran from acquiring such weaponry is expressive of the deeply troubling double standards that are an overall feature of the nonproliferation regime.
A Middle East Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone would immediately improve overall regional stability and, as well, take account of the prospect of many Arab countries poised to embark on nuclear energy programs of their own. Indeed, without such a zone, there is a substantial possibility of a regional nuclear arms race that would tempt countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Iran, to have the supposed deterrent benefits of a nuclear arsenal.
A Middle East Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone that includes all the countries of the region is an issue that demands U.S. leadership. Only the United States has the leverage and stature to bring the diverse cast of regional actors to the negotiating table to make the needed effort to avert war. There can be no advance assurances that such a diplomatic initiative would succeed, but to fail to try would be lamentable.
Richard Falk is the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories and chair of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.