The choice facing the world is chillingly, hauntingly clear: destroy Iran's growing nuclear capabilities and overthrow its manic regime, or wake up one morning to a second, far more deadly 9/11, in which a North American city is reduced to rubble by an Iranian atomic bomb.
So goes the stark argument, and the clear warning, issued by advocates of a military attack on Iran.
"If Iran gets nuclear warheads, we will surely awaken to a morning much like Sept. 11, 2001, when it will have been cities, rather than merely buildings, that have been immolated," says David Harris, a former agent with CSIS, Canada's spy agency, who is now an Ottawa-based senior fellow with the Canadian Coalition for Democracies, a national security lobby group.
"I don't know how far they are from that ability," says Mr. Harris. "It could be decades, or it could be months."
However much time is left, Mr. Harris and other experts insist that far too much time has already passed.
They say the West should have struck with military force 15 years ago, when Iran's fledgling nuclear facilities were few in number and clearly identifiable.
"In those days, we had identifiable and reducible targets in terms of reactors and facilities," Mr. Harris says. "Now we've seen an expansion in the nuclear infrastructure that confronts us with a plethora of sites."
He also says many nuclear facilities and materials have now been moved into underground bunkers to avoid attack from the air.
After more than a decade of diplomatic shilly-shallying and political excuses, the distasteful necessity of outright war against Iran now bears a striking historical resemblance to another geopolitical box the West was ultimately forced to fight its way out of in 1939.
"At the end of the day, Hitler pushed the West so far it realized it had no choice but to fight, but it avoided doing so as long as it could, and tried to rationalize its avoidance by thinking that negotiations would make everything OK," says David Bercuson, director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.
"The trouble is, Hitler's formula was not negotiable. And I think we're at that same point with Iran."
Mr. Harris, Mr. Bercuson and a growing posse of foreign policy thinkers in the U.S. and Canada say if military action is not taken, it's no longer a matter of if, but when Iran acquires nuclear weapons, and not if but how it will choose to use them.
Consider their case for war:
- Iran is the world's most dangerous country, its fundamentalist oil-rich, Islamic regime a far more potent threat than the North Koreans today, or the Taliban when they held power in Afghanistan.
"The West in general did nothing about the Taliban in Afghanistan, and got Sept. 11 as a nest egg on their doorstep as a result," says Mr. Bercuson. "If the Taliban regime, which were essentially a joke, could produce something like 9/11, imagine what dangers could come from a sophisticated police state in Iran."
The Iranian government has told the world it intends to acquire only a "peaceful" nuclear technology. Yet its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has also called Israel a "disgraceful stain (on) the Islamic world" and has vowed to have Israel "wiped off the map." The two statements are impossible to reconcile.
- Diplomacy and containment won't work.
Even the Soviet Union during the Cold War, with its vast nuclear arsenal, never presented the kind of intractable problem posed by Iran, because Soviet dictators were at least rational people with whom Western leaders could negotiate arms control treaties. In their case, nuclear deterrence worked.
"The Iranian regime is not bound by any concepts of international law," says Ezra Levant, publisher of the Calgary-based political affairs magazine the Western Standard.
"The Soviets were containable by the notion of mutually assured destruction. Ahmadinejad regards himself as a messianic figure who exults in the death cult of Islamofascism. You cannot use statecraft to fence in someone like him.
"They're not just a rational evil like the Soviets were," says Mr. Levant. "They're an irrational evil. Together with the leader of North Korea -- the last two pieces of the 'axis of evil' -- they're a collection of hotheads and nutbars."
Adds Mr. Bercuson: "There can't be much doubt anymore than in Iran we're dealing with an ideologically driven regime rather than one driven by national interests," says Mr. Bercuson. "Those regimes are especially dangerous."
- Iran is not Iraq. Unlike the "intelligence failures" and exaggerated political arguments that preceded the Iraq war, there is no doubt that Iran already owns weapons of mass destruction and is pursuing a nuclear warhead.
Mohamed El Baradei, director-general of the United Nations International Energy Agency, has said Iran will have the ability to build a nuclear weapon within "a few months" once it acquires weapons-grade fissionable material. Such material may come from North Korea.
Whenever and however it acquires the material, the existence of a Iranian nuclear weapons program is beyond debate.
Mr. Harris believes Iran already holds radiological material, that while not explosive in nature, could be fashioned into a dirty bomb capable of killing tens of thousands of people in a Western or Israeli city with radiation, and contaminating the city for years.
"Whether or not the Iranians come up with a warhead, nobody would argue that they do not have the stuff for a dirty bomb," he says. "If you had something like that go off in midtown Toronto, the decontamination process would be extraordinary. You could picture tearing down the Toronto Dominion complex, the CN Tower, and so on."
Any large-scale Iranian-sponsored attack, nuclear or otherwise, would likely also prompt a huge economic upheaval, as security concerns interrupt the global movement of people and goods, and put an end to free markets.
"And God help us," says Mr. Harris, "in terms of civil liberties."
- Iran seeks not only to destroy Western influence in the world, but to control the Middle East, the tinderbox of the planet.
"Iran has become a regional superpower by using its oil money and its alliances with North Korea and China," says Mr. Levant. "It essentially controls Syria already, and regards Hezbollah as Iran's expeditionary army in the region."
Hezbollah, the Shia terrorist organization and Lebanese political force that is the target of Israeli military strikes this week, is widely considered an Iranian puppet.
"The amazing thing about the last two weeks has been the silence about what Israel is doing in Lebanon from Arab governments -- or the outright support from certain Arab media, such as the Arab Times in Kuwait," notes Mr. Levant. "Why are so many Arab governments not condemning what Israel is doing? Because they also fear Hezbollah, and they don't want to live in a region dominated by Iran, exporting its Shia fundamentalism."
U.S. political author Thomas Holsinger, writing on the website "Winds of Change" in January, painted a terrifying picture of an Arab world in the midst of a nuclear arms race provoked by Iran.
"Iran's mullahs are about to produce their first home-built nuclear weapons this year. If we permit that, many other countries, some of whose governments are dangerously unstable, will build their own nuclear weapons to deter Iran and each other from attack," he wrote. "This rapid and widespread proliferation will inevitably lead to use of nuclear weapons in anger, by terrorists and by fearful and unstable third world regimes, at which point the existing world order will break down."
Precisely how Iran should be attacked -- through strategic airstrikes alone, or with a massive ground invasion -- is a matter for military leaders and their political masters, but the advocates of decisive action say the hard, unhappy military decision facing the West over Iran is clear.
"We face very, very scary times," says Mr. Bercuson. "War with Iran would be a hellish enterprise, and I am not optimistic we will find the political will to act."
The choice, he says, is to fight Iran on the West's terms, or wait until it's too late, and respond in the aftermath of a deadly Iranian attack.
"As Eisenhower said in his memoirs, the necessity of war always comes as a shocking surprise to democracies."
Should Iran be next? Yes
If the rogue nation is not stopped, it is only a matter of time before the West wakes up to a reality far more devastating than 9/11, reports Richard Foot.
Géopolitique du Proche-Orient