In his history of the long-running conflict between Iran and America, Kenneth Pollack writes of the “two clocks” that measure time as it relates to what he calls (in the title of his book) the Persian Puzzle. One, of course, is the countdown to a nuclear Iran. No one knows for certain how much time is on this clock—it’s difficult to get good intelligence about a program the Iranians are doing all they can to protect—but if the November report by the International Atomic Energy Agency is to be believed, there isn’t that much. Iran has sufficient material to build a handful of weapons, has plenty of delivery systems, and may not tip its hand by testing a device.
Pollack also speaks of a “regime change” clock, arguing that “a different government in Tehran—one more reflective of the will of the Iranian people—would be willing to discontinue or reorient the [nuclear] program to make it much less threatening.” But he also acknowledged “there is little likelihood that such a new government will take power soon.” Pollack wrote this in 2004, and the regime’s behavior since, particularly its thuggish suppression of opposition in the wake of the 2009 election, seems to have borne out his prophecy.
The rapid ticking of the Iran nuclear clock also marks an increasingly dark hour for the United States and its closest allies and partners, because it coincides with a third clock that Pollack did not imagine in 2004: the timetable of retreat set in motion by Barack Obama. The combination of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the accelerating withdrawal from Afghanistan, serial reductions of U.S. military power, and the administration’s “pivot” away from the greater Middle East to the “Indo-Pacific” portends a new era defined by a rising nuclear Iran and declining American influence in the region.
This also marks a fundamental shift in U.S. grand strategy, one that has taken a favorable balance of power in the greater Middle East as key to a favorable international order. Thus, since 1979—the year of the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein’s rise to power in Baghdad, and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Sunni extremists—the United States has become ever more engaged in the struggle to prevent any sort of “hostile hegemon” from dominating the region.
That strategy has achieved successes. Defeat in Afghanistan brought on the collapse of the Soviet empire and ended any outside threat to the region. One counterinsurgency and two conventional campaigns later, Saddam is dead and so is his Baathist tyranny. Al Qaeda and its associates are being suppressed, and they control no state (unless the Arab Spring becomes the Salafi Spring). By contrast, the Iranian problem remains unresolved. Tehran has continued an on-again, off-again, low-level war with “The Great Satan” from the original hostage-taking to the latest attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Our response has been a very mild form of containment, one that imposes few costs on the Islamic Republic.
This means that the third clock, the one timing our regional retreat, is the one that measures the geopolitical competition with Iran. And because the United States has for so long focused on tactics rather than strategy—and for Iran, even nuclear weapons are a means rather than the end in itself—we’ve lost track of the time. The Obama White House has been especially wasteful, squandering years on a misguided policy of engagement with the Islamic Republic, and also putting Iraq back in play and preparing to abandon its own successes in Afghanistan. In place of serious “surges” of American power, the administration offers “silent war”—espionage, drones, computer viruses. The RQ-170 Sentinel remotely piloted aircraft that the Iranians are now so proudly displaying provides an apt image of how covert pinpricks are replacing threats of “shock and awe.”
In the after-midnight hour when the Obama retreat is complete, the United States would find itself with few options at the chiming of the nuclear clock. Containing and deterring a nuclear Iran would be a long, costly, and risky endeavor, and a task made immensely more difficult by the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and by the large cuts that will cripple the U.S. military. Time is short—but there is still time, and not simply to prepare for the extraordinary danger of a nuclear Iran, but to avert it.