His conclusion, stunning in its finality: “We are going to have to deal with a nuclear Iran.”
In so saying, Bolton — among the hawkiest of hawks from the now neoconservative-movement-in-exile — broke ranks with many of his neocon colleagues. Most of them haven’t given up on stopping Iran, as evidenced by a raft of new reports from neocon-linked thinktanks. And they’re busily calling for stepped-up sanctions, making bellicose threats, and warning of military action by the United States and Israel. But Bolton is folding his cards.
“Iran’s going to get nuclear weapons,” said Bolton, to an audience at AEI that seemed shocked into silence. “We have lost this race.” If you don’t believe me, you can watch the video.
According to Bolton, the idea that Iran can be deterred from going forward by applying economic sanctions won’t work. Had it been tried earlier, he said, it might had an impact. “Sanctions could have dissuaded Iran,” he said. “But that time is past.” Europe doesn’t have the will to impose tough sanctions, he said. He lamented his encounters with the German ambassador to the United Nations, during Bolton’s tenure as US ambassador there, and he said that the Germans and other European countries won’t take action to cut off their lucrative trade with Tehran.
But Bolton also said that neither the United States nor Israel will attack Iran to stop its nuclear program. “Neither one is willing to use military force,” he said. Bolton said that until recently he believed that there was a small chance that Israel, on its own, might attack Iran before January 20, when Barack Obama becomes president. But Israel is mired in political confusion in advance of its coming elections, and there is no political will in Israel to go to war against Iran, he said.
Bolton also said that the likelihood of a US attack on Iran under Obama is nil. “Under an Obama administration, that possibility is essentially zero,” he said. “After January 20, the chances are zero.”
If strong action had been taken in the past, say, starting five years ago, Iran could have been stopped, Bolton said. Tough sanctions then would be biting now, he said. Alternately, the United States could have adopted a policy of “regime change,” supporting ethnic minorities, disaffected youth, and Iran’s youth, to create revolutionary unrest, even though nearly all experts on Iran have argued that regime change was never a viable option. Said Bolton: “If we had started it five years ago, we might be in a different place,. It was a good policy option. We should have pursued it. We didn’t pursue it.”
After Bolton spoke, I encountered a very senior neoconservative strategist, who’d served in the Department of Defense, and who was quietly observing the proceedings at the back of the AEI meeting room. I asked him if agreed with Bolton’s assessment. Preferring not to speak on the record, he said:
“Well, I think what he said is basically true. We’re going to find ourselves in a position not unlike the one we faced with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. We will have to contain them and deter them. The problem is, that Iran will feel empowered, and we’ll have an increasing level of tension in the Persian Gulf.”
What does that mean? I asked. According to this former official, it looks ominous. “Eventually, we’ll probably have to do something. But doing it later will be a lot harder than doing it now.” And by doing something, what do you mean, I asked. “It might come to a war.”