As the past three years have shown, President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, don't often see eye-to-eye on foreign policy. On at least one issue, however, the two appear to be in full agreement. Both have stated clearly and repeatedly that the radical, revolutionary regime that rules Iran must not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons.
And yet, neither the current president nor the previous one made serious headway on this most serious of national security challenges.
The time to do so is running out. As the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency report makes painfully clear, Iran is perilously close to crossing the nuclear threshold, and its intentions are anything but peaceful. The U.S. desperately needs a strategy to keep the fingers of Iran's ayatollahs off the nuclear trigger. For a nuclear-armed Iran - oil-rich, bellicose and ambitious - would change the 21st century in ways we can only begin to imagine.
Those who don't believe we can stop Iran from crossing the nuclear Rubicon, as well as those who minimize the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran, have taken to talking about "containment." But the clerical regime that rules Tehran will not be as easy to keep in a box as was the Soviet Union.
The leaders of the Soviet empire may have been evil, but they were not irrational. As a result, they chose to abide by the "balance of terror" that emerged over time with the U.S., backing away from thermonuclear confrontation even as they competed with America for primacy in the political theaters of Latin America, Africa and beyond.
Whether Iran will be willing to honor such a bargain is very much an open question. At least one segment of the Iranian leadership ascribes to a radical revisionist (even apocalyptic) world-view, one which requires and embraces confrontation with the West.
And while Iran's clerical army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, casts a growing shadow over politics within the Islamic Republic, recent provocations, such as the botched attempt to assassinate Saudi Arabia's envoy to the U.S. in Washington, suggest the Guards themselves are anything but risk averse.
All of this implies that we will be forced to rely on more than deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction to contain Iran. We also will need to make it as difficult as possible for the Iranians to use nuclear weapons, or even to credibly threaten to do so.
This can only be achieved by developing, as an integral component of a containment regime, a comprehensive missile defense system composed of space-based, sea-based and land-based defenses. Such a system would make it doubtful, if not impossible, for Iran to successfully fire a missile against the American homeland, American troops abroad or America's allies and be confident that the weapon would reach its intended victims.
Fortunately, the U.S. has the ability to defend against this threat. Since at least the early 1990s, America has possessed the technological know-how to erect a comprehensive national defense against enemy ballistic missiles in all phases of flight. But for just as long, we have lacked the political will to do so.
Today, the state of affairs is much the same. The four-phase missile defense plan unveiled by the White House in September 2009 has a good deal to commend it, including major investments in sea-based defenses and the protection of allies abroad.
But it also suffers from potentially fatal deficiencies, chief among them the fact that it mortgages defense of the U.S. homeland until 2016 or later, when Obama will no longer be in office, even if he wins re-election next November. By doing so, it leaves the U.S. a provocatively weak and inviting target to adversaries who seek to do us harm, Iran chief among them.
Policymakers in Washington are hotly debating what, exactly, should be done to thwart the Islamic Republic and its stubborn quest for a nuclear capability. As they do, they should focus on missile defense as part of the logical answer. Anyone who seriously favors containment must also seriously favor comprehensive missile defense as a way of ensuring that Tehran's opportunities for aggression are limited. But others should favor this course of action as well.
Of course, it would be best to stop Iran's drive for nuclear weapons or to see the current regime replaced by one less bellicose. And it would be good to slow Iran's drive to nuclear weapons for as long as possible. But should all else fail, contingency plans must be in place to better protect Americans from the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism, which is now on the verge of acquiring the world's most dangerous weapons. America has the means to defend itself from Iranian nuclear missiles; it just needs to make such a plan a reality.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council. Clifford May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Both are members of the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense.