From this considerable distance, the recent presidential elections in Iran might appear to be at least a wisp of fresh air in a repressive and dangerous country. After all, the most pragmatic candidate won a landslide victory. So maybe, just maybe, that can lead Iran to reason on nuclear weapons issues.
Unfortunately, such thinking is more wishful than thoughtful.
We are sad to say the election of Hassan Rohani as president will change little about Iran, except perhaps its outward style. We acknowledge that just about anything is a welcome change from the shrill and tiresome Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the outgoing president. And Rohani is more outward looking and less rhetorically rambunctious than Ahmadinejad. But the truth is that Rohani will have little influence on Iran's nuclear policy.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei runs the Islamic Republic of Iran with a tight grip. That his personal approval was needed for a candidate to be placed on the ballot tells us all we need to know about who is in charge. It is highly unlikely that he will settle for anything less than Iran gaining full membership in the nuclear arms club.
This election won't change that. Nor will sanctions or military threats.
It appears to us that Khamenei is willing to do whatever it takes to obtain the begrudging (and fearful) respect that comes to any nation with nuclear weapons.
Until this point, the world's focus has been on stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, either through negotiation, threats or sabotage. But intelligence reports tell us that Iran has installed about 9,000 new centrifuges at facilities in Natanz and Fordow, and it is clear the nation is nearing "critical capacity." We fear that ship is ready to sail, and such a voyage will cause a paradigm shift sooner rather than later.
The challenge will be for the world in general — and the United States in particular — to shift focus toward fashioning an effective strategy for containing Iran once it has built nuclear weapons that can be carried by its Shabab-3 ballistic missiles. That could be within a year or two.
Devising such a policy is no small task, and has few good options — especially when dealing with an unpredictable regime bent on flexing its newfound muscle for the world to see. North Korea leaps immediately to mind.
Adding to the degree of difficulty is that while both Russia and China have influence with Iran, neither has demonstrated much inclination to use it on the nuclear issue. It is difficult to tell if that is merely obstreperousness or the product of their calculus as to inevitability.
The bottom line is that while a nuclear Iran is a frightening prospect, it is a real one that is unlikely affected by this election. The U.S. and western powers must begin thinking through the containment options.