In his cover story for this week's edition of the magazine James is, quite characteristically, honest enough to acknowledge that the consequences of attacking Iran would be "horrendous" and, of course, he is also right to argue that there are any number of terrible possibilities if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons. He sums them up:
It would spark an arms race across the Middle East. Many in the intelligence community are convinced that Saudi Arabia has a deal with Pakistan to buy a bomb off the shelf if Iran goes nuclear: a Shiite bomb must be countered with a Sunni one. Iran would also step up its support for disruptive, violent groups across the region — Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shiite extremists in Iraq, and Hamas in Israel/Palestine. The international community would have little leverage on a nuclear-armed Iran and thus little hope of moderating its behaviour. Peace and stability would be further off than ever.
More importantly, the events of the last week seem to me to have weakened an already problematic case for military intervention against Iran. Forcing Iranians to choose between their political aspirations and their patriotism is a dumb idea since, I'd hazard, the vast majority will choose patriotism. We should not forget the great favour Saddam Hussein did the fledgling Islamic Republic when he invaded Iran in 1980. Furthermore, air strikes seem unlikely to persuade Iranians that they neither want nor can risk developing a nuclear bomb. Quite the reverse in fact: the notion that you hit someone to persuade them not to defend themselves is an odd one. (And, yes, nukes are also an offensive weapon, but I'd hazard that most Iranians see them as defensive weapons.)
And would they even work? At best it seems as though military action would only delay Iran's nuclear ambitions while also convincing them that they really do need nukes. And since attacking Iran would surely strengthen the hand of the hardliners, it's hard to see how a policy fraught with such risk, uncertainty and with no guarantee of even primary, let alone long-term, success is anything other than extraordinarily reckless.
For that matter, since it seems probable that any Iranian regime is going to want a nuclear bomb - for, they will say, the same reasons India wanted nukes - what seems most salient is not, in fact, Iran's nuclear ambitions but the nature of the regime pursuing those ambitions. In other words, contra James, the race to stop Iran getting the bomb is not what counts. Or, at least, it counts rather less than the race to change the regime.
Because if the regime changes there is hope, however optimistic, for progress. (And, of course, life will be better for the Iranians themselves. That ain't a trivial point neither.)
UPDATE: I should also say that James also makes the essential point that "Obama and others should make it clear that the problem is not with Iran having the bomb but this Iranian regime having one." This too is an imperfect solution, but it may be the best we can hope for. James and I probably differ on emphasis more than substance...