Nuclear-armed mullahs are not an option

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems hell-bent on enriching uranium and developingthe other complex components and specialized parts necessary to deliver and detonate a nuclear weapon. President Obama's policy in response is far from clear-cut.

We recognize that any assessment of the secret activities of a closed society like Iran is both difficult and necessarily tentative. Even with a well-honed intelligence network, it is impossible to understand the precise status and contours of the Iranian nuclear enterprise. Although some public accounts have indicated that intelligence agencies believe the Iranian bomb quest has been set back by sabotage and the defection of essential individuals, the inherent limitations of intelligence collection and analysis means that these assessments may be wrong. Iran may be even closer to producing a nuclear weapon than the intelligence community believes.

Only Mr. Ahmadinejad and his cronies know for certain.

What we do know, however, is that Iran continues to conduct military exercises in the Persian Gulf to showcase the regime's ability to threaten a vital transit route for the region's petroleum exports. America's dangerous dependence on foreign oil means that Iran's hostile behavior poses a national security threat. And while the threat from Iran's conventional weapons is serious, the threat to this strategic waterway from a nuclear-armed Iran would be a thousand times worse.

The United States must always be prepared for the possibility of a "strategic surprise." Yet given this administration's national security failures, we have little assurance that the president is equipped to handle an Iranian crisis.

Regrettably, it is increasingly apparent that the president's "outstretched hand" to the Islamist regime in Iran has failed, while his continual scolding of Israel appears to have further emboldened Mr. Ahmadinejad's hostilities toward this important regional ally. Furthermore, the administration's enthrallment with multilateral postulation about the benefit of aggressive global sanctions has accomplished nothing to mitigate the prospect that radicalized Muslims around the world might obtain nuclear weapons.

Some have suggested that the administration has tacitly accepted the development of an Iranian bomb. These analysts argue that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's speculation about a U.S. regional nuclear umbrella, in addition to the administration's plans to place missile defenses in Eastern Europe andthedispatchof other anti-missile weapons to the Mideast, indicate that the president is resigned to Iran's eventual acquisition of atomic arms.

The risk of Iranian nuclear weapons, surprise or not, is deeply troubling. So are the reports that the administration has conceded this eventuality.

First, "containing" a nuclear-equipped Iran as the United States did the Soviet Union during the Cold War would require an explicit commitment to use overwhelming force in certain circumstances. It is not clear whether the president is willing or prepared to make such a commitment in the case of Iran.

Second, even if this commitment was forthcoming, many experts do not believe it is possible to contain Iran. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union refused to take overtly hostile actions directly against the U.S. or its allies during the Cold War, presumably because it feared a massive nuclear retaliatory strike. Essential to this assessment is the fact that the leaders of the Soviet Union understood that American retaliation would preclude the possibility of an eventual global communist triumph.

Iranian leaders may not be encumbered by the modicum of rational statecraft distilled into the collective Soviet brain. Rather than discouraging the use of nuclear weapons against U.S. interests, the prospect of inducing destruction may actually appeal to the mullahs calling the shots in Tehran.

It is telling that while the Obama administration downgrades the role U.S. nuclear weapons play in our national security, the Iranians seem to be striving unabated to obtain atomic arms. Thebestway to counteract uncertainty about Iran's intentions,however, isa certain indication of what is intolerable to the United States.

The first step to halting an Iranian bomb program is increasing our intelligence-gathering capabilities to monitor the progress of Iran's nuclear program. Meanwhile,effective sanctions must be imposed immediately, and the United States must demonstrate its unequivocal support for the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people. We also must not foreclose the possibility of a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities or the option of overwhelming retaliatory force should Iran launch itself or supply terrorists with the resources to launch an attack on the United States or our allies. Iran should have no doubt about the full force of America's military strength and no question about our willingness to use it.

To date, however, the president's policy for dealing with Iran is both incoherent and frighteningly similar to the failed approach of the Carter era. It wasn't until a reinvigorated Kremlin - tempted by an anemic and indecisive American administration - sent Soviet tanks into Afghanistan that President Carter began to acknowledge the threat of a nuclear-armed foe. We hope it will not require another strategic surprise to educate President Obama about a pressing contemporary nuclear threat.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, ranking member of the House Armed Services subcommittee on terrorism and unconventional arms.