Last Sunday on 60 Minutes the Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, said if the U.S. gathered intelligence that Iran was building a nuclear weapon, it would be a red-line, and all options were on the table, including military.

On the surface, I find the statement a little ludicrous.  Even the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran is developing nuclear weapons technology. The administration’s official line is that they “aren’t convinced” Iran has decided to make a weapon, and that maybe they’re simply building the components for a nuclear device that someone can assemble later – should they choose.  Huh? That’s not a red-line?

They’re trying to make a bomb, period.  Given that, what will it really take to get them to quit?  In my mind, it’s simple: Regime change. 

I’m not making the case that the only viable option is to invade them with ground forces.  I’m saying that threatening to attack their nuclear facilities will not deter the Iranian regime – even if we could do it.  That’s not the Iranian center of gravity.  A credible threat against the regime, on the other hand, is.

All estimates are that Iran will have the capability for a nuclear weapon within 12 months, and all eyes are on Israel to see whether they will attack before that time.  There are some indications that Israel is gearing up for an attack.  Both Barak, the defense minister and Netanyahu, the prime minister, have elevated their rhetoric and the largest joint military exercise between Israel and the United States has been postponed.  The official reason is to avoid ratcheting up tensions in the region, but some speculate that Israel didn’t want the hassle of protecting 5000 US soldiers from retaliation should they choose to strike Iran next spring.

Despite its preparations, Israel realizes they cannot destroy Iran’s nuclear capability with a fly-by air-strike.  This mission won’t be as easy as taking out Iraq’s nuclear plant in 1981, or Syria’s in 2007.  Iran has learned from those attacks, and has dispersed its capability over a wide region, along with burying it deep underground.  An attack on Iran’s nuclear capability at this stage will involve something akin to shock and awe prior to the Iraqi invasion of 2003, whereby air defenses are neutralized, followed by days if not weeks of aerial bombardment.  And even that’s no guarantee.  At most, airstrikes will set back the development by a few years, but it will still come.

Covert action has done a good job of slowing down the process, but it alone won’t stop the development of weapons or deter the regime.  Inserting faulty equipment into the Iranian pipeline, spreading computer viruses, and assassinating scientists have all helped to turn what should have been a year-long project into a decades-long one, but progress still continues.

Speaking of covert action, another scientist was killed in Iran by a magnetic bomb last month, and everyone is pointing the finger at the CIA or Mossad, while forgetting the other countries in the region.  Make no mistake, the Sunni states of the Arabian Peninsula in no way want a nuclear Iran.  It’s quite possible the killing could have been conducted by Saudi Arabia.  After all, they’d have much greater access and Iran tried to assassinate their diplomat last October.  There’s no love lost between the two.  The CIA’s access would be through Lebanon and Hezbollah, but since Hezbollah rolled up our entire network in November, I’m betting we have very little penetration capability, and Mossad would also have a tough time getting anything done inside Iran.  Given this was the fifth scientist killed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mossad and some other Sunni state were cooperating together.  But I digress.

The bottom line is that both overt and covert strikes only slow down the process.  Stopping it has to be a decision by the regime itself, either the current one or a new one altogether.  The current sanctions might engender this result if the population finally gets fed up and pressures the regime to quit, but I’m not holding my breath.  Sanctions, while a nice way to show we’re “doing something”, rarely result in a modification of behavior.  In fact, it’s just as possible that the sanctions could have the opposite effect:  the population rallies around the regime because of the activities of the “Great Satan”.  It’s assuredly happened at the regime level, as the ongoing tensions with the west have tamped down the internal struggle between Ahmadinejad and the ayatollah.

The biggest problem with sanctions is not whether they will work or not, but the time required.  It could take longer for the population to get fed up than it does for Iran to build a weapon.  And once they do, regime change from the inside is no longer an option.  If they get a weapon, there will be no Arab Spring in Iran.  In no way would we want a repeat of the chaos inside Libya or Syria with a nuclear weapon in the balance. In fact, it’s not exaggeration to say a nuclear weapon would ensure the regime’s survival against any internal threat, as the west wouldn’t do anything to support it– something which they are well aware of.

That survival instinct is what must be addressed.  Threatening to surgically remove their nuclear capability isn’t enough.  The regime is the center of gravity.  Deterence involves a simple formula: threaten something held more dear than the goal they seek.  For totalitarian states, that is the leadership itself.  If the regime believed that we felt the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran was so dangerous that it would be worth the costs of getting rid of them – in effect, another Mideast war – they would stop.

There is another, cheaper, way than all out invasion, though we don’t have the balls to say it out loud. I think deterrence could be achieved by simply intimating that instead of air-strikes on the nuclear facilities, the shock and awe would be directed at any and all government structures.  In effect, tell them, “you keep progressing forward, and we’re coming after you, not the nukes”.  This very application of force was used by Ronald Reagan in 1986.  Operation Eldorado Canyon was initiated to deter Libya from sponsoring terrorism.  Eighteen F-111s pounded anything related to Moamar Qadaffi.  The message: Knock it off, or we’re going to kill you.

The problem here is credibility.  Iran would have to believe we mean it, and that’s a tall order, because I’m not sure we do, even with all the rhetoric of red-lines.  We simply don’t have it in us to conduct a counter-leadership campaign.  We’d rather go toe-to-toe with their military because somehow that’s deemed more respectable, regardless of the exponential increase in both dollars and lives.  At this juncture, when we’re fleeing both Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the new defense guidance, nobody on the entire earth would believe America is willing to get involved in another ground war, regardless of the stakes.

Israel, on the other hand, could project the message just fine, and I doubt they have the same ridiculous notion of fair-play that we do.  National survival tends to trump that.  With Iran having already stated they should be wiped into the sea, I’d have no trouble believing Israel if they said they were going to remove the regime.

And neither would Iran.