Preventing Iran from Getting Nuclear Weapons: Constraining Its Future Nuclear Options
On May 25, 1986, an unmarked Israeli aircraft bearing a supply of Hawk antiaircraft missile parts landed in Tehran. Aboard were a young Israeli counterterrorism adviser, several Central Intelligence Agency officers, and two staff members of President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council, Oliver North and Howard Teicher. Robert “Bud” McFarlane, who had recently stepped down as national security adviser, served as the informal head of the secret delegation.
Its mission was to provide arms to the revolutionary Iranian government led by Ayatollah Khomeini in the hope that this would induce Iran to arrange the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon by Hezbollah, an Iranian client. Reagan approved the illegal arms-for-hostages exchange, but it was partly a brainchild of the Israeli national security establishment. It seemed as daft a plan then, in the estimation of some of the Reagan cabinet members who knew of it, as it looks with the benefit of hindsight more than two decades later.
The trip ended in embarrassment; McFarlane’s team had to hustle out of their Tehran hotel to evade radicals who apparently intended to attack or arrest them. When the matter became public later that year, it ignited the scandal known as Iran-contra, an imbroglio that exposed lying, hypocrisy, arrogance, criminality, and colossal foreign policy misjudgments in the Reagan White House involving Iran, Israel, Nicaragua, and points between.
The folly and sheer unreliability of the national security decision-making that produced the Iran-contra disaster are worth reflecting on now as the American and Israeli governments are engaged in a tense, disagreement-filled, but ultimately collaborative effort to again coerce the behavior of the Islamic Republic of Iran, this time over its nuclear program. The United States has led a drive to impose economic sanctions on Iran and has joined Israel in issuing threats of war to persuade Tehran to suspend or restructure its uranium enrichment activities and come clean about past weapons experiments. The strategy of threats, sanctions, and negotiations—which has lately led to a new round of talks in Istanbul—is certainly more plausible than an exchange of arms for hostages; it is also a strategy that enjoys the support of many world governments. Yet the current plan may ultimately work no better than McFarlane’s.
The relevance of the Iran-contra episode today lies mainly in its reminder that there is no permanent order of friends and enemies in the Middle East. Israel was willing to sell arms to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps during the mid-1980s because it then saw Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a greater threat. In return, Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime did not much bother Israel for a time. Now Israel regards Iran as its principal adversary and some Israeli leaders see Iran’s drive for the bomb as an existential threat. For their part, the clerical hard-liners in Tehran, under pressure from domestic opponents, use rhetorical and proxy war against Tel Aviv as a way to stir the embers of their aging revolution and to expand their regional power.
Strategic surprise in the Middle East is becoming a commonplace. The toppling of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen; the upheaval and intensifying sectarian conflict within and around Syria; and the continuing rise to influence of youthful, plugged-in, change-seeking, and Islamist populations previously locked out of the region’s politics provide the backdrop to the latest round of nuclear bargaining with Tehran.
In assessing the problem of Iran’s nuclear program and the danger it poses to Israel, Europe, and the United States—as well as to the integrity of the global nonproliferation regime—it is critical to take account of the region’s unpredictability and pace of change. What sort of government Iran will have five years from now, and how that government will see its interests and the costs and benefits of nuclear defiance, can hardly be taken for granted.
Calm vigilance, of course, is not the mood of the moment on Iran; recent public discourse about its nuclear program has been marked by bellicosity. President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have each reiterated that they might find it necessary to wage war on Iran to stop the country from acquiring a nuclear weapon; Netanyahu has implied that a strike by Israel could come at any time. When he traveled to the United States in March to address the American- Israeli Political Action Committee’s annual convention, Netanyahu seemed to be not-so-subtly intervening in American domestic politics by pressuring Obama, during an election year, to back Israel’s position more uncritically. The main candidates for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination each followed Netanyahu to the AIPAC podium and tried to outdo each other at sounding ready to wage war. As happened in the months before the Bush administration attacked Iraq in 2003, the space for public argument and media reporting about alternative views of the threat Iran’s nuclear program poses and the options for response has been narrowing. There is a sense that clocks are ticking and timetables for military action are shortening—an appearance of urgency that has been deliberately constructed by Netanyahu and his ideological allies.
There is no doubt that Iran’s work on uranium enrichment is expanding, but the pace of this growth, as well as the time required for Iran to make a nuclear bomb that could be fitted initially on an aircraft and perhaps later on a missile for delivery (a more difficult task), are subjects of debate and uncertainty. In its March report, Preventing Iran from Getting Nuclear Weapons, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which has for years published in open literature somewhat hawkish but reliable analyses of the Iranian nuclear program, provides an important, clarifying review of the current evidence. The key judgment of the report’s five authors—David Albright, Paul Brannan, Andrea Sticker, Christina Walrond, and Houston Wood—is double-edged. “Iran is already capable of making weapon-grade uranium and a crude nuclear explosive device,” they write. Nonetheless, “Iran is unlikely to break out in 2012” to complete a bomb, “in large part because it will remain deterred from doing so and limited in its options for quickly making enough weapon-grade uranium.”
As a matter of science and engineering, short of an Iranian decision to test a bomb or deploy weapons openly on missiles or aircraft, there is no single moment when the country can be said to have crossed over to become a nuclear weapons state. The ISIS’s analysts believe that Iran has acquired the intellectual, technical, and industrial capacity to build and deploy a weapon fairly soon; yet they are less sure about whether it will go that far. They judge Iran to be engaged in “nuclear hedging”—aggressively creating an option to make a bomb, with shorter and shorter timelines for breakout, but, so far as outsiders know, without yet having decided about whether to complete the project.
Iran’s known uranium enrichment facilities are today under monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA); the country remains a formal adherent of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Because of this, Iran is obliged under international law not to hide nuclear facilities or engage in weapons experiments. The United Nations Security Council has concluded that Iran is in violation of these obligations because it has hidden large enrichment facilities and has provided unsatisfactory answers to IAEA inspectors about past weapons experiments.
For its part, Iran defends its decisions to hide facilities as necessary to protect its legitimate nuclear activity from outside attack, and it denies that it has engaged in weapons work. Its diplomats also note that Israel has built an arsenal of nuclear bombs in defiance of the NPT regime (as have India, Pakistan, and North Korea). What matters most about Iran’s legal and compliance disputes with the IAEA is that—as the ISIS and other experts have concluded—the standoff has created constraints and deterrents against any Iranian decision to go all out to build a bomb, at least over the next year or so.
If Iran chose to undertake a final “dash to the bomb,” as the ISIS analysts put it, it would have to defy international inspectors and break the monitoring seals they have attached to its enrichment sites. By doing this, Iran would instantly expose its intentions and invite a response from the Security Council. And yet, according to the ISIS’s calculations, if Iran did act so brazenly, given the current state of its uranium enrichment program, it would nonetheless require approximately another seven months to complete the enrichment work required for a single bomb. Tehran would be openly declaring a half-year program to finish its first weapon—recklessly inviting a preemptive military strike, one that, in the face of such Iranian defiance, might win backing from a significant number of international governments.
Even assuming that Iran wants a fully deployed bomb, then, the incentives argue for the country to adopt a more measured timetable—perhaps by undertaking a strategy of sporadic negotiations and step-by-step expansion of enrichment. This more gradual approach might require several more years to succeed, but it could, the ISIS analysts write, eventually “permit a faster and less exposed dash to nuclear weapons” in the future. And all this is before taking into account the increasingly strict sanctions being imposed on Iran, which are having a serious impact on the country’s economy, and which might provide additional reasons for Iran’s government to delay a full-fledged nuclear breakout and bargain for at least temporary economic relief.
The ISIS report also delivers a clear judgment about what preemptive bombing raids on Iran’s nuclear facilities could achieve: not much. “Despite the current political dialogue in Israel and the United States about a growing urgency to strike Iran, short of full-scale war or occupation, most military options are oversold as to their ability to end or even significantly delay Iran’s nuclear program,” the analysts write.
Limited bombing campaigns are unlikely to destroy Iran’s main capability to produce weapon-grade uranium…. More importantly, Iran has mastered the construction of centrifuges and has likely even secretly stockpiled an unknown number…. An ineffective bombing campaign that does not eliminate these capabilities would leave Iran able to quickly rebuild its program and would motivate it to launch its own Manhattan Project, resulting in a Middle East region that is far more dangerous and unstable.
Between the constraints facing Iran and the poor prospects for military action, then, it is misleading and irresponsible to describe preemptive war today as a rational, justifiable option for either Israel or the United States.
Iran’s eventual acquisition of a nuclear weapon would indeed be dangerous. It might encourage neighborhood rivals such as Saudi Arabia to go nuclear. It might also encourage the radical militias Iran shelters and supports to expand their violence against Israel and others, in the belief that Iran now had a deterrent that would render it immune to military retaliation. What else besides preemptive war might be done, then, to prevent such an outcome?