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 …