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Will Iran Get That Bomb?

Preventing Iran from Getting Nuclear Weapons: Constraining Its Future Nuclear Options

by David Albright, Paul Brannan, Andrea Stricker, Christina Walrond, and Houston Wood
Institute for Science and International Security, 46 pp., available at isisnucleariran.org
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; drawing by John Springs

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?

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Since the Bush administration’s second term, the United States, Israel, Great Britain, France, and Germany have undertaken a campaign of economic sanctions, Security Council diplomacy, and covert action—such as unleashing the Stuxnet computer virus that disabled hundreds of the centrifuges Iran has installed to enrich uranium. These tactics have been aimed at delaying Iran’s nuclear work and pressuring its government to negotiate a deal that would cap or restructure Iran’s nuclear program to make a dash to the bomb more difficult.

The strategy of applying pressure has been coupled with an offer of negotiations in which Iran might win relief from sanctions in exchange for verifiable abandonment of its weapons-relevant nuclear activity. The basic idea has been to coax Iran to provide honest answers about past experiments and to adjust its enrichment programs so they could not be easily converted to make weapons.

If such a bargain were achieved, in addition to relief from sanctions, the international community might provide support for Iran’s restructured nuclear industry, so that it could more effectively generate electricity and produce medical isotopes, whose radioactive effects can be used to treat cancer. For example, the Security Council might endorse the sale and installation of light water nuclear reactors in Iran, under certain safeguards, because these reactors do not pose an acute proliferation risk. For years, the Security Council insisted that Iran stop all uranium enrichment as a precondition for negotiations; now there is a possibility that the United States might endorse low-level enrichment within Iran if its government agreed to the IAEA’s most robust inspection regimes. The search for such a bargain has generated creative diplomatic and technical thinking in recent years—including a proposal published in these pages in 2008 to convert Iran’s uranium enrichment for electric power generation into a multilateral project*—but so far, there has been no concrete progress.

The intention of A Single Roll of the Dice, Trita Parsi’s careful and useful volume about the Obama administration’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran, is twofold: to chronicle from multiple perspectives, including Iran’s, why negotiations have so far failed, and to argue that the Obama administration should make a greater effort at sustained talks. Only through more continuous engagement, Parsi writes, can Obama break the stalemate that has frustrated his predecessors in the White House: “The thirty-year-old US–Iran enmity is no longer a phenomenon; it is an institution.”

Parsi is a foreign policy analyst who also serves as president of the National Iranian American Council, a group that has sought to build cooperation between the United States and Iran. In the history he presents, an excessive optimism leaks through about the potential of an American president to accommodate an Iranian regime that has, since 2006 alone, arrested thousands and tortured scores of political dissidents at home, smuggled explosives to kill American soldiers deployed in Iraq, and armed Hamas and Islamic Jihad to help them lob shells into Israel from Gaza. He also gives economic sanctions less credit than they deserve as an element of peaceful but determined strategy.

Nonetheless, A Single Roll of the Dice offers a balanced, transparent diplomatic history based on extensive interviews with American, Iranian, European, Brazilian, and Turkish officials. Parsi has gathered unusually diverse perspectives and he presents them neutrally. His work provides ample evidence to support his main argument, namely, that “sustained diplomacy is the only policy that remains largely unexplored and that has a likelihood of achieving results amounting to more than simply kicking the can down the road.”

Parsi’s chronology is one of missed signals, unexplored opportunities, and promising but aborted starts toward compromise, particularly in the critical channel between the United States and Iran. The United States has not maintained an embassy in Tehran for more than three decades. (Not even in the darkest days of the cold war did the US choose such self-isolation from the Soviet Union.) Parsi’s evidence suggests that the absence of formal diplomatic relations may well have contributed to the current stalemate, and perhaps worsened it.

In May 2003, the Swiss ambassador to Iran, Tim Guldimann, who oversaw the American interests section in Tehran, transmitted a two-page document to the State Department outlining a “road map” for the normalization of US–Iranian relations. American military forces had just overthrown Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, reportedly approved the draft. It offered startling concessions by Iran: full transparency of its nuclear program and the withdrawal of support from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Astonishingly, as Parsi reports, “not one single interagency meeting was set up to discuss the proposal” by the Bush administration. He quotes Lawrence Wilkerson, then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, as blaming the administration’s neoconservatives, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for throttling the possibility of an opening before it could even be evaluated. In fact, there is little evidence that Powell or his deputy, Richard Armitage, took the initiative very seriously, either.

The Iranian proposal transmitted by the Swiss has been a touchstone for some former Bush administration officials who believe that a chance for a grand bargain with Iran was squandered in 2003. The document in question is thin, its background is uncertain, and the offer it outlined was never tested. In any event, as the United States suffered setback after setback in Iraq over the next several years, Iran never again broached such bold compromises. Like McFarlane’s secret mission in 1986, the episode of the Swiss fax is an example of how the long break in contacts between the United States and Iran has forced both governments to guess, hint, gesture, and bargain in confused and unfavorable circumstances about matters of great consequence to international security.

Barack Obama promised to change this while campaigning for president. He described unconditional engagement with Iran as “critical” and argued that those who believed we “shouldn’t be talking to them ignore our own history.” After his inauguration, on March 20, 2009, Obama issued a bold, warmly worded statement on the occasion of the Iranian New Year:

My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.

That June, however, Iran held a presidential election in which the opposition Green Movement alleged mass fraud. As street protests swelled, police and militias loyal to Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shot, beat, and arrested the protesters, plunging Iran into factional conflict, which played itself out through a horrifying series of show trials, mass imprisonments, prison rapes, and other human rights violations. The Islamic Republic Obama had thought he was reaching out to with his March greeting—a stable regime with a significant degree of internal legitimacy—had plunged into internal conflict.

In November 2009, nonetheless, American and Iranian officials held serious talks about a confidence-building proposal that would have involved shipping some of Iran’s enriched uranium offshore in exchange for the delivery of fuel elements to support Iran’s production of medical isotopes. The Iranian negotiators appeared to agree, only to be overruled by Ayatollah Khamenei. Later, when Turkish and Brazilian diplomats appeared to revive the agreement, the United States declined to pursue such an engagement in part because it was focused on winning Security Council support for sanctions. Between then and this spring’s talks in Istanbul, there have been few contacts. The aborted 2009 diplomacy is the “single roll of the dice” of Parsi’s title and an obvious source of frustration to the author. Parsi seems to regard Obama’s backtracking from direct diplomacy with Tehran after 2009, and his fuller embrace of pressure tactics such as sanctions and covert action, as a capitulation to domestic American politics and Israeli pressure.

Those may have been factors, but it seems more likely that Obama concluded, after witnessing the brutality used by Khamenei and his allies to suppress the Iranian opposition, that Iran’s government was not a workable partner for open diplomacy requiring a degree of trust. The talks held in mid-April between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, were reportedly constructive, and a follow-up session has been scheduled for May, when the potential for a workable compromise among the parties will be more seriously explored. For all the hard talk of possible attacks against Iran during the coming year, it appears that neither Iran, the US, nor Israel wishes to see an immediate escalation of violence that could add to the risk of regional conflict—a risk already heightened by the turmoil in Syria. This may create space for sustained negotiation.

There are examples in history when countries on the verge of a nuclear weapons capability—or even further along than Iran is now—have voluntarily dismantled their programs in exchange for relief from economic sanctions, political legitimacy, and full integration into the world economy. South Africa, after the end of apartheid, is one such example. Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Libya are other cases. Each story is distinct, but arguably, in only one case—the decision by Muammar Qaddafi in 2003 to surrender a nascent nuclear program and other weapons of mass destruction—did a regime with a revolutionary ideology comparable to Iran’s undertake such a turnabout. (Qaddafi apparently feared that the Bush administration might attack Libya as part of its global war on terror. That may also explain Iran’s offer in its two-page “road map,” just as American forces arrived in Baghdad, before they became bogged down in counterinsurgency warfare.) In the other cases, the decisions to give up nuclear weapons followed deep and often unpredicted political changes, such as the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The lesson from this record is that strategic patience and deterrence, linked to international enforcement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, have worked across a diverse range of examples. It has also failed, of course—in the cases of Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea—at least so far. (On Israel, India, and Pakistan, the international community has essentially given up on reversing their nuclear programs, and has relieved the violating governments of economic pressure; in North Korea’s case, the pressure remains, but the regime has proved durable.)

In the long run, if the world is to avoid the danger of dozens of nuclear weapons states and fulfill the promise of the NPT, all nine current nuclear weapons holders—the four violators, plus the United States, Russia, China, France, and Great Britain—will ultimately have to reduce their arsenals drastically, to a point of deep irrelevance, if not full elimination. In that respect, the pressure currently being mounted on Iran should not be seen in isolation—it is best understood as part of a campaign to defend the nonproliferation regime.

The adoption of a policy of strategic patience in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambition is not the same thing as seeking regime change. It is not at all obvious that the Islamic Republic would have to be overthrown before its government might decide on adequate nuclear compromises. In the Islamic Republic’s history, there have been periods of relative moderation and stability, such as during the two terms of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency between 1997 and 2005, as well as periods of intense factionalism and instability. Moreover, the history of Iran’s nuclear nationalism provides no clear link between the advancement of bomb work and the character of the regime. Shah Reza Pahlavi, America’s ally, secretly began the weapons program during the 1970s. Ayatollah Khomeini put the work on ice during the 1980s; it was revived in earnest only after his death. Dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions requires a diplomacy for all seasons.

The most fundamental tool of diplomacy is talk; its absence is a prescription for the kind of foolishness that sent McFarlane to Tehran two and a half decades ago. The Istanbul talks are a start, but such negotiations have not taken hold in previous cases, and in any event they are no substitute in the longer run for normalized diplomatic relations. “Washington must play the long game, with a focus on the long-term benefits of engaging Iran and the dangers of noncommunication,” Parsi writes. He quotes Admiral Mike Mullen, speaking on the eve of his retirement as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last year: “We don’t understand each other. If something happens, it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right.”

—April 25, 2012

  1. *

    Thomas R. Pickering, William Luers, and Jim Walsh, “ A Solution to the US–Iran Nuclear Standoff,” The New York Review, March 20, 2008. 

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