L ost in the debate about how to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold is the fact that we lack the ability to prevent it. The Iranians have the indigenous technical ability, and possibly the nuclear material, to build nuclear weapons right now. They can do it if they want to, and we know so little about their program they could likely achieve it without detection. The question is why they’re so intent on detection.
There are several potential explanations of Iranian government behavior, but the U.S. is unlikely ever to have adequate understanding of the opaque workings of Iran to determine its true motivations. This gap in our knowledge is only one of many. Yet our government is going to need to make policy decisions on how to deal with Iranian intransigence and duplicity without the luxury of better information. Building a successful strategy requires acknowledging areas of uncertainty and hedging against misjudgment. But we should not allow imperfect information to paralyze action that better secures our interests.
The current course we are on seems likely to result in the U.S. accentuating the political value Iran would gain from going nuclear, while reducing our own leverage to affect Iran’s choices or increase the cost to them short of a military attack. It is very much in America’s interests to frame our concerns differently. Iran’s reaction to even the mild sanctions approved by the un Security Council in December will raise the stakes and force a confrontation should Iran actually expand enrichment, as they are preparing to do. Rather than trapping ourselves in a policy that will leave us little choice but destroying the Iranian program on terms unfavorable to us or appearing impotent to prevent it, we should adopt a three-pronged approach of:
- increasing un sanctions and U.S. military pressure on Iran while opening negotiations on cessation of enrichment and a range of other issues, such as government repression and stabilizing Iraq;
- calling into question the existence and usability of any weapons that have not been tested, thereby shifting the burden of proof from our claims that fuel enrichment will give Iran nuclear weapons to Iranian action that will be indisputable, namely, a test nuclear explosion;
- clearly and publicly articulating our determination to destroy any Iranian nuclear weapons we believe are being readied for use.
What we do know
Iran acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970. Information revealed in 2002 by an exiled Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, of the existence of a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and heavy water plant at Arak demonstrated that Iran had been deceiving the International Atomic Energy Agency since at least 1984, by the iaea’s own estimate. Information gained in the 2004 investigation of the A.Q. Khan network revealed additional undeclared nuclear activities: acquisition of p2 centrifuge designs and components from Pakistan. At no time during those 18 years of iaea supervision was there detection of activity prohibited by the npt, which should suggest both the limits of iaea knowledge (the treaty entails inspections only at declared civilian nuclear facilities) and the complacency of those who consider iaea inspections sufficient to ensure states do not acquire nuclear weapons.
In the iaea’s defense — and it has performed creditably in the Iranian case — when they were permitted to inspect Natanz and Arak in 2003, inspectors reported Iran had failed to comply with its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran’s behavior in the ensuing three years is a discouraging litany:
- Iran commits to suspend all enrichment activity and signs a protocol allowing unscheduled inspections of its nuclear facilities;
- After six months the iaea reports Iran has not cooperated with inspections;
- Iran threatens to resume production and testing of centrifuges in retaliation for iaea complaints;
- Iran resumes uranium conversion in September 2005; President Ahmadinejad claims Iran is prepared to transfer nuclear knowledge to other Muslim nations;
- Iran rejects Russia’s December 2005 offer to reprocess nuclear material;
- Iran resumes research on the nuclear fuel cycle at Natanz in January 2006, precipitating an end to eu negotiations and iaea support for referring Iran to the un Security Council for “many failures and breaches of its obligations”;
- Iran threatens to cease cooperating with the iaea if referred to the Security Council;
- In March 2006, the Security Council calls on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment within 30 days; Iran does not comply;
- On April 11, President Ahmadinejad announces Iran has successfully enriched uranium;
- The U.S. sweetens the eu offer to Iran by committing to join the negotiations provided Iran suspends uranium enrichment; for five weeks, Iran fails to respond;
- g-8 leaders call for Iran to reply to the eu-U.S. offer;
- Iran stalls until late August, then replies it will negotiate, but will not suspend enrichment as a precondition to negotiations;
- The un Security Council passes resolution 1737, approving sanctions against Iran for noncompliance with the iaea;
- Iran dismisses the sanctions as meaningless and prepares to begin large-scale reprocessing in March, readying cascades of 3,000 centrifuges.
The pattern of Iranian behavior during the negotiations does not support the hopeful proposition that the Iranian government is foremost seeking a way back into the mainstream of international activity. To the contrary, President Ahmadinejad gives every indication of reveling in the crisis and pressing for tactical advantage. In January, he announced with satisfaction, “we are rapidly becoming a superpower.” Iran appeared convinced before sanctions were imposed that the international community would not take concerted action. While parts of the Iranian government appear to be distancing themselves somewhat from President Ahmadinejad since sanctions were imposed, the government has proceeded with an escalation from two experimental cascades of 164 centrifuges engaged in enrichment to over 3,000 centrifuges, an overt rejection of un and iaea demands. Ahmadinejad is not in a position to make those decisions without support of at least Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — in other words, he must have his government’s backing.
Iran’s behavior in the negotiations has achieved what many thought impossible: convergence of the European and American views. Europeans are now convinced that Iran is working assiduously to develop nuclear weapons and cannot be trusted. French government officials have even gone so far as to complain that the U.S. needs to “act American” and be more overtly threatening to pressure Iran into accepting the advantageous deals European governments have been offering. European concern, however, is unlikely to translate into preemptive attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. Moreover, Iran may have learned unhelpful lessons from the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict last summer: Even though there was obvious evidence of Iranian support to Hezbollah (the long-range rockets being fired at Israel were of Iranian manufacture, as was the c-802 cruise missile fired at an Israeli corvette), European states advocated negotiations with Iran to bring about an immediate cease-fire. Iran may well believe it has even more political leverage in Palestine and Lebanon after the fighting last summer; applying that lesson to the nuclear issue, Iran could expect that as tensions rise, European calls for engagement and diminution of U.S. threats would defuse a crisis.
What we don’t know
There have been several points at which Iran could have chosen a different course with real benefits. Perhaps the most telling opportunity was a Russian offer to provide reprocessing. Iran could almost certainly have covertly manipulated such a scheme into access to weapons-grade material, given the Russian government’s laissez-faire attitude about Iranian nuclear programs, the corrupt autonomy of rusatom, and the military-industrial links between the countries. If acquiring nuclear weapons were the sole objective, Iran could have achieved it without all the international attention. But it has chosen a much more flamboyant path. Why?
The Iranian government is unconstrained in the way democratic governments are by institutional requirements to outline security objectives, strategy, and spending plans. It is reasonable to assume, however, that Iran’s key security objectives include the desire to be the dominant power in the Persian Gulf region, to deter U.S. military power from use against Iran, to provide additional leverage against regional foes (such as Israel), and to export its brand of revolutionary Shi’ite Islam. These objectives would all be advanced by a visible nuclear weapons program. But Iran has been getting quite a lot of lucky breaks in recent years, including the U.S. removing governments hostile to Tehran in Afghanistan and Iraq; the price of oil reaching $70 per barrel; the weakness of governments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon, all of which are vulnerable to pressure from Iran or such proxies as Hezbollah and Hamas; the friction in U.S. relations with most Arab states over Iraq, democratization, and support for Israeli attacks in Lebanon; the ostracism of Israel by Europe and Middle Eastern states for its attacks on Hezbollah; and portents of Sunni-Shi’ite conflict in Iraq raising the profile of restive Shi’ite minorities. Why not enjoy the benefits of its strengthened position without incurring the costs of overtly pressing forward with a nuclear program? Why hide a nuclear program for 18 years, then bring it out into the open when, by some accounts, Iran has the least need of it?
It could be that Iran perceives the U.S. to be so politically compromised and militarily tied down in Iraq that now is the best time to accelerate its nuclear program. Iran could be banking on European fecklessness and Russian and Chinese apathy to permit a fait accompli before the U.S. has reconstituted its strength and willingness to fight. But this leaves the Israeli calculus unchanged, and Israel is the country most likely to find an Iranian nuclear program intolerable. Whatever other mistakes the U.S. made in Iraq, it did demonstrate a willingness to attack a state believed to possess weapons of mass destruction and a nuclear program. Iran’s leap across the nuclear threshold now does not guarantee it impunity. If maximizing its presumed security objectives were the Iranian government’s plan, taunting the U.S., Israel, and Europe with an overt nuclear program would seem to put at risk at least some of the gains Iran is already achieving at very little cost.
The Iranian government’s behavior could be a calculated effort to buy time for uranium enrichment to reach sufficiency for weapons. Frustrated Iranian nationalism could then explain the choice to produce the enriched material domestically and to proclaim its origin loudly. As we do not know how long Iranian enrichment has been underway, or whether Iran purchased weapons-grade material that would reduce the indigenous production requirement, it would be difficult to gauge how much time that would require. The government may be thinking that with Russian and Chinese reluctance to allow a un blessing for a military attack, with Europeans unwilling to use force themselves, and with the U.S. tied down in Iraq and sure to be excoriated internationally should it preempt without certain proof, time is on Iran’s side. The government might even hope for a Pakistan-style outcome: riding out a brief period of international condemnation that international dependence (in Iran’s case, on oil) could allow Iran to quickly overcome.
A modification of the buying-time strategy is the “Japanese option” of demonstrating the technical proficiency for a rapid npt breakout but forgoing the actuality in order to avoid international ostracism. A Japanese option holds the potential to advance Iran’s security objectives without incurring the worse consequences an overt program might bring. Iran could have a program-in-being without actual weaponization, simply to create the impression it has nuclear weapons. This approach would hold the attention of Israel (its most likely regional foe), the U.S. (its most likely strategic foe), and other Arab (particularly Sunni) states. The key for this approach would be mastering the technology, which could explain Iran’s insistence on enrichment, which is considered the principal technological threshold to successful weapons development. It would also explain Iran’s refusing iaea inspections, especially if Tehran is hoping to benefit early by overstating its technical capacity — gaining nuclear status before it has the actual weapons.
It could be that Ahmadinejad is an immature political actor unaccustomed to international scrutiny and has blundered into the crisis. Khamenei’s decision in July to create advisory councils reporting directly to him on foreign affairs and wto preparedness could be seen as a rebuke to Ahmadinejad’s recklessness, as could the Militant Clerics Association’s complaints to Khamenei about Ahmadinejad. This seems the least plausible of the explanations, simply because the Iranian president has little authority in national security issues: It is extremely unlikely he could initiate resumption of enrichment activity without involvement of Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard. Moreover, until un sanctions were voted, other leading figures in the Iranian government did nothing to try to tone down Ahmadinejad or chief negotiator Ali Lirijani’s positions. In the months since sanctions were approved, the government has seemed less unified, with several leaders distancing themselves from President Ahmadinejad and criticizing his policies for risking international isolation. This suggests Iranians had a high degree of confidence their serial mendacity would not incur multilateral action; it also suggests a high value accorded to European, Russian, and Chinese opprobrium. The government of Iran may revel in U.S. opposition, but action against Iran that Europe and other powerful states support is viewed in a more worrisome light.
Another possible explanation for Iranian behavior is that as a result of extended international isolation and delusions of grandeur, the Iranian government is misperceiving the strength of its position and international reaction to its actions. Having carefully controlled the domestic debate to exclude information about its deception of the iaea and ensure it is defined by possession of nuclear technology, the Iranian government has latitude to strike principled poses about Iran’s supposed rights under the npt while probing how much the anxious Europeans and weary Americans are willing to pay for cessation of the nuclear program. This would explain the threats issued to supporters of referring Iran’s nuclear program to the Security Council (including India, oddly enough) as well as the unwillingness to accept any of several good offers made by the eu and Russia, and even now the U.S., in the past three years. Iran also has a history of underestimating and misreading the West, particularly since the Islamic Revolution: the hostage crisis that reinforced the worst stereotypes of the Revolution, the counterinvasion of Iraq that was enormously costly in lives and moral standing, the tanker war, and the 1988 operational engagement with U.S. forces (Operation praying mantis). With oil at $70 a barrel, U.S. sanctions under the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ilsa) have had a negligible effect on Iranian gdp (estimated at only $11.50 per Iranian in 1997), and international sanctions ring hollow.1 Iranian leaders may believe their oil so valuable the West will have to give them a pass on the nuclear program eventually, and see no penalty for engaging in extended negotiations that create the perception of international status. That Ahmadinejad visited Venezuela and offered $1 billion to a joint fund to reduce American imperialism suggests he may even see an opportunity for building an international profile in conjunction with other charismatic anti-American leaders.
It is even possible that the Iranian government’s choices about pursuing its nuclear program have very little to do with security or the international community, but instead are a product of domestic jockeying for position among an institutionally dominant supreme leader with waning revolutionary legitimacy seeking to tap into the Iran-Iraq war veterans’ constituency as the next wave of political power, a president popular for his common-sense relaxation of religious dicta and promises to end corruption and boost the economy but unable to deliver economically, and elites (of which Rafsanjani is representative) trying to maintain their commercial and political advantages as Iraq democratizes. This would explain the Ahmadinejad letter to President Bush, which could be an effort to consolidate domestic power by gaining credit for resuming contact with a country popular with the Iranian public and an important portal for economic modernization. It would also explain the Iranian demurral on negotiations with the U.S., if the delay in response is occurring due to a debate in policy councils about how to gain or apportion credit for the achievement or because no one in the Iranian government is in a position to deliver the deal.
The likeliest explanation is all of the above: The Iranian government wants to publicly cross the nuclear threshold by self-sufficiency to threaten its enemies and assuage its bruised national pride, is stalling and probing international reaction to understand what it will cost to achieve that goal, and is also navigating the competing domestic power centers and dealing with an immature political leader and distorted perceptions of international views. However, we don’t actually know, and we are unlikely to develop a sophisticated understanding within the time frame in which we will need to make policy choices about the Iranian nuclear program. Therefore, we need a strategy that doesn’t depend on knowing what Iranian motivations actually are or foreclose our ability to exploit the vulnerabilities of any of these eventualities.
Other things we don’t know
Our ignorance is, in fact, much broader. We do not know with any reliability the nature of Iranian command and control, either for the development programs or for the weapons’ operational employment. We do not know the location or even the existence of the full array of laboratories and manufacturing plants. We do not know the extent of the program: Is it attempting to develop a dozen weapons, hundreds, or thousands? We do not know what Iranian doctrine envisions for their use. We do not know whether simple deterrence to ensure state survival is the political aim of their possession, or whether the Iranian government has grander, more aggressive ambitions. We do not know whether possessing the weapons will reassure Iran and make its behavior more stable and predictable, as has been the case with other possessor states (such as India and Pakistan), or more likely to provoke crises to test the political currency of the arsenal (as was the case with the Soviet Union). We do not know whether Iran will proliferate the knowledge and weapons to other states or terrorist organizations.
Perhaps the most important thing we do not know about the Iranian nuclear program is when it will produce nuclear weapons. Intelligence estimates vary widely. The most recent assessment, representing the consensus of the U.S. intelligence agencies (and, unsurprisingly, leaked to the Washington Post in an article published August 2, 2005) contains the longest lead-time of all: about ten years.
This is likely a politicized judgment rather than a solid foundation on which to build policy. There are three reasons to doubt its validity. First, the U.S. intelligence community is still reeling from the magnitude and consequences of its errors about Iraqi weapons programs and may well be overcompensating and remaining vague in order not to be wrong again or to be expected to provide intelligence that affects policy choices. Second, the time frame hinges critically on Iran’s ability to manufacture uranium hexafluoride, “the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon,” and just after the assessment was released, Iran broke the iaea seals on its centrifuges and commenced enrichment activity. Without the materials constraint, which the Iranians are brooking international disapproval to address, the National Intelligence Estimate reduces the time by half. Third, U.S. intelligence agencies have had a rolling estimate of five years since 1995, which is another way of saying they simply don’t know enough about the Iranian nuclear programs to make a judgment.2
Perhaps the most straightforward assessment remains that of the 1998 Commission on Ballistic Missile Threats, chaired by Donald Rumsfeld:
The most alarming assessment comes from Mohamed ElBaradai, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who concluded in an article for Newsweek (“Diplomacy and Force,” January 12, 2006), “if they have the nuclear material and they have a parallel weaponization program along the way, they are really not very far — a few months — from a weapon.”
What is clear from this range of assessments is how little we actually know about the status of the Iranian program. As our ignorance is unlikely to result from lack of effort, it is unlikely to be overcome. However, despite the dearth of actual information about Iranian activities and the wide variance in judgment about the timeline, the assessments are reinforcing in the key area: Enriched uranium is the only critical impediment.
If Iran requires nothing other than the nuclear material, that suggests attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities may delay but would not prevent reconstitution of the program. Thus, the best outcomes a military attack could provide would be: (1) preventing the use of existing weapons; (2) revelation of the extent of the program (as damage assessment, government statements, and news stories sift through debris and yield new information); (3) delay, as new Iranian scientists and engineers are trained and facilities rebuilt; and (4) increased intelligence opportunities for tracking the program as it is reconstituted. Military strikes would not remove the Iranian nuclear threat, prevent retaliation by Iran, or ameliorate the hugely damaging political effects on other U.S. interests such as the war against terrorism — which is not to say that a military attack could not achieve nontrivial and advantageous outcomes.
We are currently in an unenviable position for containing or reversing Iran’s nuclear programs. We claim their programs are developing weapons and must be halted at the enrichment stage, but our proof requires public understanding of the scientific argument that enrichment is the critical threshold. The variability of intelligence assessments about the stage of the Iranian program also increases the difficulty of making our case. Moreover, after Iraq, the credibility of Western, and especially American, intelligence is very much in question. All of which leaves us with a complicated technical case to make based on dubious sources of information. Skepticism will be especially prevalent in the Middle East, where competing narratives will have greater sway.
These fundamental weaknesses make our case unwinnable. Enrichment may be the right substantive place to draw the line on the Iranian nuclear program, but it is indefensible ground as a matter of public policy. If the U.S. were to use military force against Iran because of enrichment, we would be seen as provoking the ensuing war. Neither European nor regional allies would support us. Iranians would surely unite behind their government. And we would be defending our choices at the un over a chorus of castigation. It is not even difficult to imagine the U.S. being accused of using nuclear weapons against Iranian facilities because of the nuclear material any conventional attack would release.
Rather than threaten military force to prevent Iranian enrichment, we should continue on the course of un activism while making several policy changes that expand our range of options. As containing the Iranian nuclear program is a negotiation on several fronts, we should trade our latitude to preempt the Iranian nuclear programs for Security Council commitment to sanctions with greater bite. The mild sanctions agreed by the un in December do appear to have surprised Iranians and serve to make Iranians question whether their government’s claim of peaceful energy development merits closer examination. A U.S. Treasury ban on the use of dollars in transactions with Bank Saderat and Bank Sepah appears to have been very effective — and, incidentally, demonstrates an interesting capacity for working directly with banks, which fear exclusion from the American financial order, rather than through European governments. European governments are slowly putting legal means in place to constrain Iranian economic activity, and while they are unlikely to completely cut off the $18 billion in loan guarantees given to European businesses in Iran, it will get more difficult and more embarrassing for Iranians to do business, especially the 30 companies the U.S. has identified as being involved in terrorism or wmd programs.4 Should Iran move ahead with a cascade of 3,000 centrifuges, as it gives every indication of doing, it will justify tougher sanctions, alienate European publics, and raise the cost to Russia and China for continuing to shield it from penalty. Escalating pressure on Iranian financial transactions rather than commodity sales would be likeliest to retain Russian and Chinese endorsement.
We could assist our own case significantly by agreeing to negotiations without preconditions. The Bush administration’s offer last summer to join negotiations if Iran discontinued enrichment was shrewd repositioning. If we are not talking to the Iranians, it will be much more difficult to build support for any eventual military action. Refusing negotiation makes us appear petulant and reduces our ability to make our case globally and to talk past the Iranian government to the Iranian people. We have an interest in demonstrating that every reasonable effort to compromise met only intransigence.
Opponents of negotiations argue that opening them would give away valuable leverage, reward Iranian misbehavior, and send a signal of weakness. They are mistaken on at least two of those points. If negotiations with the U.S. were such valuable leverage, the Iranians would likely have taken last summer’s deal. Moreover, the leverage argument assumes that negotiating with the Iranians is of more value to them than to us, which is at least questionable. If the Iranians are bent on nuclear weapons development, they will be unaffected by negotiations, whereas we will solidify domestic and international backing and have a direct channel of communication that could reduce miscalculation and expand our opportunities to separate the Iranian government from its people. Even if negotiations do not constrain the Iranian nuclear program, they will strengthen our standing and could help open up Iranian society. Engaging with the Iranian government is an idea more anathema to American policymakers than it is to Iranian dissidents; they have confidence we can conduct diplomacy, as we did with the Soviet Union, without legitimizing the regime. In refusing to negotiate we help a dictatorial government control information; through negotiations, we further our aims and reduce their ability to mischaracterize our actions. If the Iranians are not bent on nuclear-weapons development, negotiations will give us a better understanding of tradeoffs that would constrain them.
The Iranians will surely claim, and may even believe, that the abandonment of the U.S. demand for an end to enrichment demonstrates our weakness and validates their repudiation of the un — which is why now is such an auspicious time to undertake the change in policy. The additional carrier battle group now in the Gulf and the crackdown on Iranian activities inside Iraq provided a show of strength that weighs nicely against the softened position on negotiations. Tightening un sanctions against Iran as we move toward negotiations would likewise attenuate claims we are giving in to Iranian threats. We have reason to be confident of our strength, and making a concession to open negotiations would actually increase it. As part of a broader shift in approach that provides a sturdier basis for international support as tensions heighten, relaxing our preconditions seems justifiable even if Iran misunderstands its motivation.
We should not, however, provide reassurances to the Iranian government that we will not overthrow it.5 To do so would give credence to the Iranian argument that legitimate fears drive its nuclear program, with the burden of proof on us to show we do not intend to be a threat. Moreover, even if we did compromise our principle of opposition to undemocratic governments that support terrorism and are working on nuclear weapons, it would be unlikely to be believed. Experience with Iran disbelieving that the eu would carry out the commercial inducements offered in nuclear negotiations suggests it would be a futile undertaking.
Rather than threaten to disrupt the Iranian program at the reprocessing stage, we should shift the terms of the debate — to the testing of a nuclear weapon. By ourselves arguing that Iranian enrichment is the equivalent of Iran’s going nuclear, we give Iran status as a nuclear power without its having to produce weapons. While the critical scientific threshold in mastering nuclear technology is indeed the fuel cycle, there are significant scientific and engineering challenges — as well as time — still ahead. By emphasizing enrichment so strongly, we give Iran a false sense of achievement that very much serves its purposes, but not ours.
Our policy should be to deny Iran the prestige its government seems to want from becoming a nuclear power unless it also incurs the costs of overt violation of the npt. Peaceful nuclear power may include mastery of the fuel cycle — but it does not produce nuclear weapons tests. We would not have to make a complicated technical case about the nuclear threshold; if they tested, the Iranians would be making our case. An Iranian nuclear test would be visible to a much wider audience, would not rest solely on U.S. intelligence information, and would be independently verifiable. In establishing an Iranian nuclear test as the standard for treating Iran as a possessor state, we force Iran to choose whether it wants the status of being in the nuclear club enough to undertake a test that removes all doubt about its aspirations. A coordinated change in the standard, reinforced by the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese (all of whom, wanting to avoid war over Iran’s nuclear program, would see benefit in shifting the line), would remove from Iran its most salient argument in continuing its enrichment: that it is not a weapons program. We would not need to recant our justified suspicions of Iran’s nuclear programs, just recalibrate the point of no return.
International seismic monitoring generally provides accurate information about nuclear events, even when the tests are underground. The U.S. should try to persuade Iran’s neighbors to place seismic sensors along their borders with Iran for iaea monitoring, and we should visibly collect the same information from offshore and airborne platforms. Sensors are not a foolproof means of detection, as debate on ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty brought out. Low-yield nuclear weapons and signature masking may prevent detection of a test, but the sensor relays ringing Iran would be only one of several means of gathering information. Besides, Iran would actually need the test to be known to achieve the political objective of crossing the nuclear threshold. iaea inspectors would give Iran’s neighbors a stake in the enforcement regime, but passively, and therefore likely more attractively. Of course, if any of Iran’s neighbors are pulled toward developing nuclear weapons of their own by Iran’s nuclear program, they would be far less likely to participate (given that doing so would reveal their own nuclear tests); that, too, would be valuable information.
Playing stronger defense will diminish Iran’s ability to gain political currency from claims about its nuclear program. Since there will be a higher risk associated with possible clandestine weapons development as we move our focus from enrichment to testing, we should encourage emplacement of ground-based missile defense systems like the ones being discussed for Poland and the Czech Republic, to be linked with radars possibly placed in the uk or Azerbaijan. An extensive ring of missile defenses will also have the benefit of stoking Iranian concerns about encirclement, proving the point that their moves toward nuclear weapons are making them less secure.
As part of undercutting the political value of Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, we should be emphasizing the unreliability of untested weapons designs and materials. Statements that call into question whether a state could ever depend on weapons it hasn’t tested may provoke an Iranian test, but that would leave us in a better position than facing a clandestine Iranian program we can prove by intelligence means but cannot persuade other governments to take action against or publics to be concerned about.
Iran’s vision of crossing the nuclear threshold appears to be an “end of history” event: namely, Iran acquires nuclear weapons and is returned to its rightful place as regional hegemon and bête noir to U.S. power. We should adjust our public statements to deny the Iranians that political payoff. The president’s repeated refrain that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable only reinforces the political value to Iran of acquisition — the Iranian leadership seems very much to want an outcome we say is unacceptable but turn out to be powerless to prevent. The U.S. should instead publicly emphasize the costs to Iran in terms of a forgone cooperative relationship with us, diminished attractiveness to foreign investment that could modernize their oil industry and provide jobs, the diversion of resources to the nuclear program that could more profitably be directed toward medical and other fields, and exacerbated tensions with neighbors. Such an approach would deny Iran the benefit of international attention and status from imposing an outcome we oppose. It would also lay out the costs to the Iranian people, increasing the prospect of domestic debate and pressure on the government internally.
We should also be emphasizing repercussions. An Iran that behaves as this Iranian government does is likely to provoke attack. Israel is obviously the most capable adversary, but it is by no means the only one, especially if Iran sets off a spiral of proliferation. Iran’s acquisition is likely to precipitate serial proliferation in neighboring states, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and possibly even, one day, Iraq. It will exacerbate tension between Sunni and Shi’ite, and Arab and Persian communities. Saudi Arabia is likely to ramp up funding to the Pakistani program in return for weapons. We should be raising the question, both in governmental discussions and with the Iranian people, whether this is really a Middle East in which they will be more secure and more respected. Iranian claims of the need for nuclear weapons to defend against a U.S. threat should be publicly countered with the question of why the U.S. has not already attacked if intent on the conquest of Iran.
While Gulf Cooperation Council states profess to be unconcerned by a nuclear-armed Iran, and exceedingly worried about U.S. military action disrupting shipping traffic and oil prices, they are stakeholders and should be prodded to be more responsibly involved in dissuading Iran. The Islamic solidarity this Iranian government so often lays claim to needs to be countered by other Islamic states, especially those whose security and economies would be detrimentally affected. Growing Sunni-Shi’ite friction should make Iranian claims of “an Islamic bomb” patently unbelievable and give the Jordanian, Egyptian, Saudi, and other Sunni-led governments reason to contest the characterization. One valuable conversation for gcc states to have with Iran is that Iranian nuclear weapons would make a long-term U.S. military presence in the region more likely, as the United States seeks to reassure allied governments against attack by Iran. This could serve to stoke Iran’s fears of encirclement and would be delivered more credibly by Iran’s neighbors than by the U.S.
Allowing a nuclear-armed Iran to provoke the U.S. into making defense commitments beyond our interests would only compound the political value to Iran of its nuclear possession. Nor should we accept the argument that only nuclear weapons are sufficient as a deterrent. The U.S. has sufficient conventional force to protect its friends in the region. In the case of the gcc and other Middle Eastern states, the U.S. should continue to interdict efforts to buy weapons and prevent development of indigenous nuclear programs. Demonstrating that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons did not advance its interests would be preferable to acquiescing in several Middle Eastern nuclear powers.
Even if one gives no credence to Ahmadinejad’s September 2005 statement that Iran was prepared to share nuclear technology with other Muslim nations, Iran’s links to the A.Q. Khan network and agreement with North Korea to provide missile testing data merit serious concern about proliferation. Moreover, Iran’s record of providing weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah suggests that it might cascade either weapons, weapons-grade material for dirty bombs, or technical knowledge. Iran has close military-industrial links to Russia, China, and North Korea (evident in the evolution of similar missile variants) and exports military equipment to more than 30 countries.6 If our policy could be structured to create a threshold event like testing to demonstrate Iranian nuclear capability, that would facilitate tracking and boarding of ships involved in suspect commerce with Iran through the Proliferation Security Initiative. While the Russians and Chinese, as major suppliers, would never permit restrictions on military equipment sales to Iran that enable the delivery of nuclear weapons, they might be persuaded to embargo Iranian sales of such equipment on nonproliferation grounds.
Our challenge is to draw Iranian society into the debate about Iran’s security by providing information and asking questions the government does not want to address. Therefore, we should expand the range of negotiations from just the nuclear program to include issues of governance, human rights, and civil society. Our state-to-state negotiations would encourage newspaper editorials, radio and tv broadcasts, academic lecture tours, model un debates — all the small-scale engagement that reduces the government’s ability to control information, reinforces civil society in Iran, encourages people to think for themselves and hold their government accountable for addressing their concerns, and builds low-level linkages between Iran and the U.S. Such an approach will not only inform the nuclear debate; it has advantages for helping create a more democratic Iran, our ultimate objective.
Despite the high price of oil in the past few years, economic impairment may be our most powerful tool short of force. The cia Factbook describes the Iranian economy as “marked by a bloated, inefficient state sector, over reliance on the oil sector, and statist policies that create major distortions throughout.” Public debt is 25 percent of gdp, and inflation is running at 16 percent. By focusing all our attention on the Iranian nuclear program, we are allowing the Iranian government to divert attention from its inability to provide economic opportunities. Part of our argument should be that Iran is a country that ought to be rich and inventive and engaged in the international economy, but its government prevents those things.
Ending ilsa sanctions is sometimes mooted as a unilateral action. Sanctions have had little effect on the Iranian economy, but serve a valuable political purpose of disapproval. Lifting sanctions to bribe the Iranian government out of doing something it initiated has the moral hazard so often displayed in policy choices about North Korea. As currently designed, however, ilsa sanctions prevent Iranian expatriates from sending money into the country. Revising the law to capitalize on expatriate funding of activities that diversify information, build civil society, and reduce the Iranian government’s ability to control political activity would empower private citizens who share our commitment to changing the Iranian government. The U.S. has had some success discouraging international financial institutions, public and private, from making capital available to Iran. This should be continued as a way of isolating Iran from the economic opportunity it so badly needs to reduce the 20 percent unemployment rate the government admits to among those under the age of 29.7
Some military options
Our strategy needs to incorporate military options, if only for the in extremis circumstance of Iran launching a nuclear attack. While the U.S. can rely on determined European diplomatic gambits to continue, it would likely place too great a strain on transatlantic relations to press for European participation in any military attack on Iran — even if Iran was preparing to launch a nuclear attack. The eu’s inability to develop a defense policy is illustrative of the degree to which force has been removed from the lexicon of European statesmanship. Resuscitating a role for military force inherent in strategy is a longer-term task for our relations with Europe, and dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran will be hard enough without fixing European strategic thinking also.
The only country the U.S. could likely rely on for support in military operations is Israel. There are shortfalls in Israel’s military capability to destroy the Iranian nuclear infrastructure on its own. It is anyway in Israel’s interest to have the U.S. help solve the problem, given the dynamics of the region, just as it is in the interest of the U.S. not to let Israel take on the military responsibility by itself.
The administration’s effort to ratchet up pressure on Iran is being met with concern about our ability to use force successfully, as if Iraq were the only model for using military force. In fact, Iraq is the least likely model, as it was so ambitious in terms of our expectations for building stable democracy. Military attacks on Iran to interdict its nuclear program or destroy weapons being readied for use would likely be more limited uses of force and designed to capitalize on the traditional advantages of American military power.
A simplistic exchange model would have the U.S. threatening a nuclear attack in retaliation for any nuclear use by Iran. This approach not only is implausible, but better options are available to the United States. As the guarantor of the international order and the country with an overwhelming dominance in conventional military forces, no nation benefits as much as the U.S. from the norm against nuclear use. Nuclear use in warfare would substantially drive up the cost to the U.S. of preserving order, whereas the prohibition that has existed since 1945 channels conflict into the sector of warfare in which the U.S. has the greatest operational advantages: clashes between identifiable combatants organized into military units and targeting adversary military units. To deter Iran, the U.S. doesn’t need to threaten nuclear retaliation.
The Iranian government seems to fear strategic encirclement, an enduring U.S. presence in the region, the U.S. drive for democracy in the Middle East, strong U.S. relations with moderate Sunni states, and perhaps regime change. It would likely fear losing the weapons it is brandishing. It would likely fear a demonstration of its inability to protect itself from U.S. attacks. It would likely fear political circumstances that eroded its control. With conventional forces and diplomacy, the U.S. has the ability to produce those effects.
Iran’s crossing the nuclear threshold has two distinct aspects that merit handling separately: the first is acquiring nuclear weapons; the second is using those weapons. An Iran preparing to use nuclear weapons is the less difficult case. Given Iran’s pious promises it was not developing nuclear weapons — even going so far as to issue a fatwa at the iaea meeting stating that development of nuclear weapons was contrary to Islam — and given its overt threat against the existence of Israel, the United States would be justified in launching on warning of an Iranian nuclear use. While nuclear facilities are difficult to spot because they are often clandestine and underground, significant operational activity surrounds preparations for missile launches. We would have a high probability of knowing Iran was preparing for nuclear-armed missile attacks.
As part of deterring any Iranian use, we should be clearly conveying to the government that any indications of readiness for use will provoke us to destroy the missiles and warheads they are preparing. The message should be simple and public: You may have the weapons, but they will be of no value, because we will destroy them if you ever attempt to use them.
Destroying all of the Iranian nuclear program — not just weapons being readied for use — is a much more demanding task. The lack of information about the extent and location of nuclear facilities means we would be unlikely to destroy the entire program. We do know enough to get started, however, and activity intended to protect additional facilities after attacks began would likely provide additional helpful intelligence. Such a campaign — and it would be a campaign, not a single strike — would likely be of extended duration, requiring politically costly support from regional allies and incurring substantial civilian casualties. Operationally, we would need persistent surveillance and a dramatically improved battle damage assessment system than was operating during Operation Iraqi Freedom.8 Given the high probability of retaliation with residual Iranian nuclear forces, we will want more than one approach so that the combined probabilities of destruction are as high as possible.
Another threat merits consideration to deter Iranian use: regime elimination. While threatening to destroy Iran is a morally questionable approach to punishing an authoritarian government, threatening to hunt down the few political leaders and military operators who authorize and carry out a nuclear strike is not. They bear culpability in a way the population at large does not, and removing them from power is one way to reinforce the distinction between the Iranian people and a repressive Iranian government.
As a practical matter, this could be undertaken by missile strikes from outside the country or special forces teams operating in country. Ships and aircraft operating in and over international waters would not necessitate politically difficult overflight rights or risk captured American service members. Such a strike would require careful intelligence of leader locations, and would certainly incur substantial civilian casualties (which the Iranian leadership would have every incentive to maximize). And yet, heads of state are legitimate targets in wartime, and this action would be in response to imminent use of nuclear weapons with the intention of killing hundreds of thousands of people.
It could well be argued that if the U.S. removed the Iranian regime, we would then have responsibility for making Iran a functional state, replicating the enormity of the challenge the coalition is experiencing in Iraq. Removal of the regime could spark sectarian violence, political retribution, secession attempts, and other serious challenges. However, it merits remembering that the crisis would have been caused by Iran preparing a nuclear attack, with Israel or the U.S. itself as the target. Those circumstances could justify a strike against the leadership that left the sorting-out of Iran’s new leadership to Iranians. It also merits mention that although we have made significant and sorrowful mistakes in Iraq, we have also learned some lessons that would make an attack on Iran less likely to stagger under as many damaging choices.
A third type of military option would be a demonstration strike, not intended to destroy the nuclear infrastructure but to show Iran’s vulnerability to attack and leave the shadow of future, further attacks. Targets with unmistakable connection to the nuclear program, such as the headquarters of the nuclear energy ministry, would be worth considering. A small-scale demonstration attack coupled with threats of continued strikes until iaea compliance was achieved could be considered a managed coercion of Iran’s disarmament obligations. It would also be considered an act of war.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty in considering a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities is the likelihood of retaliation by Iran with its substantial missile inventory. Iran currently has over 500 Shehab missiles, with ranges of 300 to 1,300 kilometers. Even the shortest-range Shehab-1 and -2 could target U.S. bases in Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and Iraq, while the Shehab-3 (of which Iran is estimated to have between 25 and 100) places Israel in range.9 The U.S. would certainly want to move missile defenses into place and ensure Israel was fully informed of the plans and their timing to minimize retaliatory casualties. However, 500 is not an insurmountable number, and the U.S. has numerous means of conventional defense and retaliation in its arsenal. Iran could by no means plan on a single round of attacks, and engaging in missile salvos at U.S. bases, forces, or friendly governments would widen the conflict on terms favorable to America’s conventional military strengths.
A second potential Iranian retaliation would be fomenting further violence in Iraq and Afghanistan and attempting to destabilize pro-American governments in Pakistan. There are three reasonably strong arguments against Iran taking this approach, however. First, Iran would be incurring the enmity not just of the U.S., but also of neighbors at a time when Iran’s military ability to protect itself was being substantially reduced. A denuded Iran may pause before tangling with a nuclear-armed Pakistan that also has the ability to fight back conventionally or asymmetrically. Stoking sectarian violence in Iraq will have political consequences of long duration for Iran, which currently has the potential for a Shi’ite ally as the Iraqi political landscape solidifies. Such outcomes are not in American interests either, I hasten to add. Countries whose help we have been cajoling in the war against terrorism and whose hearts and minds we are attempting to win will resent having to deal with a belligerent Iran, especially over an issue on which they were not principal adversaries before our military strikes. But the examples highlight that Iran, too, has second-order effects to its choices, and setting aflame neighboring countries creates its own problems for Iran.
The second argument against Iran retaliating by funding and inciting violence in countries important to the U.S. is that the logic that discouraged Iranian support for terrorism in the past eight years or so will still prevail. As long as Iran is seeking international acceptance, foreign investment, and “normalization” in the international community, support for terrorism — even if justified as retaliation for a preemptive strike — will be delegitimizing.
The third argument is that Iran itself is not immune to ethnic and sectarian divisions that could be exploited. Kurdish, Arab, and Azeri Iranians might be less amenable to Persian nationalism or Islamic solidarity than the government believes; likewise for Sunnis denied the religious practice of their choice. As revolutionary fervor wanes and the Ahmadinejad government continues struggling to deliver on its domestic promises, Iran could also be susceptible to the turmoil it might seek to produce elsewhere.
Iran could also disrupt the flow of oil by closing the Straits of Hormuz or attacking Gulf platforms or shipping. As Edward Luttwak points out, “all of the offshore oil- and gas-production platforms in the gulf, all the traffic of oil and gas tankers originating from the jetties of the Arabian peninsula and Iraq, are within easy reach of the Iranian coast.” However, this, too, seems improbable beyond a short duration, since oil accounts for 80 percent of the Iranian economy. Attacks on gcc oil facilities are a greater likelihood, since they would increase the value of Iranian oil, but if gcc states were not involved in or supporting the strikes against Iran, such attacks would have long-term detrimental consequences for Iran’s relations with the gcc states.
We should not be deterred by Iranian threats, but if military attacks were seriously considered, we would need to prepare for increased Iranian meddling in Iraq, more expensive oil for at least several months, greater and more overt Iranian support for terrorist organizations, attacks on friendly governments especially in the Middle East, the possibility of infiltration attacks in the United States, and the diplomatic gambit of the U.S. being referred to the un Security Council.
From crisis to opportunity
The military options are all freighted with substantial and obvious political drawbacks that argue strongly for attacking Iran only if we believe their weapons are about to be used. This launch on warning approach diminishes the political value to Iran of possessing nuclear weapons by imposing a high cost on a genuine threat to use them. Iran will be sanctioned for its enrichment and left with unuseable weapons. When coupled with an active diplomatic campaign that cedes the unsustainable parts of our current approach, shifts focus to testing as the basis for concerted action, and uses negotiations with Iran to reach into Iranian society to stoke domestic debate about the nuclear program and other law and governance issues, the U.S. can turn a crisis over the nuclear issue into an opportunity for leveraging positive political change in Iran.
1Institute for International Economics, Case Studies in Sanctions and Terrorism, Case 84–1, U.S. v. Iran, 44. <<p>2See, for example, Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (February 16, 2005).
3Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States (July 15, 1998), section i.4b.
4Steven Weisman, “Europe Resists U.S. Push to Curb Iran Ties,” New York Times (January 30, 2007). .
5Suggested in Judith Yaphe and Charles Lutes, Reassessing the Implications of a Nuclear-Armed Iran (National Defense University, 2005).
6International Institute for Strategic Studies, Military Balance 2006, 172, 169. .
7Islamic Republic of Iran, Management and Planning Organization, Labor Force Indicators (March 21, 2005 — March 20, 2006), Table 1.
8Edward Luttwak underestimates the difficulty of attacking Iranian nuclear facilities in “Three Reasons Not to Attack Iran — Yet,” Commentary (May 2006).
9Sammy Salama and Karen Ruster, “A Preemptive Attack on Iran’s Nuclear Facilities: Possible Consequences” (Center for Nonproliferation Studies), 5.