(An earlier version of this article was published on Forbes.com)
Like it or not, it’s time to deal with Iran as a responsible nuclear power. Yes, responsible. No nation either can or is willing to stop the Iranians from going nuclear but themselves, which is highly unlikely. The question is, what’s the best approach going forward?
To be clear, we are not in favor of Iran developing nuclear weapons, nor do we support President Barack Obama’s nuclear weapons deal with Iran. Not only will this deal fail to slow down Iran’s nuclear program, it will serve to accelerate it. Dropping economic sanctions against Iran and allowing oil exports will make billions of dollars available to Iranian authorities to invest in their nuclear weapons program. This deal will likely initiate a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Tragically, perhaps, Congress has failed to block the deal. So the best option now is to look at the issue from another perspective, Plan B—and pray.
Yes, the Iranians have spewed out wild rhetoric for decades, especially threats to annihilate Israel. But is there reason to believe Iran will act rashly? The Israelis would surely return the atomic favor and vaporize Iran. Judging by Iran’s actions on the international stage, it would be reasonable to describe the country’s government as evil, as the world’s leading sponsor of international terrorism. But this endeavor has been well calculated for advantage over decades, just as Iran now funds, supplies and directs proxy Shi’ite fighters throughout the Middle East. Irrational the Iranians are not.
Consider Iran’s consistent negotiating skills, again over many years. That the U.S. agreed to the terms of the nuclear deal could easily be termed rash, perhaps completely mad. But the opposite is true of the Iranians.
Those who believe that Iran would launch a nuclear end-times attack should recall that the Chinese made similar threats against the West—until they acquired nuclear weapons. True, North Korea still threatens to fire nukes at the U.S., but who takes this as more than propaganda? North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-on, would likely be diagnosed as clinically insane by a psychiatrist, at least for consorting with Dennis Rodman, but the likelihood Dear Leader 2.0 would authorize an attack even against South Korea is remote. And if he did, would the North Korean military comply risking complete annihilation?
“All Imperialists are Paper Tigers”: Typical anti-American propaganda,
which didn’t precipitate Chinese military action after becoming a nuclear state.
And then there’s the practical side to Iran’s apocalyptic rhetoric. Is there any indication that the ayatollahs have been assured by agents from the next life that 2.8 billion virgins are ready and waiting for their entire 39-million male population of resulting martyrs? That’s a tall order even for a deity.
A more credible risk would be posed by rogue fanatics or enemies of Iran. A messianic faction or ISIS infiltrators might wrest control of one or more nukes from the Iranian military. The most reasonable course of action for the U.S. would be to offer to give the Iranians training in nuclear safety and control, and in Permissive Action Link technology. Perhaps the UK or India might play this role if Iran did not want to work directly with the U.S.
Putting Israel’s worries aside, would the U.S. be any more uncomfortable with a nuclear Iran than with North Korea or Pakistan? If tomorrow the U.S. discovers that Iran actually has nuclear weapons, the administration would do exactly the same as when China or North Korea went nuclear: nothing.
The U.S. accommodated China, North Korea, Pakistan—as well as the Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation), India, Israel, France and the United Kingdom—in part because it seemed (and still seems) very unlikely that any state would use nuclear weapons openly and offensively.
Sanctions or Military Option
Let’s suppose that Iran has yet to develop a nuclear weapon by the time the next president takes office in January 2017, and let’s pretend that president is actually serious about stopping the Iranians. He or she would have two alternatives:
1. Severe Sanctions: In 2006, the U.N. Security Council imposed economic sanctions on Iran for failing to suspend its nuclear weapons program. These sanctions were later expanded to include bans on all Western nations buying Iranian oil. Certainly, the sanctions caused economic hardship, including spiraling inflation and growing unemployment. Political discontent grew and perhaps was reaching the danger point when Iran began participating in negotiations in Geneva in 2013.
But when Iran’s new president, Hassam Rouhani, met with representatives from the U.S. and the four other members of the U.N. Security Council (Russia, China, Great Britain and France) plus Germany, known as the P5+1, no threat of extending or tightening sanctions was presented. Instead, the U.S. especially pushed to ease sanctions as the big bargaining chip. On Sunday, November 24, an agreement was reached, which, according to the New York Times, “would temporarily freeze Iran’s nuclear program and lay the foundation for a more sweeping agreement.” Of course, this was sheer nonsense. Once sanctions were eased, leverage over Iran was ceded for empty promises.
A new U.S. president could revoke the deal and reinstitute sanctions, which would be messy if European and American companies were investing large sums in Iran. However, would renewed sanctions force Iran to abandon its nuclear program? That seems very unlikely. In an interview with Al Jazeera on December 2, 2013, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said that “[w]hen sanctions started Iran had less than 200 centrifuges. Today Iran has 19,000 centrifuges so the net product of the sanctions has been about 18,800 centrifuges.…” Sanctions completely failed to halt Iran’s nuclear program.
New sanctions, even more stringent ones, would be painful, but there is no reason to believe this would deter Iran’s ambitions at this point. By 2017, the Iranians will likely be close enough to developing a nuke that sanctions would come too late. Iran’s leaders don’t care how much suffering their people endure. Their only concern is avoiding a full-scale revolution. Given how brutally the Iranian government would counter insurrection, sanctions would have to be imposed for years to precipitate mass rebellion.
If the goal of the 2006 sanctions was to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program, then they should have been made increasingly stringent. Even so, sanctions might have succeeded only in conjunction with other pressures. For example, a build up of American forces in Iraq would have communicated serious intent.
2. Military option: There are only two nations with an avowed interest in stopping Iran and the capacity to inflict military damage:
a. Israel: The Israeli Air Force could hit Iran but would be unable to inflict enough damage to Iran’s nuclear program to stop it, even if they take out the Arak facility. Nor would the Israelis be able to shut down the country (see below) without using nuclear weapons. It’s very unlikely that Israel would go to that extreme without the existential threat representing a real, present danger, which would be too late. In short, Israel might attack Iran but with conventional weapons, which will be annoying but not fatal to the nuclear program.
If Israelis are really so worried about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, why didn’t they attack several years ago when the Iranians were more vulnerable? It’s been obvious since early in the Obama presidency that he has no intention of stopping Iran or executing any coherent foreign policy other than abnegation of international leadership.
b. The United States: If the U.S. attacked known sites where nuclear weapons fuel, bomb components and delivery capacities are being developed, substantial damage would be inflicted. However, Iran has created significant redundancy as well as a high degree of active and passive protection around its sites. U.S. air attacks would likely fail to stop the nuclear program.
The most efficient plan would involve shutting down Iran as a functional state, which would entail cutting off its power sources, oil resources, and air and sea transportation hubs. The U.S. military could accomplish this efficiently, but it would entail a major and very expensive operation. Costly, lasting damage to essential Iranian infrastructure would ensue and the Iranian people would suffer greatly. World opinion would not be kind in the aftermath of an American attack. Even nations that want the U.S. to shut down Iran at any cost, would still criticize America.
Would the new president have the political support and will to prosecute such an operation? Part of the calculus would be the reality that neutralizing Iran’s military and political power in the regions would allow ISIS to expand into areas currently controlled by Iran’s allies. Perhaps defeating both Iran and ISIS is exactly what needs to be done before an Islamic Caliphate, uniting Sunnis from Iraq to Pakistan, faces off against a rising Persian Shi’ite Empire—both armed with nuclear weapons. Or perhaps they would put differences aside for a while to unite against the West.
On the other hand, the next president might calculate that the overall human and geopolitical cost of the military option is too high by 2017.
There in no doubt that the current nuclear deal with Iran is “filled with absurdities,” as Israeli’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, and will fail to curb Iran’s ambitions. However, in spite of this, the reality of actually possessing nuclear weapons will likely sober the Iranians. All that can be done in this era of American impotence is to help Iran stay sober.
The best option for now, and perhaps for the next president, is Plan B: instituting a comprehensive program to help Iran control and protect its nuclear weapons, assuming Iran chooses to continue developing them.
For well over half a century, the U.S. military has worked hard to secure its nuclear arsenal. Given the large numbers of weapons and their airborne and ship-borne deployment, the U.S. has a remarkable record: zero nuclear explosions, zero lost weapons, zero unauthorized access to nukes. Setting up and offering a comprehensive training program for the Iranians is entirely feasible and could be done with or without overt U.S. involvement.
Lighting candles at local churches might help too. Prayer is at least as effective as our current negotiators.