Iran on the Brink

Iran wants nuclear weapons, and it is about to get them.

If not seriously deterred, Iran will undoubtedly (really, this time) possess nukes within the next two to three years. It is universally regarded— even by the French—that Iran’s nuclear program is much more advanced than Iraq’s ever was, and, even though Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, leaders in Tehran refused to ratify the treaty in July 2003. That refusal effectively barred weapons inspectors from obtaining more extensive access to Iran’s nuclear development facilities, which experts currently number around ninety.

If they so desire, the Iranian government may even have the opportunity to buy a nuclear weapon wholesale. After all, upwards of 40,000 Soviet-era nuclear weapons are housed in poorly secured facilities, and Graham Allison, a Harvard nuclear proliferation expert and former Department of Defense official, has noted North Korea’s potential to become “a sort of Nukes ‘R’ Us.”

If (or rather when) Iran takes a seat at the table of nuclear powers, the political climate in the Middle East will change significantly for the worse. Armed with nuclear weapons, Iran will have less incentive to cease its support of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and move toward peace with Israel. Additionally, if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is very likely that a domino effect will occur, with other countries in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, suddenly wishing to obtain weapons of their own. A nuclear Iran would have the potential to incite chaos within Iraq’s nascent and insecure government, and there is always the remote chance that the mullahs would put a nuke in the hands of terrorists.

If Iran Gets the Bomb

What does the US do if Iran gets nuclear weapons? That’s the million-dollar question. The $64,000 answer—the best the US will be able to do for now—is to follow a policy of deterrence and supplement it with containment.

“We try to deal with the problem as we did with a much more serious enemy [the USSR] for a much longer time, and that is through deterrence,” said Richard Betts, Professor of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. “We make it clear to Iran that if they use those weapons against us or our friends, retaliation will be devastating and they will wish they hadn’t.”

A comprehensive policy of deterrence would include extensive multilateral diplomacy, a clear articulation of what actions would trigger an American military response, an increase in ground intelligence, and possibly continued sanctions.

With regard to allies, the Bush Administration would have to garner more support than it did with Iraq. While it must lead the effort to deter and contain a nuclear-armed Iran, the US cannot afford to allow the Europeans to sit on the sidelines. The Bush Administration, however, lost much of its credibility after the WMD faux pas in Iraq and it could be difficult to construct a unified US-EU policy toward a nuclear Iran.

But this sort of policy would be absolutely necessary. “We must never allow these [small nuclear states] to get into a large-scale nuclear-armed coalition. Clearly the coalition dynamic is a game you have to play. Allies cannot just depend on [the US] without contributing,” said Baker Spring, the F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy at the Heritage Foundation. “The greatest source of security for lesser powers that are friends and allies of the US is the US security guarantee.”

Iran is a radical state with a radical government that has been known to support terrorist groups in the past, and adding nuclear weapons to its long list of undesirables isn’t going to be something to celebrate. Yet that doesn’t mean it will be an out-and-out nightmare.

“It’s not the end of the world,” said Robert Jervis, the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. “A lot of countries have gotten powerful weapons. They are much better for deterrence than for offense. While I would prefer Iran not to have nuclear weapons, I think what Iran will be able to do with them is quite limited. They’ll be able to deter an attack from the US, and deter an attack from Iraq.”

Henry Sokolski, the Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, agreed: “Even if Iran gets nuclear weapons, it may not lead to nuclear or total war.” As an alternative to invasion or bombing, he envisions the US and its allies containing Iran as the US did the Soviet Union. “If the Iranian government won’t change immediately, I am a proponent of competition. Look at the Cold War. The fact is that we kept up the pressure, didn’t go to war, and eventually the regime gave way.”

How Does the US Prevent Iran from Going Nuclear?

As of now, Iran is not a nuclear power, and it may be possible for the US to prevent it from becoming one. Most would like to see the US tackle Iran diplomatically, but what, exactly, is the most viable diplomatic approach?

In his book The Persian Puzzle, the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack suggested a mixed-bag policy that includes carrots- and-sticks, containment, and a strong willingness on behalf of the US to strike a bargain. Working with its European allies, the US would employ loans and liberalized trade on the “carrots” side, compounded with sanctions on the “sticks” side. The US must be willing to provide Iran with significant “benchmark” rewards for progress made; that is, the US shouldn’t expect the world in exchange for a pittance.

And the US has a lot to bargain with. Sanctions currently cripple a good portion of Iran’s economy, and disputes over formerly frozen assets constantly arise between the US and Iran. The US could support Iran’s efforts to become a member of the World Trade Organization. As Pollack pointed out, if the US were to ensure the shutdown of Iran’s nuclear program, the Bush Administration should even be willing to provide it with bilateral economic assistance.

Although Condoleezza Rice met with European leaders in February, the US has not taken a leadership role in the allied French, German and British effort to strike a disarmament deal with Iran. In addition, the Bush Administration has yet to rule out the possibility of American military action against Iran—a possibility that some analysts deem an impending reality.

The US military could launch a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear development facilities. However, a preemptive strike would inevitably fail to cover every Iranian nuclear development site, as Iranians have taken great pains to conceal their nuclear development facilities.

As Betts pointed out, “Even if you mount a successful disarming attack, you have to face the question of what you do when they rebuild the capacity, and haven’t you given them additional incentives to strike at you?”

In January, Vice President Dick Cheney suggested that Israel might take preemptive action before Iran obtains nuclear weapons. This would be similar to the 1981 bombing of Osirak, during which Israel carried out a raid on Iraq’s emerging nuclear development plants.

“We do have the capabilities to pose a credible military threat. Israel looks like the most attractive option,” said Allison. That said, a number of experts have disputed the purported success of the 1981 Osirak raid and thus have called into question the effectiveness of an Israeli attack on Iran.

“New analysis suggests Osirak actually pushed Iraq into new and better ways of creating nuclear weapons,” said Jervis.

Betts agreed. “I do not think the Israeli attack on Osirak was an unqualified success.” He added, “If the Israelis do it, the Americans are going to get blamed for it. It inflames the region. It increases all of the incentives that have grown, recently anyway, for Muslims to see the United States as an enemy.”

But, while military action against Iran has serious limitations, many experts have not ruled out the possibility that the Bush Administration may go ahead and strike, or even invade and occupy Iran. Of course, a long-term military occupation—déjà vu, anyone?— would pose problems of its own.

“If you invade the country and sit on it,” said Betts, “then they can’t do anything, but then the question is, how long are you going to stay? In Iraq, one thing people haven’t faced is that once we leave, we have no automatic assurance that the new Iraqi government won’t have an interest in getting weapons of mass destruction. So what are we going to do if a quasi-democratic Iraq starts a nuclear program? Are we going to invade it all over again?”

Some see internal regime change as a possible alternative to military action. Abbas Milani of the Hoover Institution thinks that, if the US were to enter into a serious dialogue with the Iranian people about democracy, the prospect of regime change from within Iran’s boundaries is very possible. Milani does not suggest that the US “pour money” into the democratic cause or force democratization militarily, but rather that the US should allow cultural exchanges, and set in place radio and television programs geared toward fostering a discussion of democracy within Iran.

Betts, among others, takes issue with Milani’s claim. “The more actively we try [to foster regime change], probably the more counter-productive the efforts will be, because it will validate the charges of the Iranian zealots that the Americans are trying to interfere in their country.” And, once again, there’s no guarantee a new regime wouldn’t try to go nuclear.

So, other than a combination of carrots, sticks, cooperation, and hope, what can the US do about Iran? According to Pollack, not much. “How to handle Iran and, in particular, its pursuit of nuclear weapons is a problem from Hell,” he wrote. “There simply is no school solution.”