Living with a nuclear-armed Iran

There seems to be a lot of flipping of the bird going around these days. Iran has, effectively, flipped the Gang of Six the bird on their incentives plan for the cessation of Iran’s domestic nuclear enrichment program:

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has inaugurated a new phase of a heavy water reactor project despite Western fears about its nuclear programme.

He said Iran posed no threat to other states, not even its “enemy” Israel.

Heavy water made at Arak will be used to cool a reactor being built that will create a plutonium by-product that could be used to make atomic warheads.

Observers say Iran’s move aims to send a signal of defiance days ahead of a UN deadline to halt uranium enrichment.

The US says Tehran is trying to build a nuclear weapon, while Iran says it is building a reactor to supply the country with nuclear power.

Russia is playing the helpful, constructive role we’ve come to expect:

MOSCOW, Aug. 25 — Russia’s defense minister said Friday that it was premature to consider punitive actions against Iran despite its refusal so far to suspend its efforts to enrich uranium as the United Nations Security Council has demanded.

Although Russia agreed to the Security Council’s resolution on July 31, Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov’s remarks made it clear that Russia would not support taking the next step that the United States and Britain have called for: imposing sanctions against Iran or its leaders over its nuclear programs. The Council set Aug. 31 as the deadline for Iran to respond to its demand.

Russia has repeatedly expressed opposition to punitive steps, even as President Vladimir V. Putin and others have called on Iran to cooperate with international inspectors and suspend its enrichment activity.

But on Friday Mr. Ivanov went further, saying the issue was not “so urgent” that the Security Council should consider sanctions and expressing doubt that they would work in any case.

I have some confidence in guaranteeing that unimposed sanctions will do very little.

There are reports that the U. S. will propose a sanctions regime directly solely against the Iranian leadership:

The most immediate sanctions will be directed at the Iranian administration, and will not, at this stage, hurt the Iranian people. The American proposal will include a prohibition on the Iranian leadership from traveling outside their country, and a freezing of Iranian leadership’s assets outside of Iran. This comes on the heels of attempted sanctions on Iraq, which hurt the Iranian [ed. presumably the Iraqi] people, but not Saddam Hussein.

It’s beginning to sound as though any sanctions imposed will be so minor in extent and so late in the game that the likelihood of their having any effect is minor. And, despite the saber-rattling from some of the usual suspects (I won’t bother to link—they’re easy enough to find), I don’t believe that either the United States or Israel or the United States and Israel will attack Iran to prevent its acquisition of nuclear weapons.

So, we’ll need to accustom ourselves to a nuclear-armed Iran. That’s the conclusion of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s George Perkovich:

It’s now time for the U.S. to quietly rally defense and foreign ministries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia to develop operational plans for containing and deterring a nuclear-armed Iran. Far from throwing in the towel or abandoning diplomacy in favor of warfare, devising a deterrence and containment strategy now would allay international fears that Washington uses U.N. diplomacy as a prelude to military-delivered regime change. Building international capabilities to contain a nuclear-armed Iran would have the double benefit of putting muscle into the Security Council’s effort to dissuade Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability in the first place.

The first step is to convince Iran’s leaders that their sovereignty and security will not be threatened if they desist from supporting or conducting violence outside their borders. Iran’s leaders — odious or not — must know that they do not need nuclear weapons or proxy war for their survival; the regime’s survival is best guaranteed by not fighting. The incentive package that France, Germany, the U.K., the U.S., Russia and China have recently offered to negotiate contains most of what is necessary to show Iran it will live better without producing fissile materials. What it lacks is a clear U.S. commitment to live with the government in Tehran, even as we compete with it politically and morally.

If Washington will forswear regime change and the Iranian government still refuses to negotiate terms for conducting an exclusively civilian nuclear program, then Tehran must be convinced it will suffer greatly for threatening its neighbors and Israel, directly or by proxy. The message must be: “The United States and other major powers will work more closely than ever with your neighbors to monitor your activities and establish capabilities to respond forcefully and immediately to any scale of terrorism, subversion or war that you visit on others. If you have nuclear weapons, we won’t tolerate your export of violence.”

Hat tip: the formerly ubiquitous praktike.

I’ve written about deterring the Iranians before. I don’t think “won’t tolerate” is sufficiently strong. For a credible deterrent the Iranians (and I mean all the Iranians) must realize that if Iran pursues nuclear weapons and if the U. S. or U. S. interests are attacked using such a weapon Tehran will cease to exist regardless of whether we’re certain of where the weapon originated or not. We won’t be in a mood to take any chances.

BTW I think the commenters to praktike’s post are giving the Russians and Chinese far too much credit. If the Iranians had seized a Russian or Chinese embassy or if the Iranians had threatened the shipping of needed oil to Russia or China or their allies, I think they’d be singing a different tune. The Russians and Chinese are free riders from a standpoint of world security and they’re quite content to let us bear the costs while they reap the benefits and stir up a little discontent along the way.

10 comments… add one
  • It seems that we both agree (based on our earlier discussion) in the fact that a nuclear weapon is detrimental and somehow lethal to Iran’s security. And I am pretty sure that the Iranian officials think exatcly the same way. ( video, fast forward to 19m:00s). I know this fact, you know this fact, and the Iranian officials have said that they know this fact. Why do you need to force yourself to believe that Iranian officials are dumb and they don’t get it?

    Having this said, I don’t really understand why you persistently insist on your assumption that “Iran pursues nuclear weapons”. There is no indication whatsoever that confirms your assumption. (if you have an evidence, or if you know anyone who has such an evidence, I would suggest you hand it in to IAEA inspectors, cause they are eagerly looking for it).

    A confrontational point of view is not the only point of view. Iran has not attacked any country (at least) in the past 200 or 300 years. Although the current regime has been brutal in silencing the internal opposition and dissidents, they have never been aggressive in their foreign policy.

    There are different mechasims through which Iran can be prevented from diverting its nuclear program to a nuclear arms program, but none of them have been given enough attention; this is partly because the US policy makers always have a confrontational point of view and also because they prefer to erase the question rather than answering it.

  • It’s not an assumption, Amir, it’s a conclusion and as I’ve said previously: for the reasons look in my prior posts.

    I sincerely hope that Iranian officials believe as we do.

    There are different mechasims through which Iran can be prevented from diverting its nuclear program to a nuclear arms program, but none of them have been given enough attention; this is partly because the US policy makers always have a confrontational point of view and also because they prefer to erase the question rather than answering it.

    On this we are in complete agreement.

    BTW, if I were king, I’d be going to substantial efforts to ensure that the Middle East was an NBC-free zone. And, yes, by that I mean that we (the U. S.) should be negotiating with Israel to get rid of its nuclear arsenal whatever it may be.

  • Hello Dave,

    Well; If you are so sure about your conclusion, I would suggest you inform the IAEA inspectors.

    Unfortunately most of the logical issues brought up by non-scientists (I mean non-nuclear-scientists), in this particular case, are subjective.

    ‘I THINK’s and ‘THEY THINK’s will never substantiate an assumption the way a ‘nuclear swipe sample’ may do.

  • Iran knows it is risking sanctions and diplomatic isolation. It knows it is risking war with the US. You don’t do that for a power plant. Particularly not when you’re floating on oil.

    Of course they’re after nuclear weapons.

  • The problem is that you can only prove a country’s nuclear weapons programs exist after it’s too late to prevent their use. Are we willing to take that risk with Iran? It doesn’t matter, in the end and no matter what Amir might say, what Iran thinks. It matters only what Israel’s and America’s leaders think. Because when either of those sets of leaders begins to think that Iran might have nuclear weapons and might use those weapons against their interests, Iran will cease to exist. For the US, we might be willing to absorb a first strike. Israel would not.

  • I totally agree with Andy. What Iran is after, in my opinion, is the technology to enrich uranium and the ability to make a nuclear bomb, not the bomb itself. As Andy puts it, “this has the advantage of keeping the Iranian program completely in the legal realm under the NPT”. It also provides Iran with an increased control over its oil export, and therefore, oil prices. Besides, it is as deterrent as a nuclear bomb. And so on …

    These are the advantages for which, I think, Iran is ready to risk a war. If that happens, the only loser will be Israel (which loses its strategic dominance and superiority), and not the United States.

    Since Iran is very close to the stage of mastering the technology and know-how, Israel (and therefore! the U.S.) are trying their best to get Iran to suspend asap, although Iran is years away from being able to build a bomb.

    Mr. Takhallus, doesn’t it make more sense now?

  • Jeff,

    That’s simply not true – nuclear programs can be detected. There are some things that simply can’t be hidden.

    You ask whether I’d be willing to take a risk with Iran? It depends on what your course of action is and the level of evidence we do have. Based on what we know now, I don’t see how an attack could be justified. From my view, people who advocate military action against Iran have not weighed the costs of doing so, which would be significant and lasting. We also have to consider that we don’t have the forces to successfully invade Iran, so we’d likely depend on airstrikes, providing no guarantee of success. Airstrikes, depending on their success, would set the Iranian program back 5-10 years – is that really worth it?

    Some assume that Iran will use nukes if it gets them, so they believe that we must stop them no matter what the cost. This point of view is predicated on the notion that Iranian leadership is suicidal – that they would gladly annihilate their own people to kill perhaps a few hundred thousand Israelis. It is a point of view that I feel is ignorant and not based on a clear understanding of Iran, it’s culture, government and politics.
    It would also assume that Iranian missiles would not be intercepted by the Israeli BMD system or that Iran could somehow smuggle a nuclear device into Israel. Anyone who understand the physics of nuclear weapons realizes how difficult this is. Neither prospect guarantees success from the Iranian military planner’s point of view.

    Israel is incapable of launching a significant conventional strike against Iran, and the Israeli’s are not rash enough to launch nuclear strikes unless they had clear evidence Iran was about to do the same.

  • Of course parts of the chain of creating nuclear weapons can be detected. We have already detected many of those in Iran. But we seem unwilling, so far, to do more than negotiate. Apparently, leaders in the US and Europe believe that they can get somewhere with negotiations, or alternately believe that this is not the right time to do more. With Russia and China balking on sanctions, we might not be able to ratchet up the pressure until after the pressure would make a difference.

    I don’t think we have time to starve out the Iranians as we are apparently doing with the North Koreans, by killing their funding and effectively making imports and exports very difficult. Perhaps if we had started a few years ago, but I fear that we are already too late for such slow methods to work.

    There are military options that the US has. For example, we could seize the Iranian oil fields and the area near the Straits of Hormuz and hold them with a relatively small force, while hammering Iran’s nuclear, military, government, terrorist, energy and transportation infrastructures into the ground with air strikes. The combination of depriving Iran of revenue and destroying their ability to act would be sufficient that their surrender would not even be required; we could neuter Iran. This has short and long term costs, of course, but I am far from convinced that they are harder to bear than the costs of an Iran with nuclear weapons and no meaningful constraints on its behavior.

    I don’t know where your “clear understanding of Iran, it’s culture, government and politics” comes from. I have only what is available in numerous books, the media, the blogs of Iranians in Iran or expat, and my perception of history since about 1979 to guide me, and I’m convinced the Iranian leadership is neither insane nor suicidal. I am convinced that the Iranian leadership feels that they can regain their regional power by damaging Israel (especially if they could destroy Israel), holding off the United States, and interfering in the affairs of their neighbors and other countries in the region. I am therefore convinced that an Iran sheltered under a nuclear umbrella would be quite content to aggressively promote terrorism worldwide, particularly against the US and Israel, and would be working as hard as they could, including with the open commitment of troops to groups like Sadr’s militia, to make Iraq into an Iranian puppet state and to destabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan. I am not content to allow that, and I suspect that most of those who are willing to consider military action against Iran in the next 5 years or so feel likewise.

    The Israelis may feel the threat more than us. If Iran has nuclear weapons, then they might feel quite justified in dramatically amping up the terrorism from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip in particular, where they have the most influence, combined with a very detailed threat to Israel not to act against Syria (Iran’s conduit to supplying Hamas and Hizb’allah). Would Israel be able to take massive terrorism sustained over a long period without fighting back? Would any country?

    I believe that if Iran appears to be getting close to nuclear weapons capability, Israel will strike Iran. And since the range is such that a conventional strike could not be sustained by Israel, I feel that strike would be nuclear.

    For all of the above reasons, I think that it is certainly possible that it is in our best interests to attack Iran before it becomes obvious that they have a nuclear capability, if we cannot find some other way to prevent Iran from obtaining such a capability. I don’t think we’re to that point yet, but with Russia working with Iran to develop their nuclear capabilities as fast as possible, and with Russia and China blocking sanctions and giving Iran political cover in exchange for oil rights and other concessions, I can see the point approaching where we will have to seriously consider striking Iran, with the alternative being an Israeli nuclear strike on Iran.

    I suspect that where we disagree is on our judgments of the relative costs of action and inaction. You seem to think that the costs of inaction are very low, while I think that they are potentially very high.

  • I suspect that where we disagree is on our judgments of the relative costs of action and inaction. You seem to think that the costs of inaction are very low, while I think that they are potentially very high.

    No, I agree the costs of inaction are POTENTIALLY very high. The costs of military action, as you describe, are without doubt DEFINITELY very high. You, and many others who advocate some sort of military action, don’t seem to understand the military operational difficulties involved in carrying out the plans you advocate to say nothing of the consequences. Your statement, “we could seize the Iranian oil fields and the area near the Straits of Hormuz and hold them with a relatively small force…” demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of Iranian military planning and strategy to say nothing of our own capabilities. Such an operation could not be accomplished with “a relatively small force.” If you really believe that cutting off Iranian oil revenues will get us our strategic objectives, then you could stop 95% of Iranian oil exports by destroying 4 oil terminals. However, the consequences to world exports from such an act would be extreme as would the Iranian response. Countries don’t take the destruction of their economy lightly.

    As for Iranian culture and politics, people seem to forget that the Iranian people are the friendliest, most pro-US muslims in the world. Iranians were holding candlelight vigils in the streets after 9/11 while much of the rest of the Muslim world was celebrating. The Iranians are our natural allies, not the Arabs. Iran, if moderated, could serve as a bulwark against what appears to me to be the collapse of Arab civilization. An injudicious attack based on unverified probabilities of capability and intent would quickly destroy those positive aspects and turn the population against us.

    As for Israel, I have to disagree they would use a nuclear first-strike. Israel, once it has a nuke, will have two basic delivery methods: Unconventional and MRBM’s. And MRBM on a launch pad is easily monitored and can be attacked if necessary. The Israeli’s also have probably the most capable BMD system in the world. An unconvential delivery method would not be easy. It’s not like Israel has open borders and nuclear weapons can be detected relatively easily coming into a country like Israel.

Leave a Comment