By Ari Kattan
It is more likely than not that Iran will develop nuclear weapons by the end of the decade, despite the efforts of the international community to prevent such an outcome. The reason for this is very simple: Iran’s determination to develop nuclear weapons is stronger than the international community’s determination to stop them. Given this reality, the United States must begin preparing a policy for containing Iran and preserving American interests to the fullest extent possible, after the blow they will suffer from the emergence of an Iranian nuclear arsenal.
Why Iran Will Probably Get Nuclear Weapons
The Iranian regime’s top priority is to stay in power. In order to maintain its control over the country, it must counter foreign threats to its rule, keep enough of the Iranian public on its side and continue pursuing a policy of regional supremacy. A nuclear weapons arsenal, from the regime’s perspective, helps advance all three of those goals. If Iran has a nuclear deterrent, its leaders can rest assured that no country, the United States included, will attempt to overthrow it through conventional force. The American war to remove Saddam Hussein from power in 2003 surely strengthened Iran’s position and the idea that nuclear weapons were vital to the survival of the regime and necessary to prevent foreign intervention.
The development of nuclear weapons — and the eventual ownership of them — also helps the Iranian regime keep a large segment of the public supportive of its rule. For many Iranians, advancement in nuclear technology and weapons is a matter of prestige. The appearance of scientific parity with the West is an important component of Iranian nationalism, which helps explain why the nuclear program is popular even amongst moderate and reform-minded Iranians. The country’s achievements in the nuclear realm serve as a source of pride, which increases support for the regime. Iran has also used the international dispute over its nuclear program to increase support at home. The regime’s continued defiance of the international community has provoked the West into taking hostile and aggressive positions toward Iran, which the regime can then use to portray Iran as the victim of Western aggression. This perception helps shore up the regime’s domestic popularity as Iranians ‘rally around the flag’ in response to hostile Western statements. The eventual possession of a nuclear arsenal will also help the regime crush internal dissent. Intervention on behalf of forces combating the government, like the recent UN/NATO intervention in Libya, will become impossible if Iran has a nuclear deterrent. Lastly, the Iranian regime views a nuclear arsenal as a “vehicle for regional dominance.” Iran’s proxies throughout the Middle East — Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and various Shia groups in Iraq — will be substantially emboldened if Iran can provide them with a nuclear umbrella. Playing an expansionist role in the region through proxies and the promotion of extremist ideology serves to strengthen Iranian nationalism and appease the religious ideologues who are the political base for the regime. It is for these reasons that the Iranian government will stop at nothing to develop nuclear weapons.
Efforts to stop Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons are unlikely to work in the long term. A military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities will only set their weapons program back by a couple of years; it will not permanently prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Such an attack is thus unadvisable, especially given the strong negative consequences that such a strike would have. Iran would surely retaliate against American targets in the region and in Afghanistan, destabilize Iraq, use its proxies to attack Israel and threaten the oil flow from the Persian Gulf. These consequences are not worth suffering because the attack would only be a temporary fix, and would destroy the Iranian opposition, which long term is our best hope of reconciliation with Iran. Sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program through cover action is also likely to only delay, not prevent, Iran from eventually succeeding in crossing the nuclear threshold (though the US and its allies should certainly continue trying). Even with the success of the latest (known) covert action against Iran, Stuxnet, Iranian scientists, through perseverance, trial and error and the acquisition of nuclear technology from the black market, will eventually have enough highly enriched uranium and a working delivery system for a nuclear bomb. Lastly, sanctions are also unlikely to work because they will only be effective if the entire international community participates. But this is improbable: Russia and China, both members of the UN Security Council, see utility in not cooperating with the West on Iran. Both countries view Iran as an effective instrument of influence in the Middle East, and feel that they can benefit from opposing US interests in the region. They will thus continue to undermine American and European attempts for comprehensive and effective sanctions. Given Iran’s determination to get nuclear weapons and the international community’s lack of effective preventive options, it is likely that Iran will eventually succeed in getting a nuclear arsenal.
American and Allied Interests
American and allied interests in the Middle East are fivefold. First, oil from the Persian Gulf must be secure. Second, the Unites States must work to prevent the proliferation of WMD in the region. Third, the U.S. and its allies must combat and contain radical Islamist forces and terrorist organizations. Fourth, the U.S. must work to secure a lasting Arab-Israeli peace. Fifth, Israel must maintain its qualitative military edge and be able to defend itself from foreign threats.
An Iranian nuclear arsenal threatens all of these interests. With nuclear cover, Iran would be able to close off the Strait of Hormuz, where 20 percent of the world’s oil supply passes through, making it the most important chokepoint in the world. In the event of hostilities, or as a tactic of exerting pressure on the economies of the West, Iran could prevent oil tankers from passing through the strait, threatening the supply of oil from the Gulf. Such an event would have drastic consequences for the entire world, especially during the current global recession. An Iranian bomb also threatens American and world efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, other regional heavyweights like Saudi Arabia and Egypt will feel that they need them too. This would cause massive arms buildup, putting an already unstable region on hair-trigger alert and increasing the chances of miscalculation between adversaries. While the Arab states do not currently possess the technological capability to begin their own nuclear weapons programs, they may look to secure nuclear parity with Iran as a long-term goal. In addition, they may try and purchase nuclear weapons or achieve deterrence against Iran by acquiring chemical or biological WMD. Combating and containing radical Islamist forces and terrorist organizations will also become more complicated. Iran will have a nuclear umbrella with which to cover its proxies throughout the Middle East. Holding Hamas or Hezbollah accountable for their actions will become far more risky if there is even a slight chance that retaliating against them could cause direct confrontation with a nuclear-armed Iran. This gives these organizations far more freedom to engage in terrorist activities and consolidate their rule in the territory they already control. The American goal of securing a lasting Arab-Israeli peace will also be threatened. Israel would feel less secure, and thus less willing to make necessary concessions to the Palestinians, such as withdrawing from strategically important land in the West Bank. Palestinian extremist forces like Hamas and Islamic Jihad would also become more emboldened, and would have far greater capacity to torpedo a peace deal than they already do. Lastly, a nuclear Iran would reduce Israel’s qualitative military edge and, in the eyes of the Israelis, threaten their very survival. This would create a fundamentally unstable scenario between two nuclear weapons states, where miscalculation could lead to regional or even nuclear war.
Managing the Fallout
Given these drastically negative consequences of a nuclear Iran, what can be done to preserve American interests to the fullest extent possible? To reduce the effectiveness of Iranian interference in the Strait of Hormuz, the U.S. and its allies should increase their strategic oil reserves. A coalition of Western and allied Middle Eastern nations should assemble a naval force for the protection of shipping through the strait, and as a response force to deter Iran from taking aggressive action. Most importantly, however, the US must transition to alternative sources of energy, taking the oil weapon away from Iran (and other Middle Eastern states). There are a few things that can be done to reduce our dependence on oil relatively quickly. One would be to place a tax on imported oil and gasoline. This would create economic incentives for companies to begin innovating alternative forms of energy. The U.S. should also build natural gas infrastructure throughout the country and mandate that all trucks run off of natural gas instead of gasoline. Continuing to invest in other forms of alternative energy and increasing their competitiveness in the long run is also necessary.
In order to prevent the proliferation of WMD throughout the region, the U.S. will have to make significant security guarantees to Western-friendly Arab governments. The U.S. should extend its nuclear umbrella to Iran’s neighbors and increase its military presence in the Persian Gulf to act as a trip wire: placing American forces in harm’s way will prevent the Iranians from attacking because it would force the U.S. to respond. These actions would essentially recreate the deterrence model the U.S. had with the Soviet Union: allying with surrounding states, supplying them with the means to defend themselves, and equating an Iranian nuclear attack on them to a nuclear attack against the United States. Such a scenario carries with it the very real risk of miscalculation. This is why the U.S. should increase its communication with Iran. Deterrence requires that both sides understand the other’s ‘red lines,’ which requires constant and clear communication. Currently, this is missing in America’s relationship with Iran: we have no diplomatic presence in the country and there is little contact between Iranian and American officials. In order for deterrence to be effective, we must be able to communicate effectively and credibly our intentions—and they must be able to do the same. The U.S. should work towards reopening our embassy in Teheran and initiate increased communication at the diplomatic and military level. We will also learn much about Iran’s intentions through the reciprocity, or lack thereof, that we receive through our attempts to establish communication. If Iran has no interest in increasing communication, it could be because radical elements in the Iranian government do not share our desire to avoid conflict.
Our strategies for countering radical Islam throughout the region should largely remain the same: avoid spending huge sums in blood and treasure on invasions, and instead focus on propaganda and cooperating with local governments, using minimal military assets such as drone strikes or Special Forces raids when needed. However, our approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking will become more complicated. Terrorist groups interested in sabotaging any peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians will be emboldened by Teheran’s new nuclear arsenal, and Israel will feel less comfortable withdrawing from the West Bank. Quite simply, a nuclear Iran makes it all but impossible for Arabs and Israelis to reach a peace settlement on their own. Therefore, the international community, led by the United States, should present its own final status agreement and force both sides to accept it. While not the ideal way to achieve a two-state solution, there will not be much of an alternative once Iran gets nuclear weapons.
One of the biggest dangers of Iran getting nuclear weapons is the potential for miscalculation between Israel and Iran. Israel, our strongest ally in the Middle East and the country Iran is most belligerent towards, sees a nuclear Iran as an existential threat, and will be willing to go to great lengths to defend itself. An Israeli first strike against Iran would be unbelievably destabilizing to the region and harm U.S. interests significantly. Israel must be given sufficient security guarantees so they do not feel abandoned, and thus more likely to act out of desperation. Military aid to Israel should increase with the emergence of an Iranian nuclear arsenal, guaranteeing their qualitative military edge against threats from state and non-state actors. The U.S. president should also visit Israel and state unequivocally that an attack on Israel will be considered an attack on the United States. This will increase the believability of our commitment in the eyes of both the Israelis and the Iranians. Missile defense cooperation, already strong between Israel and the U.S., should also increase. The U.S. should station a large number of missile defense systems and radars in Israel, both to protect Israel in the event of an Iranian attack and as a trip wire. This scenario will make the Israelis feel secure so they don’t preemptively strike Iran, and will prevent Iran from attacking Israel because a massive American response would be guaranteed.
Lastly, it would be in America’s interest if, after the current Iranian regime falls, Iran were to give up its nuclear weapons. We must begin laying the groundwork for that scenario now. The idea that reconciliation between a future Iranian government and the West will be contingent on Iran giving up its nuclear weapons (not its nuclear power) needs to become official policy and make its way into the conventional wisdom on Iran. If this demand is introduced only after there is a different government in Iran, it will be disregarded as unfair. But if introduced now, it will be longstanding American policy and the new Iranian government will have to negotiate with a Western world that would expect that outcome.
It is true that Iran developing nuclear weapons is a disastrous scenario for the West. But the reality is that there is little that can be done to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal. Covert action and military strikes will only delay, not prevent, Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and sanctions will only work if the entire world is on board, which isn’t going to happen. Managing the fallout and preserving American interests to the fullest extent possible should be our objective. Hopefully, when a new Iranian government eventually comes to power, it can be persuaded to make peace with the U.S. and abandon its nuclear arsenal. We must lay the groundwork now to see that that happens.
Ariel Cohen, The Russia–Iran S-300 Air Defense Systems Deal, The Heritage Foundation, http://www.heritage.org/research/russiaandeurasia/wm2350.cfm (March 20, 2009).
“Barricades and the Bomb,” The Economist, February 10, 2010.
Ilan Berman, “How to Think about the Iranian Bomb,” Journal of International Security Affairs 15 (Fall 2008): 89-95.
Patrick Clawson, “Deterring and Containing Iran: a Near-Inevitable Task,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy (June 2006): 3.
Tariq Khaitous, “Arab Reactions to a Nuclear-Armed Iran,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy (June 2009): 13.
Tony Capaccio. “Panetta Says Attack on Iran Would Only Delay Nuclear Program,” Businessweek, Nov. 15, 2011. http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-11-15/panetta-says-attack-on-iran-would-only-delay-nuclear-program.html.
U.S. Energy Information Administration, World Oil Transit Chokepoints. http://www.eia.doe.gov/cabs/World_Oil_Transit_Chokepoints/Hormuz.html.
Courtesy of Gene Hunt