Stopping an Iranian bomb

Stopping an Iranian bomb

In a thoughtful dissection of the seemingly endless debate on Iran’s nuclear program (and the various proponents of military action), Andrew Sullivan says "For my part, I cannot see how we can prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb." Sullivan is no fan of military action, but I suspect his view is widespread. Some think the inevitability of Iran’s getting the bomb is a reason to attack them now; for others, it is an argument for turning to robust containment.

I’m against the former and would favor the latter if necessary, but I do not think it is a foregone conclusion that Iran will actually go forward and acquire a nuclear weapons capability. In particular, I can think of two good reasons why a smart Iranian leader would not want to cross the nuclear threshold.

First, an Iranian nuclear weapons capability means that they will automatically be suspected if a nuclear detonation takes place anywhere in the world. Right now, Iran does not have to fear retaliation should an act of nuclear terrorism occur, because we know with high confidence that they have no weapons at present. But if the Islamic Republic were known to have a nuclear weapons capability, and a terrorist used a weapon somewhere, I’d bet that it would be pretty high up on the suspect list. Nuclear forensics could in theory rule them out, but these techniques are not perfectly reliable and it’s not obvious how clearly anyone would be thinking at that awful moment. Powerful countries like the United States have a way of lashing out when they are attacked, and they might not be all that careful to make sure they had the right perpetrator. After all, Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, but the Bush administration used that attack as a pretext to gin up a campaign against him. So Iran might want to think twice about crossing the nuclear threshold and inviting retaliation, even for acts in which it was not involved.

Second, and equally important, Iran has by far the greatest power potential of any country in the Persian Gulf. It has more people, more economic potential, and plenty of oil and gas too. If it ever had competent political leadership it would easily be the strongest conventional power in its neighborhood. But if it gets an overt nuclear capability, that act would raise the likelihood that other states in the region (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, even Iraq) would follow suit. It is far from certain that they would, but it would certainly make it more likely. And if they do, this step would partially negate Iran’s conventional advantages.

Accordingly, a farsighted Iranian strategist should want to acquire a "latent" nuclear capability (and thus the ability to get a bomb quickly if needed), while making it clear to others that it had not crossed the line. (If I had to guess, that is what I think they are trying to do.) This means that it may be possible to convince them not to weaponize, mostly by not creating a situation where they decide that having an overt deterrent is worth the costs and risks. Needless to say, U.S. and Israeli policy is the exact opposite today: we ramp up sanctions, talk openly of regime change, conduct various acts of sabotage and/or covert action against them (the STUXNET virus, assassinations of Iranian scientists, etc.), and basically behave in ways that we would regard as acts of war if anyone did them to us. And then we wonder why Iran’s leaders are so reluctant to end their nuclear program.

There are valid reasons to be concerned about Iran, even though the actual threat is poses is vastly overblown. Iran is an increasingly brittle and sclerotic regime of old men, who are mostly desperate to preserve an aging "revolution," and it is no longer an inspiration for anyone. Its economy is presently troubled and its military budget is about 2 percent the size of our own. Those who now seek to portray it as some vast Islamic menace really do not deserve to be taken seriously.

But it is also too early to conclude that there is "no way to prevent Iran" from getting the bomb. Ten-plus years of pressure and rhetoric haven’t gotten us anywhere, and a military strike would solidify support for the regime, give it even more incentive to get a nuclear deterrent, and unleash all sorts of unpredictable forces within the region.

The only approach that stands any chance of success is genuine diplomacy (as opposed to the Obama administration’s half-hearted version of same). Sadly, we aren’t going to see any serious diplomacy in an election year, and probably not afterwards. Sullivan may turn out to be right, but not because there was no way to prevent an Iranian bomb. If Tehran eventually joins the nuclear club, it will be at least in part because we never made serious, smart and sophisticated effort to persuade them not to.