Iran Is No Existential Threat
The best way to rescue Obama's failing diplomacy with the Islamic Republic is to stop letting Israel call the shots.
After months of halfhearted, fruitless attempts at engagement, the United States and its European partners are effectively re-enacting George W. Bush’s Iran policy. In 2006, after Iran had ended a nearly two-year voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment, then-U.S. president pushed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to send Iran’s nuclear file to the U.N. Security Council, which duly imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic. But the sanctions did not prove "crippling," as Bush had hoped: Iran continued to expand its nuclear infrastructure, and the risks of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran climbed.
Unfortunately, Barack Obama’s administration has decided to repeat this sorry history. Last Friday, the IAEA passed a resolution urging Iran to send most of its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium abroad. It also reported Iran once again to the Security Council. Iran has wasted no time in upping the ante rather than backing down, saying it would restrict cooperation with the IAEA only to those measures "statutorily" required. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also announced that the Islamic Republic would build 10 new enrichment facilities in coming years. He later added, "Iran will produce fuel enriched to a level of 20 percent," the level required for Iran’s research reactor in Tehran. This would be well above the 3 to 4 percent level that Iran has already achieved in producing low-enriched uranium and would take Iran closer to the 90 percent-plus level required for weapons-grade fissile material.
These developments again demonstrate the counterproductive futility of enshrining uranium enrichment and sanctions as the keys to resolving the nuclear issue. By prompting Tehran to reduce cooperation with the IAEA, the United States and its European partners have done real damage to the international community’s ability to monitor the state of Iran’s nuclear program. More broadly, U.S., British, and French insistence on "zero enrichment" in Iran makes successful nuclear diplomacy with Tehran impossible. At this point, there is no chance that Tehran will accept "zero enrichment" as a negotiated outcome, for at least two reasons: It is a country-specific formulation applied to Iran but not to anybody else, and it requires Iran to forswear its sovereign right to the full range of civil nuclear technology.
If the United States and its partners continue on their present course, the Islamic Republic will continue to expand its nuclear infrastructure, and the risks of an eventual military confrontation between the United States (or Israel, with U.S. support) and Iran will, once again, rise inexorably. There is no set of sanctions the Security Council might plausibly authorize that would change this reality, and various unilateral and secondary sanctions initiatives moving through the U.S. Congress will not work either.
A more constructive approach would seek to maximize international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities by emphasizing country-neutral formulations for curbing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. This would require international acceptance of enrichment on Iranian soil. Getting Iran to ratify and implement the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would be an important step in this direction, but the most effective country-neutral initiative would be the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the region.
Although talk of an NWFZ — or, more broadly, a weapons of mass destruction-free zone (WMDFZ) — in the Middle East is not new, serious consideration of these ideas in U.S. foreign policy circles always stops as soon as Israel’s nuclear status comes up. For years, the Israeli position has been that, once Arab-Israeli peace is achieved, it might become possible for Israel to join in creating an NWFZ/WMDFZ in the region. Although American foreign-policy elites typically take this position at face value, it deserves a higher degree of critical scrutiny.
It is simply not analytically credible to describe the unresolved Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese tracks of the Middle East peace process as "existential threats" to Israel. The 1978 Egypt-Israel Camp David accords effectively dispelled the prospect of Arab armies uniting to "push the Jews into the sea." Similarly, there is no amount of additional armed capabilities that would allow Palestinian and Lebanese militants to destroy Israel without also destroying the populations they are ostensibly seeking to liberate.
More recently, the dominant Israeli discourse about Iran has routinely characterized an Islamic Republic with a nuclear "breakout" capability — not to mention actual nuclear weapons — as an "existential threat" to Israel. (Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have reiterated Israel’s position that Iran’s full suspension of uranium enrichment is the only acceptable outcome from nuclear talks with Tehran.) But this position, too, does not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. It is not analytically serious to describe an Iran with mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle as an existential threat to Israel or any other state. Even if Iran were to fabricate a nuclear weapon, it is not credible to describe that as an existential threat to Israel — unless one has such a distorted view of Shiite Islam that one believes the Islamic Republic is so focused on damaging "the Zionist entity" that it is collectively willing to become history’s first "suicide nation."
Rhetoric from senior officials and politicians characterizing Iran as an existential threat resonates with the Israeli public, for understandable historical reasons, and Ahmadinejad’s statements questioning the Holocaust only reinforce Israeli fears. As a result, there is, effectively, no political debate in Israel about Iran policy.
But, when Israeli politicians and policymakers use politically effective rhetoric about Iran’s nuclear development being an existential threat to Israel, what is really motivating them? Fundamentally, Israel’s political and policy elites are focused on eliminating Iran’s fuel-cycle capabilities in order to preserve a regional balance of power that is strongly tilted in Israel’s favor. Regional perceptions that the Islamic Republic had achieved a "breakout" capability would begin to chip away at Israel’s long-standing nuclear-weapons monopoly. That, in turn, might begin to constrain Israel’s currently unconstrained freedom of unilateral military action.
One can readily appreciate why Israel values its status as the Middle East’s military hegemon and wants to maintain the maximum possible room for unilateral military initiative. But that strategic preference is not legitimated by the U.N. Charter, the laws of war, or any international convention. Moreover, Israel’s strategic preference for preserving and enhancing its military hegemony does not, at this point, serve the cause of regional stability or containing the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities in the Middle East.
The United States has an abiding commitment to Israel’s survival and security. But that commitment should not be confused with maintaining Israel’s military hegemony over the region in perpetuity, by continuing to allow U.S. assurances of an Israeli "qualitative edge" for defensive purposes to be twisted into assurances of maximum freedom for Israel to conduct offensive military operations at will against any regional target.
It is time for the United States and its international partners to get serious about creating a regionwide framework for controlling WMD capabilities in the Middle East, including the full range of Israel’s WMD capabilities, to create a more secure environment for all Middle Eastern states. Obama’s observation, in his June 4 Cairo speech, that no single country should determine which other countries are permitted to have particular types of weapons, could be a positive first step in this direction. But, if he does not follow up purposefully, this will become one more good Obama idea that ends up disappointing the expectations it initially raised.