Rebottling the nuclear genie

For years, the debate over Iran’s nuclear program has revolved around keeping the nuclear genie from getting out of its bottle. But as readers of Arabian Nights — a collection as much Persian as Arabian in origin — know, people put genies back in their bottles all the time. All it took was a little ...

Alexander Klein/AFP
Alexander Klein/AFP
Alexander Klein/AFP

For years, the debate over Iran's nuclear program has revolved around keeping the nuclear genie from getting out of its bottle. But as readers of Arabian Nights -- a collection as much Persian as Arabian in origin -- know, people put genies back in their bottles all the time. All it took was a little cunning.

This is all to say that if the Iranian regime somehow gets the bomb, there is no guarantee they will get to keep it.      

For years, the debate over Iran’s nuclear program has revolved around keeping the nuclear genie from getting out of its bottle. But as readers of Arabian Nights — a collection as much Persian as Arabian in origin — know, people put genies back in their bottles all the time. All it took was a little cunning.

This is all to say that if the Iranian regime somehow gets the bomb, there is no guarantee they will get to keep it.      

For all sorts of sound reasons, Washington is committed to stopping Iran before it goes nuclear — whether this means testing a bomb or simply attaining "breakout capability." And this effort is best served by not talking too publicly about how to respond if Iran does cross the nuclear threshold, for fear of making it appear a foregone conclusion. Yet the unfortunate result is that the only people talking about what Washington would do if Iran actually brought its nuclear program to fruition are either the ones insisting that the United States could successfully contain Iran or the ones insisting that it could not. As a result, there is a tacit consensus that the moment Iran went nuclear Washington would immediately lapse into containment mode. But of course if Iran built a bomb, Washington’s new goal would become compelling the regime to dismantle it. And this should worry the Iranian regime more than anyone else. 

Countries do give up their nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan and Belarus did so in a unique set of circumstances following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but South Africa’s experience has some interesting, if imperfect, parallels with Iran’s. The country’s apartheid regime began dismantling its weapons program in 1990, scrapping six fully made bombs and a seventh under construction. Under intense pressure for its human rights abuses and freed of any major security concerns by the end of the Cold War, South Africa’s government believed that signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would be an important step toward easing its isolation and rejoining the international community.

Iran may be more committed to its nuclear program than South Africa, but it is also in a uniquely difficult position. After years of denying that it wanted nuclear weapons in the first place, the Iranian government will face a distinct dilemma: the more clearly it acknowledges having a bomb, the more clearly it will be acknowledging its own blatant dishonesty. The regime could always keep its accomplishment secret, but that would be self-defeating. Possessing nuclear weapons does little good if no one knows it — just consider Saddam Hussein’s ultimately fatal commitment to a nuclear program that did not even exist. If Iran wants to benefit from all the hard work and sacrifices it has made in pursuit of a bomb, it will have to find some way, however discreet, to let the world know. If nothing else, the technical problems Iran’s program has faced and the underwhelming results of North Korea’s nuclear tests have increased the pressure on the regime to substantiate any claim to nuclear capacity that it wants to leverage.

So what would happen when U.S. intelligence discovered evidence that Iran’s efforts had finally succeeded? Rather than congratulating Iran’s leaders on their accomplishment and declaring the matter settled, Washington would presumably use this new evidence of Iranian duplicity to intensify the regime’s isolation. It is not that China, Russia, or any of Iran’s other facilitators would be genuinely shocked to find out Tehran had been secretly pursuing a weapons program. But they would lose their most reliable excuse for watering down sanctions, and have their own credibility called into question as well. European governments that have consistently voiced their preference for engagement would be forced to confront the fact that their preferred solution had failed. In this awkward situation, U.S.-led sanctions would gain newfound legitimacy among world leaders.

Even at their current intensity, sanctions have taken a serious toll on Iran’s economy. This has led to the impression that the regime is in a race against time, trying to complete its bomb before the economic pain becomes crippling. Nuclear bombs are no defense against sanctions, however, and these sanctions would only gain potency as the clock kept running down. The Iranian regime would remain powerless to meet the material needs of its people, who would have also just discovered that they had been lied to about their nuclear program’s actual goal.

Hence the dilemma facing a nuclear Iran: The more candid the regime is in announcing its nuclear capability, the more pressure it will face from international and domestic constituencies to abandon it. Conversely, the more discrete the regime is, the easier it would be to subsequently dismantle its nuclear program without an embarrassing and public admission of defeat. Once the initial sense of triumph wore off, Iran might finally see the wisdom in accepting a behind-the-scenes deal similar to what is being discussed now, with rigorous inspections in exchange for rejoining the international economy. If anything, the Iranian regime would be more likely to accept a nuclear deal after going nuclear — just when many assume such a deal would be obsolete.  

For the United States, this outcome would be better than Iran having a bomb, but worse than it never having had one at all. Tehran would end up with some dangerous but not all that useful scientific know-how in return for several extra years of poverty and isolation. It is an all-too-plausible lose-lose scenario that both sides would do well to consider. The need to make current sanctions succeed should not prevent Washington from ensuring that if they fail Iran will face even harsher ones. If anything, advertising such an approach will only make the Iranian regime more likely to do some long term thinking and accept a nuclear deal today.

Nick Danforth is a PhD candidate in history at Georgetown University. He writes about Middle East history, politics, and maps at www.midafternoonmap.com.

Nicholas Danforth is a nonresident senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. Twitter: @NicholasDanfort

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