Watching events unfold in Iran has been as agonizing as the paralysis of the world community in dealing with the issue. Proliferation is occurring in slow-motion in front of our very eyes. Thanks to crafty Iranian strategic planning, UN reticence, and self-defeating American foreign policy, the world community has been incapable in dealing in one of the most flagrant cases of proliferation in recent memory. This essay looks at what options are available for dealing with Iran, namely coercion, diplomacy, or apathy.
Iran’s behavior no longer leaves much doubt regarding its intentions. It makes no sense for a country flush with oil and gas to engage in brinksmanship for any purported benefit of nuclear power. More precisely, there have been a string of most worrying developments:
-The illicit trade with Pakistan in advanced maraging steel P2 uranium centrifuges and Chinese nuclear blueprints
-Suspicious experiments with polonium, a substance with little civil uses, but which serves fairly well for triggering a nuclear device,
-The construction of a heavy water plant in Arak which seems odd since Iran is building a light water reactor but can be used to extract plutonium
-The undeclared construction of a enrichment plant in Natanz
-Advanced experimental work with laser enrichment,
-The presence of nuclear material at the Parchin army base and the Doshen-Tappen air force base
-Delays deliberately caused by Iranian scientists of the inspection of certain nuclear sites
-The beginning of (uneconomical) uranium mining in western Yadz province
-Undeclared stock of uranium tetrafluoride (yellow cake) from China potentially used in the feed of uranium centrifuges
-Undeclared or inconsistent accounting of uranium enrichment experiments
-The adamant rejection of any freeze on uranium enrichment despite guarantees offered by Russia for the supply of nuclear fuel
All these points, while providing only very strong circumstantial evidence, describe a worrying trend in Iran. Since the serious allegations by Iranian resistance movements started to surface about Iran’s nuclear program in 2002, there has been increasing talk of military strikes. Tough talk towards Iran, already a staple of American politics has been steadily on the rise. President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney have already made it clear that all options are on the table (which sounds suspiciously familiar to discussion before the Iraq War). We are now faced with the unpalatable options of a nuclear Iran or a Israeli/American strike on Iranian facilities. What to do?
There are generally three policy options on this issue. First, states can pursue a diplomatic channels to convince Iran that acquiring nuclear weapons is not in its best interest and by dangling the carrot of economic and technological investment. Second, states can threaten Iran with military coercion or economic sanctions if it does not cease its nuclear program. In either case, states are trying to alter Iranian strategic calculus by weighing in on the potential costs of an Iranian nuclear program, and the benefits of unilateral dismantlement. The third option is to take a laissez-fair stance and to let Iran pursue its nuclear program unhibited.
At the moment, the EU troika composed of France, the UK, and Germany has tried the diplomatic option with only moderate success. Whereas Europe wants a permanent accord, Iran prefers a temporary freezing of its enrichment program. Iran calculates that such flexibility will suit it best. Indeed, while the economic investment may evaporate as soon as it rekindles its uranium enrichment program, the technology transfers promised by the EU are irreversible. Therefore it is highly possible that an aborted EU deal could only make things worse. The Troika is aware of this and therefore, is particularly reluctant to ink any deal that is not permanent. The Europeans hope that once parched and embargoed Iran tastes the sweet nectar of foreign investment, it will quickly realize that it is in its best interest to continue its restraint. However such optimism is ill advised for three principle reasons. First, the theocracy that rules Iran with renewed fervor since highjacking the last parliamentary elections in 2004, sees trade and foreign penetration as a threat to its grip on power. Already it has tried to crack down on satellite television and diverse cultural products from the West. The Mullahs understand full well that a burgeoning middle class will only restore the democratic undercurrents already present in Iranian society. Second, the governing regime in Iran has very successfully framed the issue of its nuclear program as one of national pride, modernization, and self-determination. With their rich history and a traditional role as a regional power, many Iranians feel that their country should not be told what to do, particularly by a cabal of hypocritical Western nuclear states. They see nonproliferation efforts as a mask for the subjugation of a modern Iran. In fact the vast majority of Iranian favor a nuclear program. Talk of acquiring nuclear weapons has become ever more mainstream. The genius of the Iranian regime has been to stoke the fires of nationalism so that it can come to the negotiating table with the EU and say: “look, we would like to freeze our program but popular opinion against it is too strong; our hands our tied.” Third, even if the EU managed to steer Iran away from its current nuclear course, Iran would still possess the knowledge and indigenous capability to develop nuclear weapons at a later time. These thorny questions will continue to bedevil European efforts to negotiate any sustainable accord with Iran.
In the meantime, it is likely that Iran will continue to push the limits of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, playing a careful game of brinksmanship by alternatively cooperating with the European and incrementally advancing its nuclear program until it reaches a nuclear weapons threshold. The tense negotiations with both the EU and the IAEA are designed to buy time and avoid at all costs referral to the UN Security Council. Eventually, what Iran is probably aiming for is not overt nuclear capability since this would only invite more economic sanctions and possibly a preventative war, but instead what I call “opaque deterrence.” Under opaque deterrence Iran will benefit from nuclear deterrence by combining the frightful power of nuclear weapons with the uncertainty of Iran’s nuclear status. Because states will function on worst-case scenarios, the opaque deterrent will function in the absence of any demonstrated capability. Yet because Iran will exercise a modicum of restraint, Iran will avoid pariah status. By failing to discover any direct evidence of a nuclear weapons program, while at the same time unearthing strong circumstantial proof of such a program, the IAEA helps bolster Iranian opaque deterrence. Maintaining opaque deterrence will be made ever easier in the wake of the Iraq war, since states will be less predisposed to entertaining circumstantial evidence as proof a dedicated nuclear weapons program.
If diplomacy were fraught with difficulty, would the military option be a viable alternative? At some level, it would seem simpler to bypass stalled diplomacy and endless UN inspections and conduct surgical strike against designated Iranian facilities. Indeed, the Israeli strike on the Osirak reactor in 1981 set back Iraq’s nuclear program half a decade (incidentally one of the pilots who carried out the attacks was later an astronaut who died in the 2003 Columbia shuttle tragedy- you can only imagine the commentary in the Arab world about divine retribution). Inspections by the IAEA, intelligence collected by Israel’s Mossad and American agencies in addition to penetration and defection by Iranian resistance groups have helped identify the major Iranian facilities. Sure, Iran may have several smaller labs stowed away over its vast territory, but a surgical strike will only seek to cripple Iran’s program, not uproot it completely. Because their objectives are limited, a strike by the US or Israel would not require a potentially bloody occupation as the one being undertaken in Iraq. However, the strike could be enough to destabilize the regime, giving rise to a popular revolution. Finally the timing of the strike would be optimal since the break-up of one of Iran’s most precious nuclear suppliers: the network of AQ Khan. This would make it more difficult for Iran to reconstitute its nuclear program.
While it is clear that a surgical strike on Iran could be carried out with some success, and yield some short term benefits, such a policy option would be strategically disastrous over the longer term. First, while it is unlikely that Iran would launch a future punitive ballistic missile attack on Israel or the US (it will be deterred in the first case, and unable in the second), it could wreck havoc in the US and Israeli regional interests. For example, Iran has strong leverage in Iraq, particularly among the Shiite community. It could therefore incite violence in Iraq, at a time where the US is trying to impose a level of stability. The same goes to a certain extent in Afghanistan, where Iran could seek to fund rebel groups to pester Western forces in the country. Indeed, it takes a very little investment on Iran’s part to demolish the American efforts in the Middle East over the last four years. For Israel, an attack on Iranian facilities would be an invitation to further sponsoring Hamas and derailing the fragile goodwill between the Palestinian Authority and the state of Israel. For both the US and Israel, such a strike could only promote the cause of the Jihadists who, although principally Arab, not Persian, already see a worldwide American-Zionist conspiracy against Muslims. Such sentiments will be multiplied in the case of any collateral damage resulting from such attacks. While many Iranian facilities are situated in remote locations, the Iran has purposely set up certain key facilities in urban areas. Therefore, even if the US were able to conduct precision strike on nuclear facilities, there remains the distinct possibility that an attack could spread radioactive material in the vicinity. A coercive strategy is unlikely to succeed over the longer term because, unlike other proliferators such as Libya who have sought to import a nuclear capability lock, stock, and barrel, Iran has actually cultivated indigenous capacities. That means that although the facilities can be destroyed, the knowledge remains in the heads of the scientists. It is not unlikely that after a strike, Iran would pull out of the NPT and pursue its program underground away from inspectors and this time with a grudge. Lastly a strike is likely to entrench the power of the hardliners in Iran. Iranians are a fiercely nationalist people. They may resent the theocracy of the Mullahs, but they also resent foreign domination. A strike on Iran could be just what the Khomeini’i government needs to get the population to rally around the flag.
Faced with the equally unpalatable options of diplomacy and coercion, would it not be so bad to let Iran go nuclear? After all, every nuclear proliferator (except the US) has shown sober restraint in the stewardship of these weapons. India and Pakistan, like the US and the Soviet Union before them, have “learned” to live with the bomb. Why should we expect things to be any different in Iran? While Iran may declare its intention to erase Israel from the map, a position made for domestic consumption more than anything else, would it really be willing to invite retaliation under such foolish pretenses and after such a long scientific venture? Is it not the least understandable that Iran would seek some form of security after its declared nemesis violently overthrew two of its neighbors in two years and opened denounced it a member of an axis of evil? In fact would it not be possible, as famed international relations scholar Kenneth Waltz posited, that relations between Iran and its neighbors could be pacified by nuclear deterrence?
While it is certainly possible that an Iranian arsenal will not be as catastrophic as one would first be lead to believe, a case of Iranian proliferation right in front of the eyes of the IAEA would undoubtedly have a deleterious effect on the nuclear nonproliferation regime as a whole. It would show that IAEA safeguards, even the more stringent safeguards implemented under the additional protocol, are unable to halt nuclear proliferation. Furthermore, the right to nuclear power enshrined under the NPT could in fact be seen as an unacceptable liability. Yet, disallow this right would undermine the very bargain that underpins the treaty and its apartheid between nuclear and non-nuclear states. All these issues will undoubtedly surface at the NPT review conference scheduled this spring. There are also several documented risks associated with budding nuclear arsenal in the developing world. Developing states may not be capable or able to afford robust technical measures to prevent the unlawful use of nuclear devices. Also, a state with few weapons is likely to use hair-trigger launching procedures, since it will be acutely concerns of having its command and control decapitated before being able to retaliate. Bureaucratic politics and standard operating procedures can also create instability by infusing a degree of both incoherence and rigidity in the state’s response. Ultimately there is bound to be some degree of concern with regards to the political control of the weapons, given the fragile base of the current regime. It would be bad enough to recreate the chaos of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, let alone with nuclear weapons thrown into the mix. Lastly, it should not hoped that Iran will eventually come to view nuclear weapons as obsolete and unusable, as did Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Kazakhstan, Libya, South Africa, South Korea, and Ukraine. Unlike South Korea, Iran does not have any nuclear allies. Unlike Belarus, Kazakhstan, Libya, and Ukraine, Iran has an indigenous nuclear capacity of which it is extremely proud. Unlike South Africa, this indigenous capacity was not the scheme of some minority. Unlike Argentina and Brazil, Iran does not live in a relatively peaceful area of the world. The Middle East remains extremely dangerous for Iran, despite the fall of two of its rivals in Iraq and Afghanistan. It still has poor relations with the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. The US still has almost 200,000 troops in the region.
The IAEA remains an invaluable resource because it is both highly capable and largely seen as objective. A third term for its director general, Mohammed El-Baradei, will only strengthen its mandate. Yet, the policy impasse in Iran highlights the IAEA needs to seriously reform it operations. First, the IAEA Board of Governors (BoG) must make it a matter of course to refer all violations of safeguards to the Security Council. It must cease to try to bargain and haggle with countries at the BoG, because this will politicize its decision to refer any case to the SC later on. Indeed, sensing this politicization, Iran threatened numerous times to pull out of the NPT if it was referred to the SC. The IAEA must stay out of the fray. Besides the SC is equipped with a wider range of sanctions to deal with a contravening state in a more timely fashion, if and when circumstances demand action. Second, the IAEA should seriously consider suggestions made by the UK to freeze all IAEA member privileges when such members are under investigation. It makes no sense to give Iran full access to nuclear technology when strong and repeated circumstantial evidence appears that it is violating its safeguards agreements. Iran has made much headway in its nuclear program in the years it was most closely being investigated by the IAEA. By not freezing its privileges completely, the IAEA only gave Iran incentives to pursue endless stalling tactics to buy time. Third, the IAEA and the world community must do more to push the additional protocol for more stringent inspections. It is likely that Iran would have been caught earlier on if additional safeguards had been in place before 2003.