Meeting the Challenge: Stopping the Clock
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Another analogy that policymakers pursuing isolation might hope to draw is to North Korea. If we have managed to live with a nuclear North Korea, perhaps we will be able to tolerate a nuclear Iran. This line of thinking neglects the major dissimilarities between the geostrategic positions of North Korea and Iran. North Korea borders China, a much larger and stronger neighbor that has the capability to keep the smaller country’s more aggressive tendencies in check, and a large contingent of U.S. and South Korean troops are stationed just across the well-fortified Demilitarized Zone. In the case of Iran, there is neither a larger regional power that can exert influence over Tehran, nor the prospect of a significant U.S. military presence at the border. More telling, however, are precisely the ways in which North Korea continues to threaten international peace. Not only has it acted aggressively against South Korea – including sinking ships without provocation, bombarding civilian populations, kidnapping civilians and launching cyber attacks against government and civilian networks – but it is also an egregious proliferator of missile and nuclear technology to rogue regimes around the globe. Indeed, North Korea’s ongoing nuclear program, far from being contained, is one of the reasons that Iran is so close to a nuclear weapons capability of its own. Once it attains that capability, Iran will likely follow in North Korea’s footsteps: taking a belligerent stance towards its neighbors and sharing dangerous secrets with the enemies of international order.
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With the impact of additional sanctions questionable, additional pressure on the Iranian regime to negotiate in good faith can come from the credible threat of military action against Iran’s nuclear program. Realistically, that threat can come only from the United States or Israel. Regrettably, senior Obama administration officials have suggested that there is little or no likelihood that the United States would ever actually use force, and they have conveyed opposition to an Israeli strike as well. There is strong evidence, however, to suggest that it is precisely the threat of military action that actually enables peaceful, diplomatic solutions. Fear of military action apparently led Iran to briefly halt its nuclear program after the United States toppled Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003. It also led Moammar Qaddafi of Libya to halt his country’s nuclear program. Had Qaddafi instead continued the program and acquired nuclear weapons, it is unlikely NATO would have intervened in Libya’s civil war in 2011; a lesson not lost on Iran’s leaders.
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The Islamic Republic’s lack of nuclear capability has provided a significant check on its power-projection capabilities. Even with these constraints, however, Tehran supported an aggressive campaign of terrorism and proxy warfare against the United States and its regional allies. From 1983 to 1999, Hezbollah engaged in and supported an extensive suicide bombing campaign in Lebanon, most notably the 1983 Beirut U.S. embassy and barracks bombings. During this same period Hezbollah also kidnapped and murdered U.S. officials, hijacked a commercial airliner and provided training to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Lebanon.
Between 1992 and 2005, Iran provided military training to Hezbollah and supplied the group with thousands of surface-to-surface, surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles and rockets. Much of this arsenal was fired indiscriminately against Israeli civilians in the 2006 Lebanon War, during which the Qods Force assisted Hezbollah’s military operations against the Israel Defense Forces. Iran and Syria have intensified security ties and integrated military planning and training with Hezbollah since the war – in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 – primarily by ramping up funding and providing increased numbers of longer-range rockets and missiles: in April 2010 Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “We are at a point now [where] Hezbollah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world.”48
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A contiguous Iran-aligned bloc stretching to the Mediterranean could be created for the first time in modern history through the progression of Iran’s nuclear program, the projected expansion of Iranian influence in Iraq, its deep-seated alliances with Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as the Qods Force presences in each country. An empowered Iran would not only threaten U.S. interest in a stable, independent Iraq, but could also undermine regional energy security by increasing Iranian leverage against major U.S.-allied Persian Gulf producers like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, a nuclear-capable Iran could feel emboldened to maintain – and quite possibly escalate – its support for terrorism and proxy warfare against the United States and its security partners across the Middle East.
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Second, existing measures have done little to undermine Tehran’s ability or willingness to further its nuclear weapons program, even considering some of the demonstrable effects U.S. and other countries’ penalties have had on Iran. Many of the individual regime officials targeted for asset freezes have little or no assets in the United States. More broadly, the Iranian regime has used correspondent banks, shell companies, barter and other methods to sidestep existing sanctions, and would likely be able to transfer Central Bank accounts to new institutions, rely more heavily on bartering or simply rename existing accounts if the United States and its international partners were to enforce tougher sanctions. These inconveniences have pushed Tehran to try to impose tighter credit terms and higher prices on future oil contracts with Asian customers, causing Japan and South Korea to look elsewhere for supplies.74 All such countermeasures impose costs on Iran, but are not unbearable.
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Rationality – understood as the instinct of self-preservation – is a necessary precondition for mutually assured destruction to be effective. Thus, proponents of containment contend that while Iran’s military regime is ruthless, it is also pragmatic, and concerned primarily with self-preservation, just like the Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China and North Korea before it. Proponents of the Islamic Republic’s rationality argue that Tehran has exercised restraint against U.S. interests in Iraq and elsewhere, its foreign policy is generally risk-averse and it seeks nuclear weapons more for prestige and self-protection than for power projection. Accordingly, a nuclear Iran would be a status quo power.92 This conjecture may turn out to be true; but it also may not. The messianic leadership of the Islamic Republic may not be ideological to the point of national suicide, but historically it has pursued expansive regional aspirations, which have proven difficult enough to contain even when Iran lacked a nuclear deterrent and its regime was not dominated by hardliners. Rationality must be accompanied by transparency. Maintaining the delicate balance between two nuclear-armed adversaries requires that both fully know each other to be rational. Yet, the intentions and motivations of the Iranian regime – and especially those individuals who would maintain custody, command and control of any Iranian nuclear weapon – remain opaque.
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Even as these countries sought to develop or purchase a nuclear weapon, Iran would immediately encounter another nuclear state – even if undeclared – in the region: Israel. The stalemate between these two states would be precarious at best. As former Under Secretary of Defense Eric Edelman and his colleagues concluded in Foreign Affairs: “The greatest concern in the near term would be that an unstable Iranian-Israeli nuclear contest could emerge, with a significant risk that either side would launch a first strike on the other despite the enormous risks and costs involved.” Iran, which would for the foreseeable future have much fewer nuclear weapons than Israel, would face a “use them or lose them” predicament that could lead it to unleash its nuclear arsenal before Israel has a chance to destroy it. Conversely, Israel, well-versed and successful in the use of preventive strikes, might decide to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capability before its leadership makes good on threats to destroy Israel.77 Dennis Ross, the White House former point person on Iran, explained this scenario:
If you’re Israel – and we’ve already said, from Israel’s standpoint, an Iran with nuclear weapons represents an existential threat – can Israel wait? If there’s the slightest indication that Iran would be changing readiness, can Israel wait? You know, you’re talking not about a Cold War situation, where even in the Cold War we came much closer to nuclear war with the Soviets than we realized over the Cuban Missile Crisis – when we had different forms of communication with the Soviets. Iran and Israel have no communication. The potential for miscalculation would be enormous. The potential for false positives would be great.78
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During the Cold War, the United States sought to protect its allies from the aggression and influence of the Soviet Union. If the U.S. fails to prevent Iran from going nuclear, our aim will be not just to protect ourselves from Iran, but also from terrorists. To stave off the proliferation cascade that a nuclear Iran would precipitate, the United States would have to both deter Tehran and police its own allies. Yet these nations are not interested in mutual defense agreements with the United States, let alone the permanent basing of U.S. troops on their soil. Whereas the allies that joined with the United States to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) not only received U.S. protection but were also willing to commit to come to our defense, such mutuality is not true of our Middle Eastern partners. Already, Saudi Arabia has declared it would seek a nuclear weapon if Iran obtains one. Other countries in the region, especially Egypt and Turkey would not be far behind.
During the Cold War, our adversary was a nuclear-armed state. But Tehran is also the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons capability, the United States will have to contend with the very real possibility that it might transfer nuclear materials or technologies to its terrorist proxies. Classic containment strategy, however, is not adequate to deter non-state actors. Without easily targetable political, social or economic interests, such entities are not susceptible to the logic of mutually assured destruction. Even if executed properly, containment was never meant to persuade unreliable allies to forgo proliferation or to deter terrorists.
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Containment advocates argue that the United States can maintain a balance of power through missile defense, arms transfers and regional security cooperation.84 But they overlook the importance of collective defense organizations like NATO as well as mutual defense alliances with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan to the success of Cold War containment. Deterring Iran would require similar regional alliances, which require years to establish interoperability before they become stable and effective instruments for containment. Creation of such a network in the Middle East is infeasible. The Middle East is not Western Europe.