An Iranian Nuclear Breakout Is Not Inevitable
[ Page 3 ]
Perhaps the most progress will come from encouraging geopolitical developments. Whereas a few years ago Iran’s star appeared to be rising and that of the United States fading, today that is much less the case. The U.S. effort in Iraq has been reasonably successful, and the Taliban is no longer advancing from strength to strength in Afghanistan. In Libya, the Western alliance has shown that, under certain circumstances, it can successfully use vigorous military force against oppressive regimes. And, most important, Iran’s closest—arguably, its only—regional ally is in deep trouble. The problems of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad fit poorly with Iranian leaders’ “resistance narrative,” according to which radical Islam is the wave of history and is supported by the region’s peoples, while the United States and its allies—Israel and the moderate Arab states—are on the wane and lack popular support. Iran’s support in the “Arab street,” so prized by the regime, has slipped badly as Tehran is seen as backing a brutal dictator, while the wave of history is with popular protests against authoritarians.
[ Page 4 ]
Iran may be able to compensate for this lack of access through workarounds, but the regime appears to be settling for less-advanced technologies than it would want. Moreover, if one looks back several years at forecasts from respected think tanks, all projected that Iran’s enrichment program would be more advanced today than it actually is. From this picture, we discern a record of underestimating the barriers Iran faces, including those erected by the sanctions. Indeed, even Iran’s lack of trained scientists and engineers to work on the nuclear program may be attributed, in part, to the sanctions. The sanctions are making important progress on other fronts as well. As key Iranian trading partners like South Korea and the United Arab Emirates impose tough restrictions and enforcement measures, these states help convey the message that many in the international community take seriously the dangers associated with Iranian proliferation. When countries otherwise eager to promote trade accept the economic losses involved in forgoing business with a potentially lucrative partner such as Iran, they show concretely their disapproval of Iran’s actions. In this way, sanctions, constitute an important signaling mechanism—and deterrence requires unmistakable signaling.
[ Page 4-5 ]
The sanctions serve a broader purpose beyond their impact on Iran. Many states might find the acquisition of nuclear weapons attractive if no cost were associated with the process. But nuclear weapons capability looks less desirable when tied to debilitating sanctions that both depress economic growth and complicate diplomacy. The more impact the sanctions have on Iran’s economy and its nuclear program, the stronger the argument that Iran’s nuclear program has incurred a heavy cost for little advantage. After twenty years, Iran is still not nuclear capable, much less in possession of a nuclear weapon, and it has paid quite a price in its relations with both Europe and the United States. In addition, the nuclear impasse has brought increased attention to Iran’s other policies, such as its support for terrorism and its human rights abuses. In short, over and above any impact the sanctions have on Iran, those sanctions may be useful for forestalling imitation of Iran’s approach by other countries.
[ Page 5 ]
When it comes to delineating benefits for changed behavior by the Iranians, the United States and its allies face a real challenge in demonstrating that Tehran would get specific, concrete, short-term advantages from resolving the nuclear impasse. That challenge has been made all the greater by Tehran’s reading of the Libyan experience. From their point of view, once Muammar Qadhafi agreed to give up his weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the West penetrated his country and then moved in for the kill, stirring up local opposition and backing it up with NATO strikes. If Qadhafi had kept his weapons program, they reason, he would still be in power. This nut—explaining benefits to the Iranians— is perhaps the most difficult to crack in the entire nuclear impasse.
[ Page 5 ]
Contrary to the impression held by some that sanctions have never diverted countries from nuclear proliferation, the cases of seven states in particular offer mixed results. In the 1970s, relatively modest unilateral U.S. sanctions on South Korea and Taiwan persuaded those countries to abandon nuclear proliferation. In the 1980s, Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa gave up their respective pursuits of nuclear weapons for reasons of their own, with sanctions having modest if any impact. Of these states, South Africa was arguably most affected by sanctions, with growing international isolation playing into the apartheid regime’s self-dissolution. In the 1990s, Iraq stopped pursuing nuclear weapons primarily because of its military defeat, although sanctions debatably had an effect unappreciated at the time. In the 2000s, the squeezing of the Libyan economy, along with Qadhafi’s conclusion that WMD would not bring Libya much advantage, ultimately led to the surrender of the nuclear program. Though each of these cases is unique, a common thread entails the need to persuade a government that the nuclear program bringsn only higher costs and less advantage. Making that case is an achievable objective with Iran.
[ Page 6 ]
The prospects for resolution of the problems with Iran by diplomacy are poor. If nothing else, Iran’s fractious internal politics will undermine the ability of any politician in Tehran to win broad acceptance among his peers for a deal with the international community, no matter the content of the deal. But reaching an agreement with Tehran is only one reason— and by no means the most important objective— for U.S. diplomatic initiatives aimed at the Islamic Republic. Such initiatives touch on issues that extend beyond Iran itself. If, for example, U.S. actions regarding Iran can reinforce European and other allies’ conviction that Washington is a responsible international actor, such an impact would be more important than any impact of diplomacy on Tehran. The primary objective of U.S. diplomacy toward Iran should be to persuade governments and peoples around the world that the West is being reasonable and Iran’s regime is the impediment to resolving the nuclear impasse, thus advancing U.S. interests globally.
[ Page 7 ]
Low-profile actions can be excellent tools, and they have a lower political price than large-scale bombing. The defections, UAV overflights, acts of sabotage and cyber warfare, and assassinations have all reinforced the impact of sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program. Iranian nuclear engineers have to worry about being killed on their way to work, about their colleagues leaking information to the West, about their computers not working, about their equipment malfunctioning, about lacking necessary materials, about unavailability of training and advice, and about the possibility of strikes from UAVs. That list of problems is daunting. No wonder Iran has been unable to perfect the new centrifuge design it has been working on for years. Given this climate, how attractive could a job in the nuclear program appear to bright young Iranians finishing their education? Finally, not only are low-profile actions effective, but they are less likely to stir up Iranian nationalist “rally around the flag” reactions and less likely to create sympathy for Iran as a nation under siege from the United States and its allies.
[ Page 10 ]
Some comfort can be taken in the November 2011 IAEA report, which shows that the nuclear weapons program is more of a scattered effort than the concerted campaign Iran was conducting through 2003. Since then, the weapons program has been deferred though not halted. Iran’s strategy seems to be to move every piece forward to the threshold of a nuclear weapons capability—the enrichment piece, the missile delivery piece, and so on. This approach is consistent with the view that Iran is not North Korea: it is not making a mad dash to a primitive nuclear device just to “create facts.” Consider that the most dangerous situation for Iran would be to build and test one nuclear device. This would be a way of saying, “We are dangerous—and unarmed.” Correspondingly, the confidence of senior U.S. officials that rather than dashing for one primitive nuclear device, Iran is more likely to wait until it can build quite a few nuclear warheads for missiles, appears to have considerable basis. That confidence underlies the view that the United States and its partners have time, even though Iran has the technical capacity to make a single nuclear device within a matter of months.
[ Page 12 ]
To be sure, the Islamic Republic seems unlikely to abandon the objective of eventually attaining a nuclear weapons capability. But Tehran may agree to a tactical adjustment that could have a strategic consequence. Postponing the nuclear program may look like only a delay, but a delay could be a victory because the Islamic Republic may not last forever. As noted before, Khamenei, who presumably knows something about Iran’s politics, is preoccupied by the threat of Western cultural invasion and the possibility of a “soft overthrow.” His regime looks a lot like the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev: it no longer rules on the basis of an idea and, therefore, is becoming increasingly hollow and corroded. That does not mean the end is near, but it does mean the current system may not be sustainable. In the late 1940s, U.S. diplomat George Kennan advocated containment of the Soviet Union because he thought its system could not last. It certainly seems that the Islamic Republic has not won the hearts and minds of Iran’s rising.