Containing Iran: Strategies for Addressing the Iranian Nuclear Challenge
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Air strikes are unlikely to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, and could have the paradoxical effect of making it easier for Iran to acquire weapons in the long run.A U.S. preventive strike against Iran’s nuclear program is unlikely to accomplish more than delay the program. Over the longer term, an attack could reinforce Iran’s resolve to acquire weapons, undermine international support for nonproliferation efforts, rally international and domestic audiences to the regime’s side, reinforce the domestic political power of conservative factions, and ultimately make it easier for Iran to reconstitute its program without the need to maintain the pretense of a civilian energy program or the presence of IAEA inspectors. However, a unilateral strike by Israel would risk even greater costs, with less chance of success. The United States may need to carry out limited strikes—particularly if Iran initiates a breakout run—if the only available alternative is Israeli unilateral action.
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The United States should continue to pursue efforts to prevent Iran from weaponizing. At the same time, the United States should start to put into place the elements of an effective containment strategy.
A prudent policy course for the United States would be to con- tinue to focus its primary efforts on preventing Iran from acquiring weapons, while simultaneously putting into place the requisite capabilities to effectively contain a nuclear Iran. A key challenge to achieving this will be to avoid any commitment of forces to the region that Iran would interpret as a threat to the regime. Such a threat could make weaponization more likely by convincing the regime that it needs nuclear weapons to deter the United States. A strategy that is built on drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, continued weapons transfers to the GCC centered on missile and air defenses, economic sanctions aimed at starving the Iranian nuclear program, and continued offers of positive inducements through negotiations is most likely to accomplish these goals.
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The Iranian nuclear program is one of the new century’s principal for- eign policy challenges to the United States. An Iranian nuclear weapons capability could further destabilize an already precarious security situation in a key region of the world. It could also upset the existing military balance between an adversarial Iran on the one hand and the United States and its regional allies on the other. This could have important negative consequences for U.S. and world unfettered access to the region’s energy resources, a prerequisite for economic growth and stability in a world only just recovering from a major financial catastrophe. It could also put U.S. interests and U.S. military forces at risk in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East. Finally, it could trigger a regional nuclear arms race, prompt Israel to declare its opaque nuclear arsenal, or even risk nuclear conflict.
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Nuclear weapons may embolden Iran to become more aggressive regionally. This concern reflects the “stability/instability paradox”: while nuclear weapons may create stable nuclear deterrence, paradoxically, this may actually encourage greater conventional adventurousness.2 A nuclear Iran may believe that its arsenal will deter the United States and its regional allies from retaliating should Tehran engage in regional provocations. These provocations could take several forms. Iran may invade a neighbor, use conventional forces to challenge ship- ping in the Persian Gulf, engage in subversive activities in regional states or support insurgencies, increase its material support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, or encourage terrorist attacks.
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There are three ways in which the United States’ Iran policy could negatively affect the international nonproliferation regime. First, U.S. policies could fail, and Iran could develop nuclear weapons. Such an outcome could undermine international respect and support for the NPT, and—more importantly—weaken U.S. credibility and the credibility of its counter-proliferation efforts. The United States has already strongly committed itself to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and has made a point not to take any options off the table in order to do so.61 If Iran crosses that red line and the United States fails to act, other states could well conclude that the U.S. commitment to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons is a paper tiger, and that the United States is not willing to risk expending blood and treasure to prevent an adversary from acquiring a nuclear arsenal. Indeed, the United States has already found itself in this position with North Korea, which has twice tested nuclear weapons despite similar opposition from the United States.
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More concerning than the possibility of bandwagoning is the risk of the Gulf States—particularly Saudi Arabia—seeking to bal- ance against a nuclear-armed Iran by developing nuclear weapons of their own. The Saudis have, in fact, suggested that they would seek to acquire nuclear weapons should Iran do so.42 The further spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East would be regionally destabilizing, would pose a threat to Israel as well as the United States, and could undermine the international nonproliferation regime. The United States would need to address this concern with a mix of reassurances that it will stand by its allies and warnings that a Saudi nuclear program would be detrimental to U.S. interests and disruptive for U.S. relations in the region. The United States also could offer civilian nuclear cooperation and other economic inducements in return for strong nonpro- liferation guarantees. The United States has already developed such an arrangement with the UAE, which agreed to strict IAEA safeguards in return for American nuclear assistance.43 The United States has used similar leverage with South Korea in the past to discourage the ROK from developing the nuclear fuel cycle or a weapons program.44
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The central finding of this study is that negotiations with Iran and offers of positive inducements in return for Iranian concessions on their nuclear program have real value even if they fail to convince Iran to agree to concessions in the near term. In other words, the United States and its allies ought to continue to negotiate with Iran whether or not there is a realistic chance of producing a settlement. Much of the cur- rent policy debate on the Iranian nuclear crisis centers on the prospects for such a settlement. This study finds that, although such a settlement would be very welcome, the potential for reaching it is not a necessary justification for diplomacy. In this sense, the debate misses an essential point. Continued efforts to negotiate offer strategic benefits beyond the possibility of reaching a deal. The continued offer of positive induce- ments can instead be viewed as an integral part of an overall contain- ment strategy: it helps build international support for U.S. nonprolif- eration efforts, undermines the position of the Iranian hardliners that currently dominate the regime while strengthening domestic political opponents, lowers Iran’s incentives to weaponize, and helps to further isolate Iran.
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The study does not find a single, clear “silver bullet” policy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The United States likely does not have any viable policy options that can eliminate the Iranian threat in the near term at acceptable cost, and without inviting substantial risks. Preventive military strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure are unattractive and unpromising. They could trigger retaliation, upset alliances, destabilize regional states, and cost the United States mul- tilateral support for its nonproliferation policies, all without succeed- ing in eliminating Iran’s nuclear program over the long term. Preven- tive military force will likely only lead Iran to redouble its efforts and reconstitute its program.
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Nonetheless, it is not a foregone conclusion that Iran will develop nuclear weapons. The United States has already demonstrated that economic sanctions, export controls, and covert operations can delay Iran’s progress and raise the costs of the program. The revelation of the secret Fordow enrichment complex also demonstrated that the United States has a potent intelligence capability, and the Iranians cannot be safe in the assumption that they can conduct clandestine nuclear activities undiscovered by the United States and its allies. Although safeguards and inspections in Iran are relatively weak, they also complicate Iran’s ability to act in secret and make it difficult for Iran to make a dash for a weapon without the United States knowing it. Thus, although Iran can improve its breakout capability, it would be difficult for it to weaponize without the risk of triggering a military attack.
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Iran may provide nuclear weapons or fissile material to others. Iran may, either for strategic motives or economic profit, decide to transfer nuclear technology to other states, or to terrorists. On the low end of the threat spectrum, this includes the transfer of equipment or technical assistance to other states to help them develop an indigenous nuclear program. This could be a civilian program with the potential of being adapted for weapons production, or it could include the transfer of warhead designs and other technologies solely related to the construction of a bomb. The likeliest candidate for Iran would be Syria; however, if the motive is simply profit, Iran could find any number of global buyers.3 On the high end of the threat spectrum, Iran could provide nuclear weapons to terrorists who could then use them against Israel, the United States, or other targets in an act of nuclear terrorism.