Dealing with Iran’s nuclear challenge

Ten years ago this month a little- known Iranian dissident group — the National Council of Resistance of Iran — held a news conference in Washington, D.C. to present a finding that sent shock waves around the world: Iran had under construction two covert nuclear facilities — a large underground enrichment plant in Natanz and a heavy-water instillation in Arak — that, in time, could serve a nuclear weapons program.

The announcement set off a flurry of international activity to confirm the allegation. The enrichment program became the principal concern because it could directly generate weapons-useable material. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the global nonproliferation watchdog — demanded answers from Tehran. European foreign ministers scampered to the Iranian capital urging the Mullahs to halt construction. Negotiations continued for years only to stall. The Security Council followed by slapping sanctions on the regime. A shadow war involving assassination of Iranian scientists and cyber and physical sabotage of Iran’s nuclear and related infrastructure ensued.

Throughout all that, the Mullahs applied an effective dodge-and-weave strategy to buy time. Roadblocks came early as Iran claimed allegations of nuclear hide-and-seek were “selective” and “discriminatory,” effectively a witch hunt based on “false attribution,” “arm-twisting at many capitals” responding to U.S. “partisan politics.”

IAEA didn’t see it that way.  Its first published evaluation (June 2003) found Tehran had “failed to meet its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement with respect to reporting of nuclear material, the subsequent processing and use of that material and the declaration of facilities where the material was stored.” In its most recent report, May 2012, IAEA concluded that due to Iran’s failure to provide total nuclear transparency, “the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”

With Iran’s centrifuges continuing to crank out increasing amounts of low and, more significantly, 20 percent enriched uranium that could provide feedstock for weapons-useable material, a glimmer of hope arose in 2010 when Turkey and Brazil got Iranian negotiators to agree to store 80 percent of its low-enriched uranium in Turkey in exchange for foreign nuclear fuel for the country’s medical isotope production reactor. In Tehran, decision makers balked, unwilling to give up nuclear production, while Washington objected on grounds that Tehran would continue to produce low-enriched uranium while retaining the 20 percent stocks that posed the greatest risk.

Today, the international community has settled on a three-prong approach to stop Iran. Israel and the United States continue cyber attacks and, presumably, other covert action. The United States, the European Union and others have intensified “crippling” financial, economic and oil import sanctions while Beijing and Moscow have joined the United States and European allies in negotiations with Iran to halt programs of concern.

To date, these efforts have failed. Should failure persist, several options remain:  accept Iran’s peaceful nuclear representations, prepare to live with a nuclear-armed Iran or apply force to eliminate or set back the country’s nuclear enterprise.

The first option, taking Iran at its word, butts against continuing concerns. Iran’s commitment to a large nuclear-enrichment program makes little commercial sense since Russia amply fuels the country’s sole nuclear power reactor. Iran’s proposed nuclear power plants will not go into service for many years. In addition, foreign sources can supply needed fuel for the country’s medical isotope production reactor. Of course, Iran can make an argument that it needs enrichment plants for energy independence in a hostile world. However, even conceding the point does not justify the country’s failure to provide IAEA with unfettered access to its nuclear program. Through the years, Iran’s continued obstruction has called into question its peaceful representations.

But let’s assume Iran gets the bomb. Can’t we live with it? After all, since 1945 international politics has survived a nuclear-armed world now housing nine countries without a single wartime use. True, but we should find little solace in that. With every nuclear-armed entrant the world makes a new bet that the historic taboo against weapons use will hold.  In the Middle East the bet must be weighed against the region’s unique volatility and Israel’s fears that the Mullahs mean it when they say the Jewish state is a cancer that the region must eliminate.

Finally, there remains force. For years now the United States and Israel have declared “all options are on the table.” Persistent repetition has made the threat increasingly hollow. For the United States, the reluctance to apply military power is understandable. Iraq taught Washington to be wary of imperfect intelligence and such imperfection applies to Iran today. The intelligence community concedes it cannot verify the revolutionary regime has made the decision to make nuclear weapons, a position Israel shares. Some fear that an attack itself would push the country over the brink. Then of course there remains Washington’s war fatigue in the aftermath of Iraq and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. Finally, hope continues that other methods, or Iran’s own fears, will constrain the Mullahs.

Uncharacteristically, Israel has eschewed force. Facing two other emerging nuclear adversaries — Syria and Iraq — Israel successfully bombed suspect reactors each housed. But the attacks tell a cautionary tale. Syria marked a simple operation, a solitary vulnerable reactor that it could not rebuild without North Korean technology and engineering.

Iraq turned out to be something different. The June 7, 1981 strike on Osirak destroyed the plant after diplomatic, public relations, assassination and sabotage efforts failed to halt construction. However, the attack did not quell Iraq’s nuclear ambitions. After the raid, Baghdad played dead while dramatically dedicating itself to a new, covert enrichment program. When the new decade began, Iraq was on track to produce weapons-grade uranium within a few years.

But for Saddam Hussein’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait and the strong international response that followed, Iraq might have become the 10th nuclear-armed state. Largely forgotten in memories about the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the American bombing campaign that drove Iraq out of Kuwait also struck many of the country’s concealed nuclear sites. But military strikes alone did not end the program. Rather they resurrected a lesson of the past. To assure against nuclear rebirth, there must be people on the ground to prevent it. The lesson emerged in World War II. In the second world war, the United Stated did not eliminate Nazi Germany’s atomic enterprise through military action, try as it did, but through the occupation of the country allowing program dismantlement that included incarceration of Hitler’s scientists.

The pattern repeated after the 1991 Gulf War. Under the aegis of a Security Council resolution, international inspectors entered Iraq to destroy or remove all nuclear contraband. By 1994 they succeeded.  The result, when American forces entered Iraq in 2003, the search for nuclear weapons found an empty cupboard. We find this pattern again with the Cold War’s demise as U.S. personnel on the ground helped dismantle the Soviet weapons program in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Commentators who call for the use of force against Iran today seem to have forgotten or ignored this history. Iran is neither Syria or Iraq 1981 or even 1981-1991. It has done a far better job to harden, disperse and conceal nuclear sites. The result, a military strike, may wound the nuclear program, not eliminate it. And, unlike Damascus, Tehran’s nuclear engineers have the capacity to rebuild. This point only serves to highlight the importance of ground personnel capable of eliminating nuclear remnants after a military strike and to prevent nuclear rebirth.

But even as history commends the tack it presents an evident challenge. Application to Iran would take a good deal of military convincing — a punishing bombing campaign directed at strategic non-nuclear as well as nuclear sites — to force the Mullahs to open the country to inspectors.  But the alternative is not very satisfactory either, namely periodic bombing to prevent nuclear reconstruction and sow fear. The result would keep the region in a state of quasi war.

Today’s options to put Tehran’s nuclear genie back in the bottle present no sure answers.

Negotiations between Iran and the United States, its European allies, Russia and China will resume later this month.  Bracketed by growing sanctions that have impacted Iran’s economy, they hope at a minimum to coax Tehran to eliminate the country’s 20 percent enriched uranium inventory.  Failure could force the United States and Israel to make good on repeated threats to apply military force or forge a persuasive deterrent strategy.

Were deterrence chosen, Washington would be wise to formally extend a nuclear umbrella to cover Arab allies fearful of Iran as well as Israel. The umbrella would seek to forestall another proliferation concern, an Israeli nuclear weapons possession declaration, a move that could force other regional adversaries to reconsider nonproliferation pledges.

Nuclear deterrence has a record of success, but admittedly it remains a gamble. Arguably, Iran might be less prudent than any other nuclear-armed state in history. But military strikes, absent the insertion of inspectors, remain a gamble as well. It would bank that Tehran is a paper tiger, one like Syria and Iraq, which would avoid military response fearing consequences. But if Tehran turns out to be otherwise, an attack would prompt revenge that could strive to shut the Strait of Hormuz to crash global oil markets coupled with a regional and global terrorist campaign against U.S., European and Israeli interests and rocket strikes directed at Israel from Iran and southern Lebanon. The result could be a major regional war.

Either attack or deterrence remains a throw of the dice, all the more reason to hope that negotiations succeed.

Bennett Ramberg served as a foreign policy analyst in the Department of State, Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration. His academic appointments included positions at Princeton and UCLA. The author of three books on international politics and editor of three others, Ramberg is best known for what many believe is the classic treatment of the consequences of military strikes on nuclear installations, “Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy” (University of California Press). Ramberg’s journal outlets include Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, Political Science Quarterly, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Survival, Arms Control Today, International Relations, Group Decision and Negotiation, Communication and the Law and the Croatian Medical Review. Ramberg’s Op-eds have been published by every major U.S. newspaper and many abroad. This is his first Op-ed for The Jewish Journal.