By Harlan Ullman
Last week, the UN’s International Atomic energy Agency (IAEA) released an assessment of Iran’s nuclear programs. While not overly alarmist, the report warned that based on inputs from nearly a dozen different national intelligence agencies, Iran was developing programs in virtually all categories essential for production of nuclear weapons as well missile delivery systems. Iran quickly refuted the report denying any nuclear weapons ambitions.
Some immediately and predictably declared the situation apocalyptic resurfacing arguments for military action to prevent Tehran from acquiring the bomb. Russia and China were predictably more muted. And the Obama administration is wisely keeping its counsel as it reviews its options.
Clearly, few people in their right mind would prefer to see Iran with a nuclear weapon although China might not be entirely displeased with how such an event might shift America’s attention from the Pacific back to the Persian Gulf and Middle East. The reactions of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperative Council among many others are laden with uncertainty and risk not the least of which is possible nuclear weapons proliferation. Yet, before panic sets in, a bit of history provides an important context regardless of whether or not Iran does field nuclear weapons.
The most recent case studies are North Korea and Iraq. North Korea detonated if not a weapon certainly nuclear devices. Yet, has the geostrategic balance been affected? The answer is not much.
Eight years ago, the United States attacked Iraq to keep Saddam Hussein from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon. Then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said she did not wish to be proven wrong by a nuclear mushroom cloud suddenly materializing over an America city. In the first case, the consequences were far less than expected. And in the second, our intelligence was dead wrong.
Iran is neither North Korea nor Iraq. Still, a little more history is helpful before we embark on kinetic policies towards Iran. In the late 1940’s, the United States had similar fears of the Soviet Union acquiring nuclear weapons. Pre-emptive strikes were part of that debate. In fact, the then Commandant of the prestigious National War College in Washington, DC was fired for arguing publicly for a preventative attack. Instead, policies of deterrence and containment proved preferable and effective after Moscow got the bomb in 1949.
In the early 1960’s, this debate was repeated over China’s nuclear ambitions. China exploded its first weapon in 1964. War was avoided. And China has fortunately moved from the enemy column, one hopes permanently.
That said, what bold actions might be considered to avert Iranian nuclear proliferation? A grand bargain with Russia is one such possibility Suppose Russia were able to convince, cajole or coerce Iran into abandoning all nuclear weapons ambitions through a transparent and verifiable regime perhaps through controlling critical supply chain parts and systems or other means. Obviously, verifiability must be absolutely assured. And the strategic bargaining chip could be US and NATO ballistic missile defense plans (the European Phased Adopted Approach) for defending the alliance in Europe that Russia so vehemently opposes.
The EPAA was designed explicitly to defend NATO from a potential Iranian nuclear ballistic missile threat. Should Russian convince Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons programs, the need for these defenses would evaporate. If conditions changed, as the EPAA relies on readily transportable land based radar systems and SM-3 missiles, many sea-based, defenses could be deployed quickly assuming the basic command and control architecture had been put in place.
Second and possibly through Track II, non-official diplomacy, the U.S. could quietly explore containment and deterrent options with Britain and France and possibly Russia and China as nuclear powers and with regional countries such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Israel should be part of this quiet diplomacy. Interestingly, an Iranian decision to develop nuclear weapons could force these regional powers into a closer embrace with the US and NATO rather than embarking on nuclear weapons programs of their own.
Third, far closer examination of both Iranian views of nuclear weapons including doctrine, command, control, security and the rest and of the supply chain for vital parts and systems crucial to the enrichment of uranium in particular must be carried out. For example, Iran’s centrifuges depend on magnetic bearings that are quickly worn out by the high speeds needed to enrich uranium. If supplies could be restricted, that would surely delay and even defer acquiring nuclear weapons.
Whether Iran decides to acquire nuclear weapons or not and to do so overtly or openly are open questions. From a Western perception, Iran’s keeping the nuclear option open may make the most sense. Whether Iranians see it that way is unclear.
But rather than panic, history sets a context. So does bold thinking. Let us exercise both.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council.