With the fall of Ba'athi Iraq, there are only two targets left on the
famous, or infamous, "axis of evil." And the tactfulness of the
original locution aside, Iran is one of them. The Iranian regime
sponsors terrorists who murder Americans and is building a very
sophisticated, independent nuclear-technology infrastructure.
The Bush Administration has vowed to take pre-emptive action against
regimes that pose such threats, so Iran's mullahs must be wondering
if they are next in line for the application of U.S. force. After
all, they more resemble Ba'athi Iraq's leadership--an elite seeking
but still lacking an operational nuclear weapons capability--than
they do the leadership of their missile trading partner in North
Korea, which appears to have put itself beyond relatively risk-free
U.S. military action. The mullahs know that the United States already
has sufficient military power in the region to reduce most of Iran's
budding nuclear infrastructure to rubble within 48 hours. They know,
too, that all international efforts, including U.S. economic
sanctions, to dissuade Iran from the nuclear course short of using
force have failed. They have well earned the right to be worried.
So has the United States. Absent a fundamental change in the policy
of the Iranian regime, especially its support for terrorism, or a
change of the regime itself, the prospect of an Iranian bomb is very,
very dangerous. The dangers fall into several categories. Nuclear
weapons in the hands of the current regime would be regarded by its
neighbors as a profound threat and would almost certainly stimulate
interest in acquiring nuclear weapons in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and
Egypt. The smaller Gulf Arab countries, meanwhile, are likely to call
for a more explicit U.S. nuclear guarantee--and they might get it.
Whether or not the United States agrees to a new iteration of nuclear
guarantees, an Iranian nuclear capability, together with its missile
program, will eventually threaten Europe, Russia and the United
States itself. Such a capability would further harm the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), whether Iran obtains the bomb legally
by withdrawing from the Treaty, or illegally by violating it. And the
bomb in the hands of the current Iranian regime could embolden it to
provide more military and political support to the terrorist
organizations Hizballah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, all
pledged to destroy the state of Israel. In extremis, Iran could
provide nuclear or radiological material to these groups.
In light of all this, it may be satisfying to contemplate the
expeditious destruction of Iran's nuclear facilities--and some
Americans are arguing the case. But the use of force should be the
very last resort in dealing with the problem of Iran's would-be bomb.
There are three main reasons for this.
First, an attack would not end, but probably only delay the regime's
ambition; and one can imagine political circumstances in which third
countries would aid a post-attack Iran such that the delay would not
be very significant. Even more important, however, some senior
Iranian officials are mindful of the dynamics iterated just above and
are not convinced that moving from a nuclear infrastructure to the
actual fabrication and deployment of nuclear weapons is in Iran's
national interest. The more likely a U.S. attack seems, the less
influence such doubters are liable to have. A U.S. attack could also
be counterproductive politically in Iran, where those opposed to the
regime could be harmed by a welling up of Iranian nationalist fury.
Second, the broader political price the United States would pay for
attacking Iran, almost certainly without allies and against the will
of most major states, would be considerable. Unlike Ba'athi Iraq,
Iran has yet to be found in serious breach of any of its legal
commitments to existing non-proliferation agreements, nor does it
have a record of invading its neighbors such that the United Nations
Security Council has been moved to partially suspend its sovereignty.
The best reason, however, for avoiding the use of military force, at
least for now, is that diplomatic means are available that can
seriously slow and complicate, if not halt altogether, the Iranian
program. Some of these means turn on technical vulnerabilities in the
Iranian program, as we shall see just below. This is a case,
moreover, where slowing the program may yield qualitative advantage.
For if the regime in Tehran should change for the better, or change
altogether, before Iran's bomb comes into being, then the problem,
while not disappearing, becomes a good deal easier to manage. This
possibility is not far-fetched.
There may also be an upside to U.S. restraint. If the present Iranian
regime can be persuaded to abandon terrorism and, as a result, enter
into a political dialogue with the U.S. government, the calculus of
risks and incentives in Iran's contemplation of deploying nuclear
weapons can perhaps be influenced for the better. Such an Iran could
make possible the reconsideration of concepts for a regional security
regime for the greater Middle East that could enfold the growing
dangers of chemical and biological weapons proliferation as well as
nuclear proliferation. If there is parallel progress on resolving the
Palestinian-Israeli issue, a new dialogue on the sensitive subject of
Israel's nuclear weapons might also be possible.
To stop, or significantly slow down, Iran's push for a bomb will
require a multilateral, multi-tiered effort headed by the United
States. It would have to involve carrots as well as threatened
sticks, and much greater cooperation with Europe, Russia and China.
It will, of course, also require a fundamental change in Iran's
bilateral relations with the United States. However difficult both
parts of this effort may be, it is worth pursuing. Otherwise, either
hoping for relatively quick regime change in Tehran or a decision to
use force made in Washington will remain the only options available
to stop the Iranian bomb, with all the uncertainties of the former
and all the dangers and costs of the latter.
The Iranian Program
Iran's nuclear ambitions are the result of complex ideological and
geopolitical circumstances. While the mullahs are clearly eager to
build up their nuclear infrastructure, obviously to create an option
to deploy a bomb, Iran's program began well before their tenure. The
late Shah initiated it, and his motives were a fusion of Iranian
national ambition and concern for the direction of the neighborhood.
Some rather-too-casual observers have come to see Iranian strategic
planning as if its planners had only one eye--facing westward, toward
Iraq and Israel. But in the Shah's time, Iran also looked north
toward the Soviet Union and east toward Pakistan and India. Over the
past quarter century, the significance of an Iranian bomb as a sort
of force de frappe-style insurance policy against the Soviet Union
has lost much salience, but the United States has come to replace it
as far as the present regime is concerned. More important, the
strategic problem posed by India and especially Pakistan has risen
dramatically. While the Islamic regime's anti-Israel posture is
radical, uncompromising (so far) and worrisome, it would be a mistake
to underplay Iranian concern with Pakistan, a mostly Sunni Muslim
country with more than twice Iran's population and one facing
long-term political instability.
As a result of such concerns, Iran has long been embarked on a
serious and cleverly-structured project to develop a completely
indigenous nuclear fuel cycle. The most advanced component is a 1,000
megawatt nuclear plant being built with Russian help at Bushehr on
the northern Persian Gulf. When this and related fuel cycle projects
are fully operational, Iran will be independent of foreign fuel
suppliers for its nuclear power reactors and therefore capable of
developing its own weapons-grade fuel. Since the procurement of
weapons-grade material is one of the most difficult tasks for an
aspiring nuclear weapons state, this capability would represent a
major breakthrough for Iran.
Iran's desire for independence in the nuclear arena is not hard to
explain. During the Iran-Iraq War, Iran was isolated by the
international community and subject to a very effective arms embargo
orchestrated by the United States. In contrast, Iraq was provided
with ample arms by the Soviet Union, France and China with American
concurrence, and huge financial support from the Gulf Arabs.
Furthermore, the world ignored Iraq's frequent use of chemical
weapons against Iranian forces. These memories continue to generate
bitterness among Iranians and join with a strong anti-colonialist
nationalism in support of the attainment of maximum national
independence in all respects.
But achieving an independent nuclear fuel cycle is not an easy task,
it cannot be completed quickly, and it is vulnerable to interference
and delays from abroad. Iran, of course, does have other, less
demanding choices. It could purchase weapons-grade material from
international sources. This route has the obvious advantage that the
material would be fairly cheap to obtain in comparison to other
options. However, the quantities are likely to be limited, and it
would be a highly illegal transaction which, if discovered, could
trigger sanctions under the NPT. Furthermore, the quality of the
material might be suspect (there have been many scams with front
organizations from the former Soviet Union trying to make money
pawning off supposed weapons-grade material to would-be buyers.) If
Iran's aim were to have one or two token bombs in the basement, this
might be the preferred route. But this is not its purpose, and it
does not satisfy the desire for independent options.