In the event of an attack, however, systemic constraints that have kept Iran’s nuclear program in a latent phase would disintegrate. In a wide-ranging interview on the U.S.-Israel strategic posture concerning Iran, former Israeli general Giora Eiland, who once served as head of the Israeli Defense Forces’ planning directorate, spelled out that “whether or not the strike succeeds, it will give the Iranians the best pretext for openly striving to obtain nuclear weapons,” as aggression becomes justification for weaponization.
But once Iran has left the NPT, the United States and Israel will not know when Tehran comes to possess the bomb. As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations recently alluded to, “it is unlikely that Iran would needlessly test a nuclear weapon, since it would not be required to verify that it worked.”
A poststrike sanctions regime may believe it can keep necessary components for such an enterprise out of the hands of the Iranians. In reality, Iran’s defense industry, though technologically years behind the West, is still indigenized and does not need outside assistance for atomic manufacturing.
An extensive nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran is still possible. But if a compromise cannot be found, one where both sides feel that their core interests have been met, than Iran is highly unlikely to remain within the NPT. The result would be the unraveling of the confinement that kept Iran in a latent but transparent nuclear posture. With or without war, Iran’s nuclear efforts would become free of the NPT’s international legal constraints. And as Kenneth Waltz has argued, the brunt of the international community ultimately, begrudgingly accepts the most extreme outcome: Iranian possession of atomic weapons.
Analysts describing Iran’s nuclear program constantly evoke the critical nature of the “next few months.” But as those months have come and gone, the strategic equation has remained intact, with no war arising. With the escalation of the U.S.-led sanctions regime, this formula cannot hold any longer, forcing each actor in this decade-long drama to reconsider its strategic calculations.
At this point, the true American motive remains unclear. Does Washington want to arrive at a nuclear accord with Iran? Or, alternatively, will U.S.-led sanctions, which depend upon the continuation of the nuclear crisis, continue to push regime change? Election or otherwise, it’s time for an answer.
Reza Sanati is a research fellow at the Middle East Studies Center and a PhD candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University.