Has the endgame on the Iranian nuclear program finally arrived? Is a deal in the cards? A broad swath of the foreign-policy cognoscenti, including Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, the National Interest’s Paul Pillar, The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, Esquire’s Richard Barnett and a host of others, seems to think so. They are optimistic about the current round of negotiations between Iran and the West and confident that - even if negotiations should somehow break down - Iran will not, indeed cannot, pose a real threat to the United States.
The conventional wisdom underpinning this new consensus, being played out on the editorial pages of the nation’s leading newspapers and journals, is based on seven very shaky pillars.
One, that Iran would never use a nuclear weapon, even if it possessed one. Two, that Iran is simply trying to defend itself from American bullying and attempts at regime change. Third, that the use of a nuclear device by any foreign nation (including Iran) would be detected easily. Fourth, that Iran’s ballistic missiles similarly are simply a deterrent needed in a bad neighborhood, and their use would be readily attributed to Tehran. Fifth, should Iran decide to build a nuclear warhead, U.S. intelligence will readily detect such a move. Sixth, there are no real options open for the United States and its allies other than “diplomacy.” And seventh, a U.S. policy of prudent deterrence combined with enforcement of the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are all that are needed to keep Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy a peaceful endeavor.
Are these points true? Is talk of an Iranian nuclear threat simply hype by those who allegedly are seeking to “fight another war,” as one newly published assessment claims? To understand why the new conventional wisdom is so profoundly wrong, it’s useful to take these arguments one by one.
First, Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon would be anything but peaceful. Regime officials have called repeatedly for the annihilation of Israel and for a “world without” the United States. Its leaders have actively advocated a new world order and sought to harness terrorist proxies to remake the Middle East in its radical image. A nuclear capability would greatly expand the ability of Iran’s regime to do so.
Second, Iran isn’t simply pursuing a defensive strategy. As its meddling in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere makes all too clear, Iran is actively attempting to tilt regional politics in its favor and away from the United States. A nuclear-armed Iran surely would expand those efforts, to our great detriment.
Third, a nuclear attack wouldn’t necessarily be readily attributable to Iran. While we have made significant progress in the science of “nuclear forensics” in recent years, we still do not have the ability to accurately detect the origin of a nuclear explosion. Other modes of attack - such as an electromagnetic pulse blast triggered by Iran - would be even harder to detect because it would not leave any debris for analysis.
Fourth, history tells us that Iran’s ballistic missiles are a tool of hegemony rather than defense. They are instruments of terror and blackmail, tens of thousands of which have been transferred to proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah. They also are a growing threat to the United States and its allies.
Fifth, U.S. intelligence suffers from serious - and systemic - gaps. Here, the history bears repeating. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. intelligence community has failed to detect and predict a string of key strategic developments, from North Korea’s ballistic missile tests in the late 1990s to Syria’s covert development of a nuclear program late last decade. Iran promises to be no different; Western nations still possess an incomplete picture of Iran’s nuclear development. In fact, major elements of the Iranian nuclear program were discovered not by Western intelligence sources but by Iranian dissidents who then shared the information with the West.
Sixth, diplomacy, despite its obvious appeal, lacks a logical endgame. What would such a deal look like? How would it contain Iran’s menace? The Iranian regime has proved itself at war with the West, and negotiations are likely to delay rather than solve difficult questions about how Iran can and should be stopped. Indeed, the current negotiations under way with the Iranian regime are nothing if not a nuclear kabuki dance, buying Iran’s ayatollahs much-needed time to achieve their aim of nuclearization.
Finally, yes, deterrence often works. But it often does not. We had a mutual-assured-destruction (MAD) relationship with the Soviets. But the Cold War ended because President Reagan adopted a policy of collapsing the Soviet regime, not because he passively accepted perpetual Soviet nuclear blackmail. The same holds true with regard to Iran. Despite international pressure, the Iranian regime is not deterred from attacking Americans in Afghanistan. It was not deterred from attacking us in Iraq over the past decade or in Beirut in the 1980s. These incidents and many others occurred when Iran was still far from the nuclear threshold. How, then, is an Iranian regime emboldened by nuclear acquisition likely to behave?
Without question, the choices confronting the United States and its allies in dealing with Iran are difficult. But blithely relying on conventional wisdom about containment, deterrence and diplomacy in dealing with the Iranian regime doesn’t make us any safer. In fact, it may very well do the opposite.
Peter Huessy is senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council.