Whether it’s Bush or Kerry in the White House next year, defusing the nuclear proliferation crisis with Iran –which many analysts believe will acquire nuclear weapons within the next four years– will constitute one of the most complex and pressing challenges facing the next administration.
Preventing nuclear terrorism will be the defining national security issue of the next administration and as such it illustrates the primary context for US foreign policy. President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry have both said that the basis of any plan to prevent nuclear terrorism would be to curb the advancing programmes of states that aspire to possess nuclear weapons. Iran is widely believed to be using its civilian nuclear power programme as a cover to develop weapons by exploiting loopholes that allow for the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes. The International Atomic Enercy Agency (IAEA) on June 18 reported that Iran has ‘a practically complete front-end of a nuclear fuel cycle’. This leads many experts to believe that Tehran will acquire a nuclear bomb during the next administration (US and Israeli intelligence estimates put the year at 2007 or 2008). The US House of Representatives on May 6 passed Resolution 398 in a 376-3 vote, calling on the US government ‘to use all appropriate means to deter, dissuade and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons’. This reflects the emergence of a broad bipartisan consensus that restraining Iran will be a top national security priority of whichever administration occupies the White House next January.
Iran is at the nexus of two of America’s main national security concerns: terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The 9/11 Commission’s Report, which was released on July 22, 2004 suggests that Iran may have had more to do with al-Qaeda than Iraq ever did and has raised the spectre of terrorist access to weapons of mass destruction. Furthermore, it has prompted a wave of speculation about the possibility of US action against Tehran.
Iran continues to support militant groups involved in a variety of regional conflicts, including the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. Indeed, the discovery on January 3, 2002 of more than 50 tons of Iranian weapons (including long-range Katyusha rockets with a 20-kilometre range, anti-tank missiles and long-range mortar bombs) heading for Palestine on the Karine-A merchant ship in the early days of the Bush Administration was the catalyst that on January 29, 2002 placed Iran on the ‘axis of evil’ and clearly put it in the sights of America’s new policy of pre-emption. Iran also has ongoing relationships with competing power centres in Afghanistan and Iraq, and could play an important spoiler role in the short- and long-term future of both countries. Moreover, Iran is in a unique position to disrupt access through the strategically vital Persian Gulf.
Because Iran occupies such a central position in the Middle East, both its internal and international conduct have wide-ranging repercussions for the region as a whole and for US interests within it. The US would view an anti-American, nuclear-armed Iran as a major threat to regional security.
Why Iran Wants the Bomb: The American Sandwich
The paradox is that the US war on terror is simultaneously enhancing and threatening Iran’s strategic position in the Middle East. On the one hand, Iran has arguably benefited more than any other country from the war on terrorism because it has eliminated Tehran’s traditional enemies: the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. However, Iran is also being geographically sandwiched by American strategic forces that have been moved eastwards: the US now has military basing rights in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan, and air and naval assets in the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea. As a result of this build-up, the US has become the guarantor of Persian Gulf security, and deploys sufficient military power to deter, or if necessary defeat, Iran in a future confrontation.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions, therefore, seem to follow a rational set of strategic calculations, and reflect a belief that maintaining some sort of viable nuclear programme offers the single most valuable enhancement of the country’s bargaining position with Washington. Iran’s determination to embrace it might, however, lead to an overestimation of its potential leverage and to an ultimate weakening of its own security.
What is the Current State of Iran’s Nuclear Programme? Lingering Ambiguities
Iran has confessed that its nuclear programme is far more advanced than it had previously acknowledged, and it has conceded that it is developing a full nuclear fuel cycle. This followed disclosures in August 2002 by the Mujahideen al-Khalq, the largest and most militant opposition group, that Iran had developed –among other things– a large uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, as well as a heavy water production plant in Arak that could produce enough plutonium to make one nuclear weapon each year.
Indeed, Iran’s construction of extensive uranium-enrichment centrifuge facilities became evident through follow-up inquiries by the IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog. Uranium enrichment is the process essential to manufacturing bomb-grade material. Centrifuges –which are used to produce low-enriched uranium for use in nuclear reactors, but can also produce highly enriched uranium for use as the explosive material in a nuclear weapon– spin at supersonic speeds to separate fissile from non-fissile uranium isotopes. The IAEA has reported that Iran plans to install 50,000 centrifuges at Natanz alone; this facility is set to begin operating in early 2005. Iran would need only to run 750 centrifuges for one year to enrich enough uranium to make one nuclear bomb.
On February 19, 2004 IAEA inspectors also discovered undeclared components of an advanced uranium-enrichment centrifuge at the Doshan-Tappeh air force base in Tehran, the first known link between Iran’s nuclear programme and its military. Moreover, inspectors on February 24 reported that Iran had experimented with polonium, a radioactive substance that can trigger a nuclear blast.
Iran in February also acknowledged that it bought nuclear equipment on the black market. This has been particularly contentious because Iran earlier told the IAEA that it had not received any centrifuge components from foreign sources. The admission came after Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist, on February 4 confessed that he had sold nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Indeed, IAEA inspectors found that Iranian centrifuge components matched drawings of equipment found in Libya and supplied by the clandestine Pakistani network.
These disclosures, and the string of alarming revelations that have emerged through subsequent IAEA inspections –including the revelation on June 1 about the discovery of blueprints for the so-called P-2 advanced centrifuge, which is more suited to making weapons than the P-1 that Iran has confirmed it possesses– suggests that this is part of a multi-pronged effort to acquire and/or produce fissile material, and have transformed the urgency of intelligence estimates about Iran’s nuclear capabilities and reduced the time remaining before it might reach a nuclear threshold.
Exacerbating concern about Iran’s nuclear activities is its sophisticated missile programme. Iran in August 2003 deployed the new Shihab-3, a road-mobile, medium-range ballistic missile that can hit Israel, Turkey, Russia and parts of southern Europe. This represents a major advance in Tehran’s power projection.
Iran ratified the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970. Although the NPT allows signatories to enrich uranium to provide reactor fuel, the same technology can then be used to enrich uranium further to weapons grade standard. Therefore, the IAEA insists that any enrichment programme is fully declared and safeguarded. Iran’s predicament is that it now has the stigma of having deceived the IAEA, and while Tehran is technically correct that it is entitled to an entire nuclear fuel cycle under the terms of the NPT, this development is now unacceptable to either the US or the Europeans.
The International Response So Far
The Bush Administration has responded to these developments with a combination of tough rhetoric and concerted international pressure. The alarming nature of the disclosures has helped to generate a rare multilateral consensus aligned to admonish Iran. This has resulted in an unprecedented effort by the international community to exert increased pressure on Iran concerning its nuclear activities, an effort underlined by the implicit threat of United Nations Security Council action and economic sanctions.
This multilateral pressure resulted in a separate October 21, 2003 agreement negotiated by the UK, France and Germany in which Iran promised to sign the NPT’s Additional Protocol, which mandates enhanced verification of both declared and undeclared materials and activities. The Iranians also agreed to suspend enrichment-related activities; in exchange, the Europeans offered to supply Iran with nuclear fuel.
Since that time, however, Iran’s relationship with the IAEA has disintegrated due to a steady flow of new revelations about the true extent of its nuclear activities. For example, based on documents Iran turned over to the IAEA on October 23, the IAEA on November 11 reported at least nine instances of previously undeclared foreign assistance involving entities from at least four countries that provided components, material and information used in Iran’s enrichment programme. Moreover, although Tehran signed the Additional Protocol on December 18, Iran’s parliament has refused to ratify it.
On June 18, 2004 the IAEA passed its most strongly-worded resolution to date, drawing attention to the omissions in Iran’s disclosures and its failure to cooperate. The IAEA and the international community now appear to be converging around the conclusion articulated by the Bush Administration more than a year ago that Iran has not complied with its obligations under the NPT.
Angered by the IAEA’s sharp reprimand, Tehran on June 24 terminated its deal with the Europeans and on July 31 reported that it had removed the seals that the agency had placed on the centrifuges to prevent them from being used. In fact, despite intrusive IAEA inspections, Iran has assembled more than 920 gas centrifuges, 120 of which were assembled in just two and a half months, between November 2003 and mid-January 2004.
The October agreement probably cannot be salvaged, especially given Iran’s decision to resume centrifuge construction. Iran’s commitments in the accord were expansive, entailing a complete suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities –including production of centrifuge parts, assembly and testing of centrifuges, and production of uranium hexaflouride feedstock– and construction of the heavy water reactor in Arak. Tehran’s defiance, therefore, appears to be an effort to erode the original terms of the agreement, as well as to undermine the grudging consensus that was reached between Europe and the US on the issue.
Much of Tehran’s more confrontational approach began after the conservatives won in highly controversial parliamentary elections on February 18, 2004 that altered the balance of power. Indeed, Iran now appears to be trying to maintain momentum in its nuclear programme while avoiding a major confrontation with the international community. British, French and German officials met their Iranian counterparts in Paris on July 30 but abandoned efforts to rescue the October agreement when President Mohammed Khatami announced that Iran ‘will have’ an enrichment programme to produce nuclear fuel. He also stressed that any deal with Europe must recognize Iran’s right to have advanced nuclear technology.
Also pending is a deal between Iran and Russia on the return of spent nuclear fuel from the Bushehr light water reactor. Without consistent inspections and verifications, spent fuel rods from Bushehr could be diverted to produce a quarter ton of plutonium per year, which is enough for at least 30 atomic bombs. But Moscow places a high priority on preserving the Bushehr project because Iran has, in effect, saved Russia’s nuclear power sector. The industry in Russia faced an uncertain future after it lost customers following the collapse of communism, and the deal with Iran provides tens of thousands of Russian companies with most of their work.
The US in October 2003 persuaded Russia to delay delivery of fuel rods to Bushehr; this has slowed down the Iranian programme, and inauguration of the US$800 million reactor was recently postponed until October 2006. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran remain in protracted negotiations over the construction of three to five additional facilities at a cost of US$3.2 billion.
Even if Tehran were to fulfil its commitments under the NPT and the Additional Protocol, the sophisticated nature of its capabilities reveals that Iran is approaching a point of self-sufficiency. If Iran reaches the threshold where it no longer requires outside help to acquire a weapon, traditional counter-proliferation measures are unlikely to affect its nuclear timetable. Given that Iranian officials have pledged to resume uranium-enrichment activities once the IAEA verification is complete, the October accord may have been a delaying tactic as Iran inches closer to full-fledged nuclear weapons status.
The gap between Iran and the international community is now so wide that there is no consensus on how to proceed. For the moment the Europeans are trying to play down the issue –by saying they are awaiting the IAEA’s full findings this fall– because they fear that exerting too much pressure might cause Iran to opt out of the NPT. Meanwhile, Iran’s backtracking has bolstered those American hawks who seek to confront Iran.
While intent on resisting pressure from Washington for a UN resolution and sanctions, Europeans know they are playing a waiting game. The US will ask a meeting of the IAEA on September 13 to declare Iran in breach of the NPT, a prelude to seeking punitive UN sanctions. The IAEA, however, will probably try to keep the ball in play until after the US presidential election in November. Therefore, Iran presumably will get a warning in September, which would delay the crisis until the next IAEA meeting in December.
Regional Impact of an Iranian Breakout
If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it could set off a chain reaction –vastly increased US military and intelligence assets directed against Iran, active Israeli planning for Iran contingencies and possible nuclear proliferation by Iran’s neighbours– that would leave Iran worse off than if it had never developed nuclear arms. Indeed, it is not clear how carefully Iran has thought through the strategic consequences of crossing the line and building the bomb.
There is no doubt that if Iran were to formally withdraw from the NPT and openly build a nuclear bomb, the ripple effect would be quick and very serious. Moreover, it would cast doubt on the future of the NPT itself (it would demonstrate how any state can use the NPT to get the bomb making capabilities they want) and on the arms control infrastructure that has been set up since the treaty came into effect in 1968.
How Iran deploys its nuclear force would determine the impact on regional security, including the possible responses of countries in the region and elsewhere in terms of multilateral, bilateral and unilateral national security strategies. Many scenarios could be developed, but the more benign the circumstances under which Iran goes nuclear –for example, if Iran were to deploy a covert ‘bomb in the basement’ that would be hidden and neither deployed nor acknowledged– the more manageable the subsequent crisis would probably be. However, if Iran were to develop and deploy a medium force –an overt nuclear force consisting of several dozen warheads and capable of withstanding pre-emptive attack from regional adversaries– it would radically change the equation of power in the Middle East. Indeed, the regional and global reaction to an Iranian nuclear build-up will likely be influenced by geopolitical rather than ideological considerations about the evils of nuclear weapons.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey would probably regard an Iranian nuclear programme –together with Israel’s undisclosed but dominant nuclear force– as a threat and would strengthen their arguments for at least considering the nuclear option. Different sets of calculations are in play for each country.
In the Persian Gulf, unilateral options open to the smaller Gulf states in the event of an Iranian bomb are limited and the natural response from Gulf Arabs would be to embrace an even closer military relationship with the US. Saudi Arabia, however, is the most likely neighbour of Iran to launch a nuclear weapons programme and it has the capacity to consider some form of nuclear deterrent, most likely in cooperation with Pakistan (which would store nuclear warheads for Saudi Arabia’s arsenal of intermediate-range CSS-2 missiles in an arrangement that would not violate the NPT). Saudi considerations about a nuclear option would be related to the state of its relationship with the US which, until recently, was the Kingdom’s protector of last resort. It was the American presence in Saudi Arabia, however, that contributed to the rise of Osama bin Laden.
Although Egypt adheres to the NPT, it is angry about Israel’s nuclear capability. If Iran crosses the nuclear threshold –and especially if Saudi Arabia were to follow suit– Egypt probably would reconsider its own pledges under the NPT since it would see no advantages in continuing its membership.
Turkey’s future depends upon whether it gets a date in December 2004 for negotiating final entry into the European Union. If it does, Ankara’s security planning will be moderated by expectations of joining the EU. If it does not, however, Islamic pressures in Turkey could generate pressure to create an independent military capability, including a national commitment to acquire a nuclear option. NATO, of which Turkey has been a member for more than 50 years, was not structured to defend Turkey from a nuclear Iran. Turkey has excellent industrial and scientific infrastructures on which it could draw upon to build nuclear weapons on its own within well under a decade.
Moreover, Iranian breakout would certainly lead to the evolution of a new US Middle East strategic doctrine that would be far more explicit about ways to handle nuclear threats posed by Iran. This would probably include an accelerated programme for deploying a regional ballistic missile defence capability, including a forward defence system to intercept Iranian missiles in their boost phase. The retaliatory measures taken against Iran would have the net impact of further weakening its overall defence posture.
Dealing with Iran: Regime Change or Limited Engagement
There is a hawk-dove split in Washington over how to deal with Tehran. There are some hard-line voices, especially among neo-conservatives, who argue that the regime cannot be rehabilitated and that conditions are ripe for an imminent revolution to bring about full democratic change in Iran. Although many analysts view this as overly optimistic, these forecasts have helped shape US policy toward Tehran, conditioning the Bush Administration to reach out to putative opposition leaders and making US policymakers reluctant to engage with the current regime in order to avoid perpetuating its hold on power.
The realist counter-argument, both inside and outside the White House, is that the Iranian regime is too deeply entrenched to be changed by American interference; it controls all the instruments of power and the opposition is insufficiently united to bring about any coherent challenge the existing system. Thus, if Washington is going to have a relationship with Tehran, it must deal with the current regime.
Indeed, a growing number of American foreign policy experts advocate limited dialogue with Iran. A July 2004 study by the Council on Foreign Relations titled ‘Iran: Time for a New Approach’ argues that the regime in Tehran is basically stable and that direct military intervention by the US in pursuit of regime change is not plausible –Iran is three times the size of Iraq and likely to be even more hostile to foreign occupation–. Moreover, the US military is already stretched to its limits by commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The study says Washington instead should expand efforts to win cooperation in areas of mutual concern because the current lack of sustained engagement with Iran harms US interests. It concludes that because of Iran’s importance, economically and geostrategically, the US government should revise its strategic approach to Iran by seeking to engage Tehran in dialogue as a prelude to diplomatic normalization.
In fact, the massive projection of US power on Iran’s periphery has led a critical segment of Iran’s power brokers (which consists of pragmatists, reformists and conservative clerics) to reconsider the value of a rational relationship with Washington. The pragmatists, grouped around the powerful former president, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, believe the regime must address economic reforms, which would require a rational foreign policy that ends Iran’s isolation from the global economy. To accomplish this, Iran must not only engage its immediate neighbours, but also reach an accommodation with the US. The pragmatists, unlike the reformers, may have the clout to deliver on their pledges because of their dominant position in the national security apparatus and their ties to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ultimately, however, any real rapprochement with Tehran can only occur in the context of meaningful progress on the most urgent US concerns surrounding nuclear weapons, terrorism and regional stability. As a result, the next US administration will face pressure to commit itself unambiguously either to a policy of regime-change or to one of limited engagement, and direct its actions accordingly.
Unilateral Response: Not Just Another Osirak
Speculation is rife that Israel and/or the US intend to strike at the nuclear plant in Bushehr and other facilities around Iran before fuel rods are delivered from Russia by late 2005. President Bush has said that ‘we will not tolerate Iranian development of nuclear weaponry’. The head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, recently said that ‘Iranian nuclear weapons pose, for the first time, an existential threat to Israel’. Indeed, a pre-emptive strike –of the kind Israel carried out on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981– cannot be ruled out.
Israel’s options to counter the nuclear threat from Iran are limited, however. If Israel were to decide to act alone, it would face a much greater challenge than it did with Osirak because the distances are much greater. Moreover, the targets are very well protected –some of them in deep underground installations–. Furthermore, it is not likely that Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Jordan would allow Israel to pass through their airspace en route to Iran. If Israel were to use the Jordan route to Iran, the US would have to allow Israeli overflight of Iraqi airspace, which would be seen as equal American complicity in the attack. Another scenario is a US attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, using cruise missiles and guided munitions from stealth bombers, which would probably be more effective than anything Israel could muster.
A military raid, however, would stand an extremely low chance of success in deterring the Iranian nuclear programme. Israel’s attack on Osirak actually did little to hinder Iraq’s nuclear aspirations. Although it temporarily set back Iraq’s capabilities, it served rather to increase Saddam’s desire for a nuclear arsenal. A pre-emptive strike on Iranian facilities might enhance Iran’s nuclear prospects in the long term by providing Tehran with the justification to pursue a full-blown nuclear deterrent programme.
Moreover, unlike Iraq in 1981, Iran no longer depends on foreign imports for nuclear technology and already has the raw materials, as well as most of the designs and techniques, required to pursue a nuclear weapons programme. Even if its main facilities were to be destroyed, Iran has the know-how to pursue a more vigorous nuclear weapons programme in the long term.
A pre-emptive military strike would also elicit fierce retaliation from Tehran. Iran has already threatened to destroy Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor if the Jewish state were to attack its nuclear facilities. A likely scenario also includes an Iranian missile counterattack on US bases in the Persian Gulf, followed by a serious effort to destabilize Iraq. Iran could also opt to destabilize Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and induce Lebanese Hezbollah to launch sustained rocket attacks on northern Israel.
Therefore, the strategic usefulness of a unilateral pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would probably be short lived and could have various adverse effects on US interests in the Middle East.
Multilateral Response: A Race Between Cooperation and Confrontation
Iran’s pattern of concealment and the sophisticated and extensive nature of its disclosed activities indicate that its leadership is committed to retaining all available nuclear options. As a result, the next US administration will probably try to build and maintain a broad international consensus around a continuing effort to check Iranian progress towards a nuclear weapons capability.
There have been major disagreements between the US and Europe over how to deal with Iran. The Europeans have championed engagement while the Clinton and Bush Administrations have favoured a combination of unilateral economic sanctions and public criticism of Iran’s regime. On their own, neither approach has worked. Instead, the US, together with its European and regional allies, will probably need to use a combination of sticks and carrots to convince Iran that its interests will best be served if it abandons its pursuit of a complete nuclear fuel cycle.
Europe has a leadership role to play. It could, for example, present the US with a plan by agreeing to a bigger stick if Washington would throw in a bigger carrot: direct engagement with Tehran. This is something Tehran has long sought, and it could be offered in return for renouncing its nuclear ambitions. Given the growing role of economic interests in shaping Iran’s policy options, the prospect of commercial relations with the US could be a powerful tool in Washington’s arsenal.
Of all the issues facing the transatlantic relationship, that of Iran is the most serious. The next US administration will probably engage in tough-minded alliance management politics designed to tip the European balance firmly towards the pro-American bloc –and to revive Atlanticism in European politics–. If this fails, a collision between the US and Iran is likely.
The nexus between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction has become the reigning US foreign policy paradigm. In this context, Iran will constitute one of the most pressing challenges facing the next US administration. If the US and Europe cannot build an international coalition to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a confrontation between Washington and Tehran seems inevitable.
US foreign policy analyst and former managing editor of Arms Control Today