Is Barack Obama’s threat of preventive military action against the Iranian regime’s nuclear program credible? Would a one-year, six-month, or even three-month nuclear breakout capacity at the known nuclear sites be acceptable to him? Is he prepared to attack if Tehran denies the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, entry into undeclared facilities that may be hiding nuclear-weapons research or centrifuge production? Is he prepared to strike if the regime denies inspectors access to the personnel and documents that would allow the West to see whether—how much—the regime has been lying about weaponization?
These are questions that Iran’s leaders—Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, who oversee the nuclear program, and Hassan Rouhani, who before becoming president served on the Supreme National Security Council as Khamenei’s personal representative—have undoubtedly asked since 2008. The answers they reached surely shape Tehran’s approach to the current negotiations with the West. Khamenei, Rouhani, and others have stated since the Joint Plan of Action was signed in November that Tehran has no intention of rolling back its nuclear progress. Here’s how Khamenei put it on April 9 in a meeting with officials of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization: “But all should know that despite the continuation of these talks, the Islamic Republic’s activities in the fields of nuclear research and development will in no way be halted, and not a single nuclear accomplishment will be suspended or stopped.”
Participants in the Vienna nuclear talks have described the proceedings so far as a take-and-give exchange, where the Iranian negotiating team grimaces and the Americans back off. The Obama administration hasn’t yet wanted to push, for example, on an inspections regime that would allow the IAEA to visit undeclared Revolutionary Guard sites that may house nuclear-weapons-related research. Since the guards oversee the entire atomic program, as well as ballistic-missile development, paramilitary expeditionary efforts (see Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Sudan, the Gaza Strip, Afghanistan), and terrorism, a rational person might conclude that a nuclear deal denying the IAEA spot inspections at Revolutionary Guard facilities is, to put it politely, defective.
President Obama’s intellectual soulmates, the left-of-center nonproliferation crowd in Washington, who have been in constant retreat over the last decade about what should be demanded of the Islamic Republic, appear to be defaulting to a position where an Iranian “freeze” would be just fine and an intrusive inspections regime covering undeclared sites unnecessarily provocative. It likely won’t be long before the soft nonproliferation voices at the Ploughshares Fund, the Carnegie Endowment, the New America Foundation, and the Brookings Institution tell us that pushing the “moderates” in Tehran—Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif—against the Revolutionary Guards would be counterproductive since the guards are prickly nationalists who could torpedo everything.
The nonproliferation experts often remind us that the Islamic Republic hasn’t been defeated in war, which apparently limits the West’s and the IAEA’s acceptable inquisitiveness. Increased “transparency” of known sites, which the Iranian regime is allowing, will have to be enough—even though the capacity and proclivity to lie and cheat has been a hallmark of the Islamic Republic since the 2002 disclosure of the then-hidden Natanz and Arak nuclear facilities. We will assuredly hear some nonproliferation folks again emphasize the competence of American intelligence, playing off the public remarks of the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who suggested the intelligence community would know if Iran decided to build a bomb. Downplayed will be the unpleasant history of the Central Intelligence Agency, which has missed every successful clandestine nuclear weaponization (the USSR, Communist China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and probably Israel and South Africa, too) since the end of World War II, along with the possibility that the Islamic Republic’s final dash to the bomb might not be conducted at a monitored site.