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.
In other words, the final comprehensive deal that Washington should accept, so the nonproliferation left will likely argue, will contain: no dismantling of centrifuges (the new preferred terms appear to be “disabling” and “decommissioning”); no explicit ban on the future production of centrifuges; no reduction in the low-enriched uranium stockpile, allowing Tehran sufficient LEU to refine further into a half-dozen bombs; no closure of the bomb-resistant underground enrichment plant at Fordow; no dismantling of the heavy-water plant at Arak or even its conversion to a light-water reactor that can’t produce bomb-grade plutonium; no meaningful, verifiable restrictions on centrifuge research; no linkage between the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the nuclear program; no serious debriefings of Iranian nuclear personnel with their paperwork in hand; and certainly no acknowledgment by Tehran of its past efforts at nuclear weaponization (the nonproliferation cognoscenti call this the “possible military dimensions” of the program or PMD).
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Khamenei finally authorize an inspection of the Parchin Revolutionary Guard facility, where IAEA inspectors and Western intelligence services strongly suspect that the regime’s scientists once experimented with implosion devices and nuclear triggers. The IAEA was allowed a cursory visit in 2005; the suspect buildings have since been destroyed and paved over. Despite the uselessness of inspectors’ examining a cleansed site, Khamenei’s acquiescence would likely be greeted with great relief in many quarters and be seen as further proof of the Islamic Republic’s turn toward moderation.
If a private poll were held, it would most likely show that the vast majority of liberal nonproliferation experts would strongly prefer a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic to preventive military strikes unleashed by Barack Obama. This nonproliferation establishment will probably wrap itself ever more tightly in the technicalities of nuclear deal-making, as if all parties to the negotiations operated from the assumption that a nuclear weapon is no longer in the interests of the Islamic Republic, never mind the countervailing evidence of an arduous, expensive 30-year effort. The determined and deceitful nature of the regime will take a back seat, as one French official has put it, to the “right logarithm that will solve the strategic problem.”
Too-eager American diplomats and their expert assistants will attempt to find a technocratic answer to a problem that probably has no technocratic solution. The West could get utterly lost in measuring the ultimate nonproliferation desideratum: Iranian SWUs (“separative work units”—the amount of uranium separation done by an enrichment process). The surreality of this whole discussion is best seen in the “formula for success” seriously put forth by Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, the preeminent left-wing funder of nonproliferation studies. Here is his answer to the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards:
C = f (Qc + Cc + Lc + QLEU + Pu + R&D + V + HPMD + D + PW)
where Confidence (C) is a function (f) of
Qc = Quantity of centrifuges
Cc = Capability of centrifuges
Lc = Locations of centrifuges
QLEU = Quantity of low-enriched uranium
Pu = Plutonium production capabilities
R&D = Research and development
V = Verification of all of Iran’s activities
HPMD = History of programs with possible military dimension
D = Duration of the deal
PW = Political willingness to enforce the deal.
So let’s consider one pivotal component of the equation, PW. This is best translated as President Obama’s willingness to bomb the ball bearings out of the Iranian regime’s nuclear facilities. At this point, most liberal nonproliferation discussions get even weirder. In January, to stop Democratic senators from passing legislation that would have mandated new sanctions against Tehran if it failed to conclude a verifiable termination of its nuclear-weapons program through the Joint Plan of Action, or if Tehran engaged in a terrorist act at any time, the administration let loose the animadversion most feared among liberals, to be labeled a warmonger. The tactic worked brilliantly: Democratic senators caved en masse.
But the nuclear negotiations ultimately hinge, as even Cirincione sees, on the president’s willingness to unleash the Air Force and Navy. The rub is that the White House doesn’t want to use the threat of force before the negotiations end; it only wants do so after a deal has been signed, when the threat of force has no leverage. But the Iranian regime always uses Machtpolitik to get what it wants, and if we don’t, we’re not serious. It’s quite likely that the administration and its partners in the think-tank community will actually call on Congress to authorize the use of force after a deal is approved by Khamenei—not because they want to scare the supreme leader and his men (that possibility will have already been lost), but to provide Democratic politicians domestic cover, a show of toughness for the electorate and perhaps a bit of psychological salve for themselves.
It’s a pity. There is still a chance that if the president seriously threatened to use force before the informal deadline for the Joint Plan of Action in July—and it would be a hard sell in Tehran after his red-line debacle in Syria—he might be able to push the supreme leader into a corner where he’d have to make crippling nuclear compromises. If the Iranian regime is “rational” when it comes to American military power, and Khamenei has clearly shown that he is, then the supreme leader would likely prove flexible so long as he were sure that an American president would strike. The United States’ armed might—not economic coercion or reward—has always been the best trump that Washington could use to neutralize Tehran’s atomic aspirations.
Look at the past. The Islamic Republic’s clandestine nuclear-weapons program was publicly revealed by an Iranian opposition group in August 2002 (Western intelligence services were aware of it earlier). The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate asserted that Tehran’s development of a nuclear trigger, which is used only in bombs, was probably halted in 2003, the year of the Iraq invasion. Other aspects of the weapons program—the development and deployment of centrifuges and uranium enrichment—also slowed or were temporarily frozen. All of Tehran was then noisily wondering whether the Islamic Republic would be the next member of the “axis of evil” to be taken down. Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment, who was then in Tehran with the International Crisis Group, has recounted how Iranian officials were fearfully mesmerized by the display of American will and muscle. Rouhani took great pride in his memoirs and on the stump in his presidential campaign that he, as Iran’s nuclear negotiator, had kept the regime’s atomic quest alive in those trying times through concessions that were only temporary. Iran’s nuclear program accelerated after 2005 with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidential triumph, which Khamenei celebrated, and with the floundering of the Bush administration in Iraq.
The Obama administration—the president in particular—has had great difficulty in handling the fact that George W. Bush’s decision to eliminate Saddam Hussein altered Tehran’s nuclear calculations. It has been an article of faith for this president that the Iraq war was an egregious mistake. Early in his presidency, he sincerely tried to reach out to Khamenei, suggesting that the enmity between the two countries was surmountable. Obama has consistently resisted or diluted bipartisan congressional efforts to strengthen sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Such hesitancy had various causes, but the supreme leader clearly could have read it as a sign that the White House preferred a less confrontational approach.
The president’s good intentions and restraint—which survived even an Iranian plan to blow up the Saudi ambassador in a Georgetown restaurant in 2011 and Khamenei’s all-out support of Bashar al-Assad’s savage rampage in Syria—have been reciprocated by Iranian nuclear advances and zealously nasty anti-American rhetoric from the supreme leader. Since 2008, Tehran has ramped up its centrifuge production, uranium enrichment, heavy-water reactor construction, and ballistic-missile development. Iran has probably made more progress in its nuclear-weapons program on Obama’s watch than at any earlier time.
Yet some Iranian fear remains. Tehran hasn’t ejected the IAEA inspectors and cameras at the known nuclear sites. It has installed and tested but not thrown into full-throttle its advanced centrifuges (this may be more a question of imported parts than fear). It has been careful about how much medium-enriched uranium, which is a small step from bomb-grade, it stockpiles. Progress at the heavy-water reactor at Arak, which if completed could produce plutonium, has been constant—but not a damn-the-consequences mad dash (again, parts may be a factor).
As July draws nearer, the White House should show that it wants the nuclear deal less than Khamenei and Rouhani do. Above all else, the president and senior officials should be playing on the supreme leader’s longstanding insecurity vis-à-vis American might. Sanctions alone were never going to stop the mullahs’ nuclear quest. Given the enormous progress Tehran has made in the last five years, an honest analyst would have to conclude that sanctions are probably no longer relevant to rolling back the program. But nothing could be more helpful—intimidating to Tehran—than to have Congress “handcuff” the president through legislation now clearly defining the terms of successful nuclear negotiations and the consequences for Iran of failure. Those who fear American preventive military action more than they do a nuclear weapon in the hands of the supreme leader don’t really care what kind of deal is concluded with Tehran. In the end, they would accept an agreement that neither dismantles nor intrusively monitors the Iranian regime’s atomic achievements. If President Obama isn’t in this camp, then he needs to overcome his aversion to seeing diplomacy as an adjunct to the threat of war. The Iranian regime plays hardball. To win now, we have to openly prepare to fight.