The Iranian nuclear program: Beyond the military option

This week the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its much anticipated quarterly report on the progress of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program and the level of its cooperation with the nuclear watchdog. The report in part summarized the IAEA’s findings as follows:

“The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme…The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. The information also indicates that prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured programme, and that some activities may still be ongoing.”

This is far from iron-clad proof that Iran already possesses or is quickly approaching the completion of a nuclear weapon, despite the declarations of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who as early as 1996 said that “Iran is feverishly arming itself with ballistic missiles and seeking also to develop nuclear weapons”.  Yet the threat of an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities still looms, with many inside Israel, the United States and elsewhere arguing that this is the only means of preventing what they view as an irrational Iranian regime from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Yet, is Iran really pursuing nuclear weapons? If so, is a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities the best way to stop it from acquiring nuclear weapons? Finally, is Iran an irrational actor who cannot be negotiated with?

Iran: The “Japanese option”

Iran is probably pursuing a nuclear weapon in the long-term. While this week’s IAEA report makes clear that Iran does not possess nuclear weapons and does not appear to be focused on rapidly acquiring them, it does raise concerns that it may be developing the key elements to eventually build them. These findings confirm our speculation in our analysis on 09 October 2011 that Iran may be pursuing the “Japanese option”. This can be summarized as acquiring all of the key components of a nuclear weapon, without actually building one. This means that while Iran would not have to face the consequences of actually possessing nuclear weapons, it could quickly acquire one if a sudden need arose.

Is a military strike by Israel, the US or both the best means of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? The likely answer is no. This goes to the question of why Iran may be pursuing a nuclear weapon in the first place. The Islamic Republic has been insecure since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when it had to contend with multiple internal and external threats to its power. Then in 1980, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran seeking to change the regime and annex its oil-producing province of Khuzestan in a war which lasted eight years. Saddam was backed directly by the Persian Gulf monarchies and indirectly by the US and key Western European powers- who sought to use Iraq to contain Iran. Since the same period Iran has also been subject to numerous sanctions for the purposes of weakening and isolating it. Additionally, after the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 the George W. Bush administration pursued a regime change strategy against Iran, despite attempts by then President Mohammad Khatami to improve relations with the US and the West. Today, Iran is confronted with US and other hostile military forces on nearly every terrestrial and maritime border. Iran also perceives Israel, which is believed to possess nuclear weapons, as a strategic rival. It thus may make sense for the Islamic Republic to pursue the Japan option as an insurance policy in case it ever perceived a fundamental threat to its existence from a foreign power.

US and Israel: The “military option”

In this context, is the so-called military option against Iran the best way to delay Iran’s nuclear program and preventing it from acquiring nuclear weapons?

The military option may allow Israel and/or the US to slow down Iran’s nuclear program- although this would not be easy or necessarily come cheaply. First, Iran’s nuclear program is complex, with at least 24 known facilities hardened against military attack and/or located in or around population centers. Second, even if a successful attack was carried out, the cost in terms of Iran’s retaliation and international reputation could be high. Iran could rain down missiles on Israel and US forces and allies in the region, temporarily close the Strait of Hormuz (affecting international oil supply and prices), and use its proxies in Lebanon, Gaza, Afghanistan and Iraq to wreak havoc on Israel and Western troops and interests. Furthermore, the US and Israel could suffer a further hit to their international reputation, weakening their ability to isolate Iran after the use of the military option. Finally, even if Iran’s facilities were destroyed, Iran’s technical capacity would likely remain intact.

Aside from possibly creating a “rally-around-the-flag” effect in Iran, retrenching what is a deeply unpopular regime, An Israeli and/or US military strike could materialize Iran’s insecurity and push it to abandon the Japanese option and pursue the rapid procurement of nuclear weapons, fundamentally reshaping the dynamics of the Middle East. Rather than stopping Iran’s nuclear program, a military strike could all but guarantee that Iran acquires a nuclear weapon.

Coercion and payment

The truth about the military option in the case of Iran’s nuclear program is that it relies both on inadequate coercion and payment. On the one hand, the threat and actual use of military attack is not a high enough price for Iran to pay to stop its nuclear program. Given its threat perception, the regime in Tehran is likely willing to replace as many facilities and scientists as it must in order to achieve nuclear security. Very likely nothing short of a full-scale invasion and occupation could stop the program. Even then this could be temporary, as any regime in Iran would likely consider or actually pursue nuclear weapons, as the Shah did before the Islamic Republic.

A successful strategy against Iran must contain elements of coercion and payment. While the threat of further sanctions and possible military intervention could remain on the table, Iran must also be offered suitable incentives to decide to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons, as happened with Libya in 2003. As a pre-condition to negotiations, the US would likely have to drop the option of regime-change altogether. Furthermore, it would have to consider putting all the major issues on the table, including ending the various sanctions and acknowledging Iran’s role in the region.

This touches on the question of whether Iran can be dealt with as a rational actor. Throughout its history, the Islamic Republic has shown that it is a rational actor interested in its own survival and maximizing its power, rather than a fanatical revolutionary state. The IAEA report confirms this: In 2003 Iran stopped its structured program of pursuing nuclear weapons, likely a response to the perception of a threat from the US after its invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Bush administration’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan however, and its unwillingness to negotiate with Iran led the regime in Tehran to restore its efforts, albeit in a more diffuse manner.

While the Islamic Republic, like the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic, uses what sounds like uncompromising rhetoric, it has more often than not acted rationally. For example, under the Khatami administration in 2001, Iran aided the US invasion of Afghanistan in the hopes of defeating a common enemy, the Taliban, and creating better relations with the US. During the Chechen wars Iran abstained from aiding Muslim Chechen rebels and instead opted for smooth relations with its Russian neighbor. In the 1980s, Iran cooperated with The Ronald. H. Reagan administration and Israel in order to procure weapons in its fight against Saddam. Even Israel’s much vaunted strike on the Iraqi Osirak nuclear plant is believed to have been a success as a result of Israeli-Iranian cooperation. In all of these contexts, and many more, Iran acted as a rational actor interested in self-preservation and increasing its power, and is likely to continue acting in this way far into the future. When the US fully recognizes this, and is willing to use both coercion and payments to deal with Iran, it is likely to come much closer to resolving outstanding issues, including the very serious threat of nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East.