Containing and deterring.., p.1
Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran, p.1American Enterprise Institute Foreign and Defense Policy Studies
Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran
Questions for Strategy, Requirements for Military Forces
Thomas Donnelly, Danielle Pletka, and Maseh Zarif
With a Foreword by Frederick W. Kagan
A Report by the American Enterprise Institute
This report is the culmination of a project executed with the support of numerous individuals, including groups of experts gathered in July and September 2010 at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Our colleagues at AEI contributed vital assistance, understanding, and analysis in the completion of this report. We are grateful for their support in this endeavor and for their commitment to further our collective efforts to address a key national security challenge facing our country. In particular, we thank Frederick W. Kagan, Michael Rubin, Gary Schmitt, Ali Alfoneh, Ahmad Majidyar, Katherine Faley, Will Fulton, Grant Gibson, Stephen Gailliot, Lazar Berman, Richard Cleary, Laura Shen, and Henry A. Ensher. We would also like to thank the publications staff at AEI for their keen editorial and technical assistance. As always, credit belongs to many, but the contents of this report and any errors and interpretations are the responsibility of the authors alone.
The challenge of a nuclear Iran will be among the most difficult the United States has faced. Iran will not soon pose an existential threat to the United States in the way that the Soviet Union did from the 1960s until its collapse—at least, not in the sense that it will have a nuclear arsenal capable of literally annihilating the United States. But Iran will reach another threshold by acquiring nuclear weapons—the ability to keep America and its allies in constant fear. For a state that has formed its national security policy largely around terrorism, that is quite an accomplishment. It will unquestionably change American foreign and national security policy profoundly for the foreseeable future and introduce a source of permanent unease into a region and a world already suffering from more than enough worry and distress.
Many American and international leaders have said that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is unacceptable for these and other reasons. But at this moment it seems nearly certain that the international community, including the United States, will accept it. Anything is possible, but it is very difficult to imagine the current American administration going to war with Iran to prevent Tehran from advancing its nuclear program, whatever reports come out of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or elsewhere. None of America’s allies, apart from Israel, will take military action. There is no reason to imagine that a sanctions regime, or attempts to “isolate” Iran diplomatically, will succeed in the next year or two, having already failed spectacularly for more than a decade. And with the US failure to secure a binding relationship with Iraq, it is much more likely that the sanctions regime will steadily erode as Tehran uses Iraq to bypass it.
The Iranians thus face an opportune policy window during which sound strategy would lead them to field a nuclear capability if they have the ability to do so. The Obama administration seems certain not to attack. But the outcome of the next American presidential election is entirely uncertain, and the attitudes of some of the Republican candidates—particularly, the front-runners—are much less clear. Strategically, Iran’s leaders would be foolish to wait until after November 2012 to acquire the capability to permanently deter an American attack on their nuclear program.
Sound American strategy thus requires assuming that Iran will have a weaponized nuclear capability when the next president takes office in January 2013. The Iranians may not test a device before then, depending, perhaps, on the rhetoric of the current president and his possible successor, but we must assume that they will have at least one.
The prospect of an Israeli strike in the interim—the odds of which have increased again in the wake of the president’s decision to withdraw all US forces from Iraq at the end of this year—do not necessarily alter this calculus much. The Israeli Air Force can no doubt strike known facilities in Iran, including the enrichment facility at Natanz. It can likely destroy any above-ground structures and verify their destruction. It may be able to destroy known buried structures, such as those at Natanz, but verification may prove much more difficult. The biggest problem is that the known facilities are primarily those involved in the enrichment process—creating the nuclear fuel that would go into a weapon. Do the Israelis know the locations of all of the facilities in which that fuel might be mated with a warhead? Can they hit and destroy them? Can they, or anyone else, be certain when the dust has settled that they have gotten them all? If the Iranian leadership pops up the next day and says, “You missed! We still have a weapon!” then what? The United States will almost certainly be forced to behave as though this is true, and the following months and years will be spent attempting to prove or disprove the claim—and to examine Iran’s almost-inevitable efforts to rebuild its program (probably without benefit of IAEA access). And all that is to say nothing of the regional and even global consequences of an Israeli strike and an Iranian response.
The next American president is very likely to find himself or herself willy-nilly pursuing a policy of containing a nuclear Iran—or, at least, an Iran suspected of having nuclear weapons rather than simply of having a program that could produce them. Yet there is no such policy now under development (since no world leader can explicitly discuss a possibility he has dismissed as “unacceptable”), and little thought has been given to what such a policy might look like. When the project that produced this report began, we believed it was important to compare the costs and challenges of a containment strategy against other possible courses of action aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But the situation has changed. Our task is now to start setting the terms of the discussion about what a successful strategy of containing a nuclear Iran will look like.
Make no mistake—it would be vastly preferable for the United States and the world to find a way to prevent Iran from crossing that threshold, and we wholeheartedly endorse ongoing efforts that might do so. But some of the effort now focused on how to tighten the sanctions screws must shift to the problem of how to deal with the consequences when sanctions fail. That is the aim of this paper, and we hope it will become the aim of a significant portion of the Iran policy community sooner rather than later.
Note: I was a part of this discussion and this project from the outset, but circumstances required me to spend the period during which it was written in Afghanistan. I was not able, therefore, to take part in writing it, as I and my colleagues had originally expected, leaving them to carry the burden alone. They have done so brilliantly, and I proudly associate myself with the work they have produced.
—Frederick W. Kagan
Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar in defense and security policy studies and director of the Critical Threats Project at AEI.
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