Charles V. Pena
Our America Initiative Advisory Council Member of Defense & Foreign Policy
With a November deadline looming, Iran recently offered up a new compromise proposal in nuclear talks that has been dismissed by Western negotiators as nothing new. In other words, it’s business as usual. Iran continues to try and buy time. The U.S. and Europeans continue to believe they can put an end to Iran’s nuclear program. The latter is just wishful thinking. The reality is that Iran has every incentive to pursue a nuclear program that leads to eventual weaponization and is not likely to give up its quest for nukes, regardless of how much we try to bring them to their knees with sanctions.
To begin, although Israel does not admit it, they are a nuclear power with an estimated 100 nuclear warheads. So, from Iran’s perspective, nuclear weapons are seen as a counterweight to Israel and a way to stave off potential U.S.-imposed regime change. What do Iraq and Afghanistan (Iran’s neighbors on its flanks) have in common? Both were the benefactors of regime change via U.S. military force and neither had nuclear weapons. North Korea, however, is a nuclear power, and the only regime change there has been Kim Jong-Un succeeding his father, Kim Jong-Il, when he died from a heart attack in December 2011.
If you believe that nuclear weapons are the only way to guarantee your continued survival, that’s a pretty powerful incentive.
Moreover, although a nuclear-armed Iran would be no cause for celebration — and would complicate the U.S.’s national security strategy and seriously complicate Israel’s — the fact is that the U.S. and its allies could live with a nuclear Iran. North Korea has nukes, and the world as we know it has not come to an end. Unless the mullahs in Tehran are suicidal — and there’s no apparent reason to believe they are — Iran is no more likely to use a nuclear weapon than North Korea. Why? Because the vastly superior and far-more capable U.S. nuclear arsenal would serve as a powerful deterrent, as would Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear arsenal, which is backstopped with an increasingly sophisticated missile defense system. Iran would risk total destruction if it launched a nuke.
Even if you believe Iran is hell bent on destroying Israel, you also have to believe that the regime would be willing to pay the price of total self-destruction to achieve that end. The ruling mullahs in Tehran may be hardline and fundamentalist, but so were Stalin and Mao (and both were considered “crazy” in their time) – yet we successfully deterred them both.
But wouldn’t the Iranians give nukes to terrorists? After all, the regime is considered a state-sponsor of terrorism. This, of course, was a central tenet of the Bush administration’s rationale for invading Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein in the wake of 9/11. But the reality is that there is no history of any country with dreaded weapons of mass destruction giving them away to terrorists. Indeed, Saddam Hussein was known to have both chemical and biological weapons and he supported terrorists—but he never gave those weapons to terrorists.
It is also important to understand that terrorist groups aided by hostile regimes are not completely controlled by those regimes. There is an assumption that a terrorist group would use a nuclear weapon to attack the United States – and that this is the only plausible scenario. But a nuclear weapon would also give the terrorist group the ability to topple the regime that supplied it, and the regime would have no way to prevent that from happening once the weapon was out of its control. Moreover, it would be logistically easier for the terrorists to attack the regime that supplied it – rather than trying to clandestinely transfer the weapon thousands of miles to a foreign target like the United States.
Two other factors would affect a regime's decision to transfer a nuclear weapon to terrorists. First, the cost to develop such weapons is significant – several billions of dollars. One has to question whether any regime would make that kind of investment simply to give a weapon away. (The Bushehr reactor complex is estimated to have cost $4-6 billion, and the Iranians are believed to be constructing three to five more nuclear facilities at an estimated cost of $3.2 billion.)
Second, once a weapon is in the hands of terrorists, they could use it against any target of their choosing. If that target is not the one approved by the regime, nuclear forensics could be used to trace the weapon back to its source (even without nuclear forensics, the list of suspects will be relatively short). As a result, the regime would have to worry that a terrorist group would commit an act that would endanger its own survival – especially if U.S. policy is to reserve the right to retaliate against the suspect regime using its vastly superior nuclear arsenal. Indeed, if deterring U.S.-imposed regime change is one of the primary incentives for Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, giving them away to terrorists would be counterproductive and more likely to invite the very action the regime seeks to avert.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to prevent (or at least delay) Iran from becoming a nuclear power. But we need to be realistic about continuing to do so. And we should have a plan in place for what to do if Iran does become a nuclear power. And that plan can’t be (a) take military action or (b) keep trying to divest them of their nuclear weapons (which seems to be our plan vis-à-vis North Korea). The former would be reckless and the latter fruitless.