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Iran and the bomb: It’s time to face reality

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi
Iran’s national flag waves in Tehran, Iran, on March 31, 2020. Iranian media reported on July 6, 2022, that the country’s paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has accused the deputy ambassador of the United Kingdom and other foreigners of “espionage” and taking soil samples from prohibited military zones.

It appears increasingly unlikely that the Biden administration and the Iranian government will agree on terms for reviving the Iranian nuclear accord from which the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. for being “a bad deal.” Many of those in America, Israel and the Arab Gulf states who are worried about Iran’s behavior may rejoice at this prospect, but they should not. The hard, cold truth of the matter is that Iran is more likely to acquire nuclear weapons if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is not resumed than if it is.

Iran was in compliance with the limits imposed by the JCPOA at the time that former President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement in 2018, when Iran’s “breakout time” of how long it likely would take for it to acquire nuclear weapons was estimated to be 12 months. Since then, Tehran has reduced its level of compliance with the terms of the agreement and its breakout time for acquiring nuclear weapons is assessed to be less than 10 days — or possibly even zero

Both sides say they want to resume the agreement; Iran wants relief from the economic sanctions that the Trump administration imposed. One sticking point, though, is Iran’s insistence on reversing the Trump administration’s designation of Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization — something the Biden administration refuses to do, perhaps partly for fear of Republican backlash, even though this designation has not stopped the IRGC from playing an influential role inside and outside of Iran.

But if the JCPOA is not resumed, Iran essentially has no incentive not to acquire nuclear weapons. And it certainly has the technical capacity to do so.

Some Israeli politicians have declared that the Jewish state will use force to prevent this. But despite Israel’s great military capacity, Israeli strikes against Iran may delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by perhaps a year but will not prevent it. Indeed, Israeli strikes may increase Iran’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons.

Of course, what many Israelis — and others — really want is for the U.S. to forcibly prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, a hope that President Biden encouraged during his recent visit to Israel when he said the U.S. is “prepared to use all elements of its national power” to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But just as the U.S. has not prevented India, Pakistan or North Korea from acquiring nukes, it probably cannot prevent Iran from doing so, either. The U.S. may have greater capacity than Israel to delay Iran from doing so, but it cannot eliminate the nuclear know-how that Tehran already possesses.  

And needless to say, U.S. military strikes against Iran would only increase Tehran’s determination to acquire them. Just as the U.S. (and the rest of the world) has done with every other country that has acquired nuclear weapons, it will simply have to learn to live with the situation.

Further, there is a good chance that a U.S. threat to use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons will not even delay Tehran from doing so. On two different occasions when I have participated in “war games” with this scenario (sorry, but I can’t tell you where), the Russian teams forestalled the effort by deploying small numbers of troops in and around Iranian nuclear facilities. If Moscow did this in real life, the Biden administration indeed could be expected to pull back from launching an attack on Iran for fear of a wider conflict with Russia.

Of course, a truly Machiavellian Vladimir Putin might do nothing to help Iran but smirk at the sight of America getting itself bogged down in a messy conflict with Iran, knowing that whatever the outcome, American military resources expended on a conflict with Iran would not be available for Washington to ship to Ukraine.

If — or as I believe, when — Iran is at the point of acquiring nuclear weapons, the appropriate course of action for the U.S. will be not to attack Iran at the behest of its regional allies in a futile effort to prevent this but to offer to extend the American nuclear deterrent to Middle Eastern allies seeking it if the JCPOA is not restored. Iran’s leaders may be hostile toward the U.S. and some of its Middle Eastern allies, but they are not suicidal. 

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Tags Biden Biden foreign policy Donald Trump Iran nuclear program Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Middle East

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