The upside of a nuclear-armed Iran

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Sometime in the next decade or so, Iran will join the exclusive club of nuclear weapons states. And the harsh reality is that – blustering, bargaining and even bombing notwithstanding – there is simply nothing that the United States or any other power can do to prevent it.

That Iran is an inevitable nuclear power is beyond doubt. The regime has always been highly motivated to acquire nuclear weapons — and has been willing both to invest scarce resources and weather costly international sanctions to realize that goal. It has also made substantial progress toward acquiring such weapons. Indeed, despite all the diplomatic and military efforts to end or reverse the country’s nuclear weapons program, it is reported that Iran’s breakout time – commonly defined as the time required to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon – is now as short as a few months. If deeds speak louder than words, Iran’s deeds have signaled its commitment to acquiring nuclear weapons very loudly indeed. 

Similarly, there can be little doubt that there is no way to prevent this outcome. Given the regime’s motivation, there is little hope that it can be talked out of acquiring nuclear weapons. 

At best, the much-lamented Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) slowed Iran’s inexorable march toward becoming a nuclear weapons state. It certainly didn’t make it any less inexorable. And, if the reports we’ve been hearing about the state of the ongoing negotiations to revive that arrangement are even remotely accurate, there is little prospect that JCPOA 2.0 will be anything other than a similar retardant. It certainly won’t extinguish Tehran’s nuclear ambitions or the program these ambitions feed.

And given the way they have hardened and protected their nuclear infrastructure, there is little possibility that they can bombed out of acquiring them. The best that could be hoped for from an American bombing campaign is to set Tehran’s nuclear program back by some number of months or maybe even a year or two. But then what? Rinse and repeat indefinitely?

And even if a bombing campaign were to be “successful,” the geopolitical blowback would be counterproductive to say the very least. Not only would Iran retaliate militarily – via some combination of regional proxies, its own irregular forces, its now-formidable medium-range ballistic missile forces or naval operations in the Persian Gulf – but such an operation would present opportunities for mischief to Beijing and Moscow. Would either of these consequences be worth whatever temporary setback could be inflicted on Iran?  

What then is to be done?

Ultimately, there really is only one solution to the problem of an inevitably nuclear-armed Iran: accept reality and begin adapting to the regional “balance of terror” that will naturally result. The United States has learned to live with nuclear-armed adversaries in the past, most notably with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and more recently with North Korea. And there is no reason to believe that it couldn’t accommodate itself to a nuclear-armed Iran. 

Such an accommodation would be uncomfortable, to be sure. No one in Washington would choose this scenario if there were any alternative. But that was true in the past as well. The harsh reality is that the enemy always gets a vote. In the late 1940s, Moscow voted to go nuclear; in the mid-2000s Pyongyang voted for the same; and in the not-too-distant future, Tehran will cast a similar ballot. Washington adapted in the past and will have to adapt again in the near-term future. That is not merely the best option, it is the only option.

While it is the best, indeed only option, however, we should be under no illusion that it is good option. There is no reason to assume that such a nuclear balance of terror would usher in an era of peace and harmony in the region. Iran is a revisionist power that has long sought regional hegemony at the expense of its neighbors and will continue to do so under the umbrella of mutually assured destruction. 

And there are dangers inherent in any balance of terror arrangement – otherwise it wouldn’t be called a balance of terror – the most obvious of which is the danger that a regional crisis will erupt and subsequently spiral out of control. But such is the inevitable tragedy of great power politics. Sometimes there are no good options — only bad, really bad and utterly catastrophic ones. Accepting the inevitability of a nuclear-armed Iran may well be a bad option. But at least it is realistic (and neither really bad nor utterly catastrophic).

Finally, it is worth considering the if there are dangers inherent in accepting the reality that Iran is an inevitable nuclear power, consider the upside of such an accommodation. From an American perspective, a nuclear balance of terror in the region – perhaps involving a future nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia as well as Israel and Iran – would likely stabilize the geopolitical order in the region, enabling the U.S. to disentangle itself even further from the region and refocus its strategic attention elsewhere.

It would allow the Washington to downgrade its ties with Riyadh — ties which have grown increasingly problematic in recent years. In turn, further U.S. disengagement would reduce the perceived need for Russia and China to assert themselves in the region to undermine or counterbalance U.S. influence. And further disengagement from the Persian Gulf region would allow the United States to rebalance the deployment of its strategic resources and energies worldwide, focusing on more pressing regional threats and challenges.

The bottom line? Iran is an inevitable nuclear weapons state, and the sooner everyone comes to grips with that reality the sooner we can get on with the task of managing the emergent nuclear balance of terror in the region. We may wish we had better options, but we don’t. In fact, the alternative options we do have – blustering, bargaining and bombing – are all ill-fated in one way or another. The rational thing to do is to choose the least bad option, especially as it’s the only realistic one. The only question is, will we?

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesot,a and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.

Tags Foreign relations of Iran Iran Iran Nuclear Deal Iran–United States relations Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Mutual assured destruction Nuclear energy in Iran Nuclear program of Iran Nuclear weapon Views on the nuclear program of Iran

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