The inelegantly named P5+1 group – the United Kingdom, the United States, China, France, Russia and Germany – is meeting with Iran at the magnificent Ciragan Palace Hotel in Istanbul, hoping to avoid the bleak outcomes Admiral Mullen outlined. In the best-case scenario, Iran may surrender its enriched uranium stockpile, the basic building block of a bomb, for peaceful nuclear technology and fuel – though that is months, and perhaps years, away.
But the bad news is that a fuel-swap deal won’t end the Iranian nuclear threat. If the terms of Iran’s dysfunctional relationship with the West aren’t fundamentally rewritten, crisis will periodically erupt – and inexorably push it to resume its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Iran has most of the knowledge it needs to build a bomb; there’s no way to take it away.
The big diplomatic challenge, therefore, is to put the genie back the bottle. That will need a grand bargain with Tehran: a deal which would address Iran’s economic and security concerns in return for its ending support for terrorism and renouncing nuclear weapons.
Experts concur, though, that the project is some years from fruition. The US army’s General James Cartwright said in 2010 that it would take between three and five years for Iran to “actually create a detonation.” Meir Dagan, until recently Israel’s spy chief, suggested a 2015 timeline. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that an Iranian inter-continental ballistic missile, needed to deliver a nuclear warhead to targets in Europe and the US, is “more than a decade away.”
These estimates aren’t reasons to be sanguine: it’s facile to argue, as former IAEA Chief Mohammad El-Baradei did, that the Iranian threat is just “hype.” Bruno Tertrais, a leading nuclear theorist has pointed out that just two countries that acquired the capabilities to make nuclear weapons didn’t eventually assemble one. The uranium enrichment and missile capabilities Iran is acquiring bring it ever closer to having a deliverable nuclear weapon. But the fact is there is time to try and avert the apparently inevitable.
Ever since the revolution of 1979, Iran’s relationship with the West has been bitter. The fallout from 9/11, though, saw a window of opportunity open. Iran saw two states around it – Iraq and Afghanistan – crumble in the face of US power. It suspended its secret uranium enrichment programme. Later, in 2003, Iranian leaders attempted secret peace proposals through Switzerland’s ambassador to Tehran. In return for civilian atomic technology and an end to sanctions, the Iranians offered to stop supporting terrorist groups and to make their nuclear program transparent.
|Iranian Nuclear Progress|
But President George Bush’s administration believed a bigger prize was within its grasp: regime change. Mr. Bush cast Iran as part of the “axis of evil” and spurned its overtures. Later, though, the US became too mired in Iraq and Afghanistan for the Iranians to feel vulnerable – and Tehran’s nuclear pursuit resumed.
To what end? Few experts believe Iran, despite the millenarian fervor of some of its leaders, intends to use nuclear weapons to obliterate its adversaries. “Iranians,” the Israeli expert Avner Cohen wrote in a must-read essay, “are aware of the catastrophic consequences of such an act.” Even the most crazed regimes seek to survive – and Iran’s leaders know a nuclear first strike will mean their own annihilation. Iranian foreign policy has in fact been remarkably pragmatic – or cynical, if one wishes: witness its support for Christian Armenia against the fellow Shi’a Muslims of Azerbaijan.
But Dr Cohen also flagged a more realistic risk: “under the shadow of its bomb, Iran could become a source of political and military adventurism.” Iran, he argued, could aggressively pursue regional hegemony, hoping its nuclear weapons would shield it from retaliation. Michael Krepon has lucidly explained what nuclear theorists call the stability-instability paradox: though nuclear weapons deter aggression, and thus prevent large-scale wars, they provide cover for less-powerful states to fight wars against bigger ones. Put simply, Iran could unleash havoc, just as North Korea is doing – and the world couldn’t do a lot about it.
The one instrument the P5+1 has to avert this nightmarish outcome, though, isn’t working well enough. Sanctions have hurt Iranians, but Mr. Ahmadinejad’s regime hasn’t been shaken. It pushed through a harsh economic reform program last month, which was a sign of confidence. In Moscow and Beijing, there is little stomach for more sanctions. Moreover, if sanctions couldn’t stop cash-strapped North Korea from building a bomb, they’re unlikely to hold back Iran.
|Irans Nuclear Facility Locations|
Even assuming all Iranian nuclear facilities can be identified and obliterated in air assaults, the costs of such a confrontation would be huge. Iran possesses the military capacities to disrupt global oil supplies and inflict crippling costs on the world economy. It has also trained forces to unleash terror. There might come a time when there is no choice but to pay this price – but it isn’t just yet.
Enough points of convergence exist between Iran’s interests and those of the US to justify pragmatic engagement. Both states are, for example, hostile to Islamists in Afghanistan. Iran’s Chabahar port could provide NATO a cost-effective and secure logistical route into Afghanistan. Iran’s energy infrastructure needs Western investment – and the world needs its oil.