The Hard Truth About Long Wars
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After months of uncertainty and growing concerns from the West, Iran announced in early November that negotiations over reviving the 2015 nuclear deal would resume, with a first meeting scheduled in Vienna on November 29. For the moment, the pressure has come down a notch, but the outlook for success is bleak. Iran’s demand that the United States remove all sanctions imposed since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018, and its insistence that the United States provide a guarantee that a future president won’t leave the deal again go well beyond the terms of the original agreement. In addition, Iran’s nuclear advances mean that a return to the deal is now less attractive for the United States, because Iran has gained important knowledge that cannot be easily wiped away. Under these conditions, a deal will be hard to reach. But the Biden administration needs to try, because a nuclear-armed Iran would make the world a far more dangerous place.
That, at least, is what most observers believe. Ray Takeyh disagrees. In “The Bomb Will Backfire on Iran” (October 18, 2021), he presents a far more sanguine view. Going nuclear, he argues, would cost the Iranian regime a great deal and fail to yield any strategic benefit. This will eventually become apparent to the people of Iran, who will then rise up against the regime, Takeyh predicts. And so, in his view, the nuclear gambit will backfire: in the end, he writes, “the most consequential victim of an Iranian bomb will be the theocracy itself.”
But these claims don’t hold up to scrutiny. They ignore important evidence, rest on a set of questionable assumptions, and fail to take into account the lessons offered by looking at the experiences of other nuclear-armed states. In reality, an Iranian bomb isn’t inevitable, and the global pressure campaign Takeyh expects to emerge in the aftermath of an Iranian nuclear test won’t materialize. A nuclear Iran would pose serious challenges to the United States, and Takeyh’s suggestion that such a scenario would present an opportunity to bring about regime change is risky and unwise. The better option remains trying to prevent the emergence of an Iranian bomb in the first place.
Takeyh argues that Iran has already decided to produce nuclear weapons and that it will inevitably do so. According to him, “neither diplomacy nor covert action nor the threat of military force has done much to slow Iran’s march toward the bomb, much less stop it.” Iran’s suspicions of the United States and its ambitions for regional dominance mean that it cannot “simply stop at the threshold of acquiring the bomb.” It has to go all the way.
It is impossible to rule out that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, already has his heart set on building the bomb. But instead of trying to perform the impossible task of peering into the minds of Iran’s leaders, it is better to examine the available evidence. And here, information suggests that Iran has not resolved to produce nuclear weapons. Instead, Tehran wants the ability to build weapons in the future in case it decides it needs them—what is known in nuclear parlance as a hedging strategy.
Since 2007, U.S. intelligence has repeatedly indicated that Iran wants a bomb option—not the bomb itself. As then Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to Congress in 2012, “Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so.” Moreover, the U.S. intelligence community has said that any future Iranian decision about whether to build nuclear weapons will be based on a “cost-benefit approach.” In other words, contrary to Takeyh’s assertion, Iran’s decision to weaponize is not a foregone conclusion. Indeed, Iran’s willingness to implement the 2015 deal it reached with the United States and other world powers—which drastically reduced Tehran’s nuclear program and its ability to quickly develop a bomb—is good evidence that Iran is not as committed to acquiring nuclear weapons as Takeyh suggests.
Iran’s leaders would need to be quite desperate to risk it all for a single nuclear weapon.
Despite its withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, even the Trump administration had to concede that Iran wasn’t actively working to build weapons but was instead holding on to key documents and personnel to “preserve technical expertise relevant to a nuclear weapons capability, and potentially to aid in any future effort to pursue nuclear weapons again, if a decision were made to do so.” Israel—which is laser focused on the Iranian nuclear threat—apparently agrees. “To the best of our knowledge, the directive [on whether to produce nuclear weapons] has not changed,” a senior Israeli intelligence official said last month. “They are not heading toward a bomb right now.”
Intentions can change, of course. But how easy would it be for Iran to build a bomb if it decided to do so? Takeyh argues that Iran could “quickly” produce enough material for a device. He is certainly right about that. But he ignores the reality that unless Iran has built covert facilities—and there’s no evidence that it has—Iran would be trying to “break out” at a site that is monitored by international inspectors, posing a high risk of detection and intervention. Kicking out international inspectors would prevent them from reporting on Iran’s activities but would itself be a major red flag and would signal that Iran was making a dash to the bomb. The international community might not have much time to act. But Iran’s margin of error would similarly be slim. Iran’s leaders would need to be quite desperate to risk it all for a single nuclear weapon.
Even if Iran succeeded in producing enough nuclear material, it would still have to package that material with other components into a nuclear device and potentially load it on to a missile. Takeyh ignores these steps of the process, on which Iran apparently hasn’t made any progress for over a decade and which are vulnerable to detection. As the head of Israeli military intelligence said in October, there has been “no progress . . . in the weapons project” and that “even from the moment you have a breakout, there is still a long way to go before a bomb,” perhaps as much as two years. The fact that Iran hasn’t made these preparations suggests that a move to nuclear weapons isn’t in the offing.
But the international community’s ability to disrupt an Iranian sprint for the bomb doesn’t matter if, as Takeyh argues, neither the United States nor Israel has the will to stop it. As much as these two countries focus on the Iranian nuclear program, strategic surprise is still possible. Still, it is incredibly difficult to imagine a scenario in which either the United States or Israel knowingly allows Iran to cross the nuclear threshold. Israel has ramped up training for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites. For decades, every U.S. president has pledged not to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and President Joe Biden recently stated that if diplomacy fails, the United States will “turn to other options.” A military strike to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons may be one of the few remaining foreign policy decisions that would have the support of a majority of Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Launching one would be a far easier decision than allowing Iran to cross the nuclear Rubicon.
In Takeyh’s hypothetical scenario, a nuclear Iran would prompt a U.S.-led global backlash that would cut the Iranian regime off from the global economy and deny it the benefits of nuclear weapons. Realizing this, the Iranian public would become disillusioned and ultimately overthrow the regime; a new, pro-U.S. leadership would emerge in its place and dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons.
In reality, things would probably play out much differently. First, a global pressure campaign against Iran would be unlikely to emerge. There would especially be little support for sanctions whose true goal was regime change—a policy even most U.S. allies would reject. Although an Iranian nuclear test would be condemned across the globe and lead to a temporary spike in support for new penalties against Tehran, enthusiasm would wane in the subsequent months and years. China and Russia—which seek to check U.S. ambitions, sell Iran military equipment, and (in China’s case) buy Iranian oil—would likely defy any push to isolate Iran. Despite the best efforts of the United States, the result would be a leaky sanctions regime that would get leakier over time.
Takeyh is right that North Korea—which challenges his argument because it has managed to hold on to power and its nuclear weapons despite massive pressure—isn’t the right comparison, because its isolation is in part by design. North Korea is also the clear historical outlier: international pressure against proliferators tends to gradually lessen once they cross the nuclear threshold. A better comparison therefore would be to the international response to India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons tests in 1998, which triggered a public outcry and U.S. congressional sanctions. Those sanctions were gradually eased, and the international community had little appetite for imposing high economic costs given the low likelihood that New Delhi and Islamabad would disarm. Iran’s connection to the global economy creates vulnerabilities, but it also means that trying to squeeze the country to the point of collapse would not work.
The theory that a nuclear-armed Iran would stand idle as the United States tries to suffocate it is not one worth testing.
Although Takeyh acknowledges that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose significant challenges to the United States, he tends to assume that addressing these issues would be relatively easy and straightforward because, as he puts it, they would prompt a “much-needed reset” of U.S. policy that refocuses its attention on Iran and the region. In reality, the United States would face tough choices about its commitments to allies and how to balance those requirements against other significant—and probably more important—security threats from China and Russia. Takeyh’s recommendation that Washington deploy nuclear weapons to the Gulf states is a case in point. It is questionable whether Congress or the American people would support such a move. It also probably isn’t necessary given that the United States can already target Iran with nuclear weapons from halfway across the globe. And placing U.S. nuclear weapons on Iran’s borders could actually increase the risks that Tehran would use a nuclear weapon in a crisis because the regime might feel pressured to “use them or lose them.”
This leads to perhaps the most dangerous flaw in Takeyh’s argument: trying to destabilize and induce the overthrow of an unsavory regime armed with nuclear weapons is flirting with disaster. The United States worries about and usually seeks to avoid political instability in nuclear states precisely because of the risk of theft, loss, or the unintended use of nuclear weapons. The theory that a nuclear-armed Iran would stand idle as the United States tries to suffocate it is not one worth testing.
Moreover, it is also unclear why the Iranian public would revolt against the attainment of a nuclear weapons capability. Even though polls show that most Iranians are opposed to weaponization today, support would probably shift following a test that many would view as a major achievement and a source of national pride. Those same polls consistently show that Iranians support their country’s nuclear program, even though it has come at a significant cost. And even if the regime were to collapse, Takeyh is too confident that it would be replaced by a pro-American leadership willing to dismantle Iran’s nuclear arsenal. A more hard-line faction could take control—or a set of leaders friendlier to the United States and its allies may still see value in holding on to nuclear weapons to burnish their credentials at home or to use as a bargaining chip. Trying to base an entire policy around predicting the outcome of a revolution seems misguided.
Rather than resigning itself to the inevitability of an Iranian bomb, the United States should instead focus on preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. The best way of doing that remains reaching a deal with Iran that rolls back its nuclear program under close international monitoring in exchange for sanctions relief. That is harder today given the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 deal and Iran’s subsequent nuclear progress. But history suggests two reasons for optimism: Iran is not committed to the bomb, and its decisions on its nuclear program can be influenced. The task for Washington is to convince Iran that its interests are better served by reaching a deal than by escalating its nuclear program. To do that, the United States should keep the military option in its back pocket, stay open to a diplomatic solution, and remain flexible on alternatives to the imperiled nuclear agreement.
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