Another March madness

I was reminded this week of the CNAS report If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear-Armed Iran, by Colin Kahl, Jacob Stokes and Raj Pattani in 2013 when Colin was out of government. It makes particularly interesting reading in the run-up to a possible nuclear deal with Iran. March is the make or break month for at least a framework agreement.

The report is a reminder of what we are going to need to do if there is no agreement and Iran manages (whether or not there is a military strike on its nuclear facilities) to get nuclear weapons. Our objectives would then number 11:

  • Prevent direct Iranian use of nuclear weapons;

  • Prevent Iranian transfer of nuclear weapons to terrorists;

  • Limit and mitigate the consequences of Iranian sponsorship of conventional terrorism, support   groups and conventional aggression;

  • Discourage Iranian use of nuclear threats to coerce other states or provoke crises;

  • Dissuade Iranian escalation during crises;

  • Discourage Iran from adopting a destabilizing nuclear posture that emphasizes early use of nuclear weapons or pre-delegates launch authority;

  • Persuade Israel to eschew a destabilizing nuclear posture that emphasizes early use of nuclear weapons or hair-trigger launch procedures;

  • Convince other regional states not to pursue nuclear weapons capabilities;

  • Limit damage to the credibility of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and U.S. nonproliferation leadership;

  • Prevent Iran from becoming a supplier of sensitive nuclear materials; and

  • Ensure the free flow of energy resources from the Persian Gulf.

While some of these objectives are already operable (especially the last), it is eminently clear that Iranian nuclear weapons would be a major challenge. According to Kahl, Stokes and Pattani, the responses would have to include:

Deterrence to prevent Iranian nuclear use and aggression through credible threats of retaliation by:

  • Strengthening U.S. declaratory policy to explicitly threaten nuclear retaliation in response to Iranian nuclear use and strengthening commitments to defend U.S. allies and partners;
  • Engaging in high-level dialogue with regional partners to extend the U.S. nuclear umbrella in exchange for commitments not to pursue independent nuclear capabilities;
  • Evaluating options for the forward deployment of U.S. nuclear forces;
  • Providing Israel with a U.S. nuclear guarantee and engaging Israeli leaders on steps to enhance the credibility of their nuclear deterrent; and
  • Improving nuclear forensics and attribution capabilities to deter nuclear terrorism.
Defense to deny Iran the ability to benefit from its nuclear weapons and to protect U.S. partners and allies from aggression by:
  • Bolstering U.S. national missile defense capabilities;
  • Improving the ability to detect and neutralize nuclear weapons that might be delivered by terrorists;
  • Improving network resilience to reduce the threat posed by Iranian cyber attacks;
  • Maintaining a robust U.S. conventional presence in the Persian Gulf and considering additional missile defense and naval deployments;
  • Increasing security cooperation and operational integration activities with Gulf countries, especially in the areas of shared early warning, air and missile defense, maritime security and critical infrastructure protection; and
  • Increasing security cooperation with Israel, especially assistance and collaboration to improve Israel’s rocket and missile defenses.
Disruption to shape a regional environment resistant to Iranian influence and to thwart and diminish Iran’s destabilizing activities by:
  • Building Egyptian and Iraqi counterweights to Iranian influence through strategic ties with Cairo and Baghdad, leveraging assistance to consolidate democratic institutions and encourage related reform;
  • Promoting evolutionary political reform in the Gulf;
  • Increasing assistance to non-jihadist elements of the Syrian opposition and aiding future political transition efforts;
  • Increasing aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces as  long-term check on Hezbollah;
  • Continuing to assist Palestinian security forces and institution building while promoting an
    Israeli-Palestinian accord;
  • Enhancing counterterrorism cooperation and
    activities against the Iranian threat network, including expanded U.S. authorities for direct action;
  • Expanding collaboration with partners to interdict Iranian materials destined for proxies such as
    Hezbollah; and
  • Aggressively employing financial and law enforcement instruments to target key individuals within
    the Iranian threat network.
De-escalation to prevent Iran-related crises from spiraling to nuclear war by
  • Shaping Iran’s nuclear posture through a U.S. “no-first-use” pledge;
  • Persuading Israel to eschew a preemptive nuclear doctrine and other destabilizing nuclear postures;
  • Establishing crisis communication mechanisms with Iran and exploring confidence-building measures;
  • Limiting U.S. military objectives in crises and conflicts with Iran to signal that regime change is not the goal of U.S. actions; and
  • Providing the Iranian regime with “face-saving” exit ramps during crisis situations.
Denuclearization to constrain Iran’s nuclear weapons program and limit broader damage to the nonproliferation regime by:
  • Maintaining and tightening sanctions against Iran; and
  • Strengthening interdiction efforts, including the Proliferation Security Initiative, to limit Iran’s access to nuclear and missile technology and stop Iran from horizontally proliferating sensitive technologies to other states and non-state actors.

I suppose there is some universe in which the United States can do all these things successfully and at the same time shift its strategic attention out of the Middle East towards countering an aggressive Russia and a rising China, but it is not the real universe in which you and I live.

Prime Minister Netanyahu argued that an agreement would pave Iran’s way to a bomb. But that was a rhetorical flourish, not serious analysis. The worst that can be said of an Iran/P5+1 agreement is that it is irrelevant: Iran is more likely to sneak out through a clandestine program than break out by diverting nuclear material from its civilian nuclear program. I can see no way an agreement that expands IAEA inspections can make it easier for Tehran to divert nuclear material to a bomb-building effort. And the military strike option–which would certainly cause Iran to try to accelerate bomb-making efforts–would remain open if there are violations of an agreement.

Containment requires far more of Washington than it can reasonably be expected to deliver. That is a good reason for preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And an agreement is the best bet for that. Anything else would be March madness.

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