The Nuclear Challenge from Iran

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

May 1, 2006

Iran’s decision last month to resume nuclear enrichment activities-a key step in the process of making nuclear weapons-is a direct challenge to the United States, Europe, and the world. For more than two years, Europe-with Washington’s support-had been offering Tehran a reasonable deal: End the nuclear enrichment work it had been doing in secret for nearly two decades, and Europe would provide Iran with technical support for a civilian nuclear energy program as well as expanded economic and diplomatic ties.

Last month, however, the new Iranian government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made clear that the negotiation was over. In early February, Iran removed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seals and cameras in its nuclear facilities and began feeding nuclear feedstock into centrifuges, the process required to enrich fuel for use in reactors-or bombs. On February 27, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, reported that while there was no evidence of Iran diverting nuclear material for building weapons, there were numerous causes for concern, including evidence that Iran had received information about casting uranium metal into hemispheres (for which there is no other purpose than making nuclear weapons). Iran has also announced that in addition to its small-scale “pilot” enrichment plant of around 1,000 centrifuges, it plans to build an industrial-scale plant that would contain 50,000. If nothing is done, many analysts estimate that Iran could build its first nuclear weapons within around 5 years.

But what can be done? Some observers accept Tehran’s argument that it has a right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and believe that action by the international community would only backfire. While they would oppose an Iranian bomb, they argue that there is little we can do to prevent a determined Iran from building one eventually and that a nuclear-armed Iran can, in any case, be contained.

This view is too complacent, however. Allowing Iran to develop enrichment and reprocessing capabilities-even under an international inspection regime-would remove the most important technical barrier to its acquiring nuclear weapons and leave the decision of going nuclear entirely in the hands of Ahmadinejad’s radical Islamist government. If that government did build nuclear weapons, as is likely, then others in the region-perhaps including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey-might follow suit, knowing that a world that allowed Iran to build a bomb would surely allow them to do so as well. This would be a fatal blow to the already shaky nuclear nonproliferation regime, which for nearly 40 years has helped convince countries as diverse as Sweden, South Korea, Brazil and Ukraine that the costs of acquiring nuclear weapons outweigh the benefits. A nuclear-armed Iran, moreover, might pursue a more aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East, knowing that it could deter the United States and others from responding if it did so. And allowing Iran to go nuclear would increase the risk of nuclear materials or even a weapon falling into the hands of a terrorist group.

As an alternative to simply accepting Iran’s nuclear program, some recommend the use of military force. But this approach, too, is hugely problematic. Targeted U.S. air strikes probably could destroy Iran’s critical nuclear facilities and set back the program a number of years. But as we learned in Iraq, U.S. intelligence is far from perfect, so we could never be sure of hitting the entirety of Iran’s program, some of which might in any case be buried underground. A military attack against Iran would also undoubtedly generate strong public support among Iranians for an otherwise unpopular regime.

Even more problematic would be Iran’s certain retaliation. Through its Shiite partners in Iraq and Afghanistan, it could wreak havoc on U.S. forces and undermine efforts to stabilize both countries. It could threaten oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz and urge its terrorist friends to launch retaliatory strikes against America and its allies. The option of relying on Israel to strike Iranian targets would be even worse. The Israelis would conduct the operation less effectively because of their more limited military means, and the United States would bear the responsibility anyway, not least if it allowed the Israelis to fly over U.S.-controlled airspace in Iraq.

Given these bad options, what should the United States, Europe and Japan do instead? The best approach would be to rally international support to make Iran pay a high price if refuses to resume the suspension its uranium enrichment activities. Europe’s offer to support an Iranian civilian nuclear energy program and to increase trade and investment with Iran should remain on the table, and the United States should offer new incentives of its own, such as regional security talks and the possible restoration of diplomatic relations. But if Iran continues to reject these offers and remains unwilling to reassure the international community that it is not developing nuclear weapons, the only hope is to impose significant economic and diplomatic penalties on Iran.

The most effective way of convincing Iran to cooperate would be through a tough and unified response at the UN Security Council. In the past, Iran has backed down whenever it has been faced with the prospect of united international action, and there is good reason to believe it would do so again in the face of a tough UNSC resolution. Ideally, such a resolution would be passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and require Iran to resume suspension of uranium enrichment. Such a step would make Iran’s enrichment activities illegal (currently they are not) and would provide the basis for subsequent economic and diplomatic sanctions if Iran refused to comply. The Security Council would not initially need to spell out all the enforcement measures it was considering-which could include anything from freezing the assets or Iranian leaders to a ban on foreign investment in Iran or even an oil embargo-but it would make clear that Iran would face serious penalties if it refused to comply.

Tough Security Council action, of course, would require the agreement of Russia and China, which should not be ruled out as neither country wants to see an “Islamic bomb” near its borders. Moscow, moreover, is getting increasingly frustrated with Iran’s lack of cooperation and transparency and knows that failing to provide at least minimal cooperation would have major consequences for its relationship with the West. China, meanwhile, sees Iran as an issue of only secondary importance and is unlikely to stand alone against the rest of the Security Council by blocking tough action against Iran.

But Russian and Chinese support for such measures will not be easy. Both have significant economic interests in Iran-Russia through arms sales and civilian nuclear energy contracts, and China through energy imports-and neither wants to give the United States a major diplomatic victory without getting something in return. Moscow and Beijing have thus already made clear that they will oppose significant enforcement actions, at least initially, and may not agree to anything stronger at the Security Council than a “presidential statement” calling on Iran to restore suspension. If that is the case, the United States and the European members of the Security Council will have to decide whether they prefer weak but widely supported action on Iran or whether to give up on Russia and China and take action on their own outside the Council. All signs are that initially at least they will go along with even relatively timid UN Security Council measures to preserve international unity, while hoping to get consensus for tougher action further down the road.

Even without Russia and China, action by the United States, Europe, and Japan could still have an impact and should not be ruled out. One of the most striking developments over the past year or so is the hardening of the positions of Britain, Germany and France. Having, in the name of the EU, taken the lead in the negotiations with Iran and been rebuffed, they feel their credibility is at stake, and they are standing firmly alongside the United States in insisting that Iran abandon its nuclear enrichment program.

There is no guarantee that making the threat of sanctions more credible or actually imposing them will have an immediate and positive effect, but given the alternatives it makes sense to find out. And even if sanctions don’t work in the short term, they would still be useful to give future Iranian leaders an incentive to cooperate and to send a message to other potential proliferators. At the very least, serious sanctions would slow the nuclear program by squeezing the Iranian economy and cutting off key technologies, would further strain the already disgruntled middle classes who might one day push the current regime aside.

In the end, Iran must be presented with a clear choice: It can become an impoverished, isolated pariah state with nuclear weapons-like North Korea-or it can begin to reintegrate with the international community, meet the needs of its people and preserve its security in exchange for forgoing this capability. The choice will be for the Iranians to make. But a united international community can force them to make it.