The debate over military options on Iran has finally started to focus on the critical issue of deterrence — that is, can the threat of air strikes deter Iran from proceeding in its nuclear-weapons program, and if so, how? Answering that question will not be easy, for it raises a number of difficult questions that nobody is asking.
Here are two: First, what would Iran do if it thought that military strikes against its program were imminent? Second, on the heels of two failed visits by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, why are the Iranians still pretending to cooperate with the IAEA?
The first question is the simpler one. Under several outstanding U.N. Security Council resolutions, Iran is required to halt uranium enrichment. That’s what the massive diplomatic front now arrayed against Iran — including even Russia and China — agrees on. But on virtually every other issue — the proper sorts of sanctions, the possibility of military strikes — the members of that front disagree.
So if Iran thought it was about to get hit, it would have a simple solution: It could simply declare a suspension of uranium enrichment, and see what happens next. Many of the governments that have thus far been with us would declare victory and proclaim that military strikes are no longer needed. Many people in the U.S., and even in Israel, would say that. Once the media had had its way, what public support there was for military strikes against Iran would be severely diminished.
Long story short, if Iran declares a suspension of enrichment activity, it would certainly prevent U.S. strikes, and would almost certainly prevent even Israeli strikes. The problem is this: Iran is only partially cooperating with the IAEA. It allows inspections only at “declared” facilities — and not at facilities where nuclear activities are suspected but not declared to the IAEA. Therefore, the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear activities would hardly be diminished by a suspension of enrichment at its declared facilities, even if that suspension could be verified.
Recent high-profile trips by the IAEA raised hopes for increased transparency, but inspectors were denied access to the military base at Parchin, outside of Tehran, where the Iranians are suspected of conducting high-explosives tests necessary for a nuclear warhead. Moreover, if Iran has secret enrichment facilities — and we have already discovered one — they can freely continue to enrich their stockpile of uranium to weapons grade. Their stockpile of lightly enriched uranium is highly mobile and not constantly monitored by the IAEA; meanwhile, their development of warheads and delivery vehicles continues unimpeded.
Under these circumstances, if Iran thought an attack could be imminent, it would almost certainly declare a suspension in uranium enrichment, and present us with a huge diplomatic and strategic problem that would pose only a mild tactical problem for them.
That leads to the second and vastly more important question: Why are they continuing to cooperate with the IAEA at all?
Recall that because of its continued uranium enrichment, Iran has been continuously in breach of Chapter VII Security Council resolutions since 2007. Chapter VII resolutions, which concern “Threats to the Peace,” are clearly legally binding on Iran under Article 25 of the U.N. Charter. Iran has therefore been in flagrant breach of this solemn treaty obligation since 2007. In fact, their breach of Article 25 is so flagrant that they have essentially abrogated the Charter, and could theoretically be expelled from the United Nations. And by the way, they are also in material breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: They refuse to declare new nuclear facilities or the production of centrifuges, as the non-proliferation treaty requires non-weapons states to do.