If the sanctions to which Iran is now subject had been imposed earlier, perhaps they would have been more effective. As things stand, they are causing economic pain, but there is no apparent evidence that they are slowing Iran’s nuclear program. One can only speculate about what the leadership in Tehran is thinking. Will the sanctions perversely lead to an acceleration of the program now that its completion may be near? Former CIA director Leon Panetta estimated in December 2011 that it would take Iran “about a year” to build a nuclear weapon following a decision to do so. Would it not be rational for Iran’s leaders to calculate that, once they have achieved their goal of becoming a nuclear power, the international community would, after a decent interval, forget and forgive, as it has done with India, Pakistan, and other states?
While the Obama administration has asserted that all options are on the table, it has also been explicit in saying that it does not want to threaten or use force. Indeed, former secretary of defense Robert Gates called the use of force “insane.” More recently, President Obama has reportedly sought to constrain Israel from threatening or using force. The irony is that the most effective way to improve the prospects for a peaceful diplomatic settlement would be to make it clear to Tehran that force is a credible option. What was the case with Libya in 2003 — that it preferred abandoning its nuclear-weapons program to risking the military strike it believed the United States was prepared to launch against it — is likely the case with Iran today.
In a similarly unhelpful vein, the Obama administration has promoted its vision of “global nuclear zero,” according to which the U.S. should take steps toward unilateral nuclear reductions. The argument, unsupported by evidence, is that such measures would rally the international community in support of nonproliferation and, in the process, of sanctions against proliferators. This is expected in turn to serve the cause of keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. It’s all very neat. It’s all very logical. But just think about how the international community has responded to the Iranian nuclear challenge, and the conclusion seems inescapable: The proposition is without merit.
The ultimate question is how to effect or encourage political change in Iran. Here, again, we are handicapped by a history of seeking accommodation with the mullahs. In 2009, the U.S. response to protests in the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities was to sit quietly and wait, out of concern that support for the protesters would derail the prospects for engagement with the Iranian government.
We need to devise our policies and adjust our capabilities in a way that will deter and defend against threats to our country and our allies. The underlying problem, the real danger, is when our government pursues that goal in a way that produces effects that are the opposite of what it intends. That is what we did in the aftermath of the First World War, with the promotion of first the Wilsonian League of Nations and then the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. Both contributed to a failure of deterrence that helped create the conditions that brought about the Second World War. The flaw of those two measures was not in their vision. It was, as George Kennan has argued, in their implementation — in the naïveté and wishful thinking that, combined, increased the likelihood of war, through bad policy and self-deluding complacency.
The hope that Iranian leaders will ultimately choose to forgo nuclear weapons, or that they will be reliably deterrable, should not be a source of comparable wishful thinking and complacency today. A realistic assessment can only end in the conclusion that Iran might continue on its path to a nuclear weapon, and that, if so, strengthened U.S. deterrence strategies will be critically important but not foolproof.
— Robert J. Joseph, a senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy, was under secretary of state for arms control and international security from 2005 to 2007. Keith B. Payne, a professor at Missouri State University and the head of its graduate department of defense and strategic studies, was co-chairman of the Pentagon’s Deterrence Concepts Advisory Group from 2001 to 2002 and a deputy assistant secretary of defense from 2002 to 2003. This article appears in the June 25, 2012, issue of National Review.