The Thin Red Line
The time to use force against Iran is not next year. It’s now.

Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.N., September 27, 2012


The uranium-enrichment pathway, by contrast, doesn’t require a nuclear reactor at all. It involves only adding several more cycles to the same centrifuge-enrichment process that produces LEU for light-water reactors. All the elements of the uranium pathway can be dispersed and hidden deep underground. And because the U.S. failed to bomb the single, totally exposed reactor at Yongbyon, Iranian leaders might have reasoned that it would be far less likely to undertake strikes against multiple facilities deep underground in reinforced bunkers. Perhaps it was then that the Islamic Revolution of Iran saw its key to longevity: nuclear weapons.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty prohibits “non-nuclear-weapon States” (those that did not explode their first device before 1967) from doing anything that constitutes a “diversion” of nuclear material for weapons use. Certifying Iran’s “non-diversion” for weapons use has been the basic mission of IAEA inspectors all along. Four times a year, the IAEA makes exactly the same certification: We can rule out diversion for weapons use at Iran’s known nuclear facilities, but Iran’s disclosures are insufficient to establish the peaceful nature of its nuclear program generally.

The French have insisted for years that any use of nuclear material that cannot be reasonably justified for civilian purposes should be deemed a “diversion” for weapons use. That view is correct, and it must prevail. Otherwise, the catastrophic collapse of the nonproliferation regime is inevitable.

It is particularly urgent to embrace that view now, in the case of Iran, and jettison the preposterous position articulated by General Dempsey. The usefulness of the IAEA, both as a shield for Iran’s nuclear program and as a window into that program, has almost run its course. Iran’s explanation for producing LEU was largely implausible; in the case of MEU, it is obviously so. But once Iran starts producing HEU, no one will seriously dispute that it has embarked on the final step of nuclear-weapons production. At that point,  IAEA inspections will become quite useless.

If Iran declares to the IAEA that it has begun HEU-enrichment activity, the IAEA could and should designate the activity a diversion for weapons use. At that point, Iran will probably expel the inspectors and draw a veil over its program. In any case, openly admitting to high-enrichment activity would be tantamount to a declaration of war. But why would Iran undertake high enrichment openly if it can do so secretly? We can’t be certain that we know all of Iran’s enrichment facilities. By early next year, we will have to start treating Iran as a de facto nuclear-weapons state regardless of what it declares to the IAEA. Unless Iran agrees to anytime-anywhere inspections, the value of keeping Iran within the regime  of IAEA disclosures and inspections will become vanishingly small.

In light of this, the Israeli red line doesn’t make sense. Iran may tell the IAEA that it has decided to cross the red line, but otherwise, under the current limited-inspections regime, we will never know if it has or hasn’t. With IAEA inspections limited to certain facilities, even if Iran halts its known nuclear activity at the threshold of HEU production, we will still have to assume that Iran has become a de facto nuclear-weapons state.

A red line would have made sense between 2003 and 2005: No enrichment activity, or we will bomb your facilities. With some 200,000 American troops surrounding Iran on three sides, it would almost certainly have backed down in the face of a strong ultimatum. But America is on its way out of the region now, and Pandora’s box is wide open. Iran already has a stockpile of enriched uranium and can convert it to weapons-grade material in a secret facility at any time. Not even the destruction of the Natanz and Fordow facilities — if that is within the capabilities of our conventional ordnance — would alter the fact that Iran is about to become a de facto nuclear-weapons state.

There is now only one way to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis, and that is to convince the Iranian government to abandon its indigenous nuclear-fuel production — entirely and verifiably. That means exhaustive disclosures and intrusive IAEA inspections. Any use of military force that does not produce that result will be a failure. Given the gravity of the threat, the military option must consist of whatever force may be necessary and proportional, in combination with other pressures, to convince Iran to abandon the program. Iran’s continued enrichment, Israel’s red line, and the destruction or non-destruction of Iran’s known nuclear facilities are all secondary considerations.

It is crucial to get out of the utterly wrong mind-set that force is appropriate only if diplomacy fails. If diplomacy fails, force will be virtually useless. Treating diplomacy as separate from military power virtually guarantees that both will fail.

If our leaders have to choose between an Iranian nuclear breakout and an extremely high-risk, low-return military option, the fear of action will carry the day. And if the task is to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program, we’ll gain very little through military strikes limited to its known nuclear facilities — certainly far less than if we had conducted such strikes five or six years ago.

The first question to ask is: What ordering of inducements — including force — is most likely to persuade Tehran? The government of Iran needs many things that our military power can take away. In coercive diplomacy, everything the regime values can become a viable target — from peace of mind to gasoline supply to command and control of its security forces. Nonviolent incursions into Iranian airspace or territorial waters could prove highly unnerving to Tehran. Interdicting its gasoline supply could bring the regime to its knees in a matter of weeks. Taking away the assets it counts on for retaliation could make escalation much less attractive.

Such actions would all be acts of war, and Iran might well retaliate. That is where strategic analysis comes into play. If the goal is to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program, then we need to shape Iran’s cost-benefit analysis. Would it really make sense, from Iran’s point of view, to react to an incremental use of force (such as violations of airspace or strikes on a single refinery) by shutting down the Strait of Hormuz or launching missiles at U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf? The answer is almost certainly no.

By contrast, the standard military option of strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities risks leaving Iran’s capacity and willingness to retaliate undiminished — to make no mention of its ability to reconstitute its nuclear program or continue enrichment in secret facilities. No wonder skeptics dismiss such a military option. A campaign that successfully targets Iran’s nuclear facilities must diminish its capacity and willingness to retaliate and rebuild. That means that any strikes on the nuclear facilities should go far beyond those targets and cripple the regime itself. The goal is the same as with more limited uses of force: to convince the government to back down.

Thus far, we have assured Iran that proceeding with the next steps in its nuclear development entails few near-term risks. That must change. The Israeli red line assures Iran that it can continue enriching uranium for several more months at least. That must change.

If there is still any chance of stopping Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, the time to add force to the diplomatic equation is now.

— Mario Loyola is a former counsel for foreign and defense policy to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.


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