Magazine | September 22, 2014, Issue

How Iran Will Get the Bomb

(Darren Gygi)
It didn’t have to be this way

The Iran nuclear talks that began last November were supposed to have ended in a comprehensive agreement by July 20 of this year. At the last moment, to nobody’s great surprise, the U.S. announced a four-month extension. Iran has already collected billions of dollars in sanctions relief, and the world is still waiting for some sign that Iran is even thinking about dismantling its nuclearweapons program. Senator Marco Rubio correctly assessed the situation: “In my opinion, this entire thing is a disaster.”

Even if a final agreement is reached by the new deadline in November, it almost certainly won’t stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. The Obama administration has already caved on the most critical issues. It has turned a blind eye to the many outstanding questions of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about Iran’s nuclear activities and has all but given up on anytime-anywhere inspections and pervasive monitoring. Most fatefully, Obama has already agreed to let Iran keep the dual-use facilities necessary for both uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing.

As former National Security Council staffer Michael Singh recently testified to Congress, the deal “leaves tremendous nuclear capabilities in the hands of the regime.” Iran’s nuclear-weapons program inheres in the very existence of those dual-use facilities — not in how big they are or in what Iran happens to be doing with them at any given moment. If Iran had really decided not to build nuclear weapons, it would be talking about dismantling the facilities, as South Africa dismantled its own under Nelson Mandela.

But Iran refuses to talk about that. Instead, it has limited the subject of the current negotiations to the scope and use of the facilities. By agreeing to that as the basis of negotiations, Obama has already agreed to let Iran keep its nuclear-weapons program. Now we’re just haggling over the price.

Defenders of the administration’s policy dismiss demands for dismantlement as a “bridge too far.” But that is not a statement of fact. It is merely a way to articulate the administration’s policy of appeasement. In its history the U.S. has often demanded, and secured, far more painful concessions, and from more powerful adversaries. The difference now is that we are not as committed to our aims as our adversaries are to theirs.

Iran’s strategy should be clear by now, given that it has not wavered from it once since the 1990s. As Ali Alfoneh and Reuel Marc Gerecht recently reported in The Weekly Standard, in 2005, current Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, then head of Iran’s national-security council and its nuclear program, explained the strategy behind Iran’s decision to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment after its secret nuclear program was discovered in late 2002: “We accepted suspension in fields where we no longer had technical problems.”

Iran’s nuclear-weapons program now consists of all the facilities necessary for two separate pathways — uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing — of large-scale nuclear-warhead production. A weapons program this ambitious and complicated has many components, each of which has to develop at its own pace. Iran has been willing to slow down on components of its programs that are well advanced partly in order to let others catch up.

Now Iran is on the threshold. It can decide anytime to start enriching uranium to weapons grade so that it will have enough fissile material for the first bomb in a matter of months. That is why, throughout the negotiations, Iran has been clear that it has absolutely no intention of giving up the nuclear-weapons capability it already has. It has suffered too much, and come too far, to abandon that now.

The reason Iran is negotiating at all is that the sanctions have become crippling. Iran suspected that if it dangled the possibility of slowing down certain aspects of its program temporarily, it could get lasting sanctions relief, at least in some measure. A check in the amount of several billion dollars always comes in handy. And given the visceral hatred that Iran’s religious leaders bear toward the U.S., the only thing short of looming U.S. air strikes that was likely to bring Iran to the negotiating table was the realistic possibility of a strategic victory in the standoff over its nuclear program.

The gamble paid off. Iran’s victory was enshrined in last November’s Joint Plan of Action, one of the worst agreements in the annals of U.S. diplomacy.

This debacle is not entirely President Obama’s fault. President George W. Bush, who promised that the U.S. would “not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons,” failed to confront Iran in any meaningful way. By 2008, Iran’s nuclear program was so advanced, dispersed, and entrenched that the possibility of effective military strikes against it had substantially diminished. Two or three U.S. aircraft-carrier strike groups were by then routinely plying off Iran’s shores, but the U.S. had telegraphed that Iran had nothing to worry about.

#page#The most important lesson of this failure is one the U.S. should have drawn from North Korea’s nuclear breakout. The time to stop a rogue regime’s bid for nuclear weapons is at the start, when you first find out and the regime still has little to lose by backing down — not ten years later, when the coveted weapons are finally within its grasp. International peace and stability often depend on being able to identify and stop a dangerous deterioration in the status quo before it progresses so far that it becomes irreversible. In dangerous situations, the mantra “Give diplomacy a chance” and the consideration of force only as a last resort normally guarantee that both diplomacy and force will fail.

When Iran’s secret nuclear-weapons program was discovered, the U.S. was already fighting in Afghanistan and was about to invade Iraq. The last thing the Bush administration wanted was another military headache. So it stepped aside and let Britain, France, and Germany take the lead in confronting Iran diplomatically. It did so even though, as the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program later revealed, Tehran was sufficiently rattled by the display of U.S. force in its neighborhood that in 2003 it dismantled its nuclear-warhead-design project and focused instead on enrichment and reprocessing facilities. Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty these dual-use facilities are not automatically presumed to be weapons programs, even though in the case of Iran they have absolutely no plausible economic or scientific justification.

Once the Iran dossier landed on Ambassador John Bolton’s desk at the U.N. Security Council in 2006, things moved fast, and the Council rapidly imposed increasingly painful sanctions on Iran. Augmented by European Union and U.S. Treasury measures, international sanctions have cut Iran off from most weapons sales and from the world financial system, and have severely crimped its ability to get paid for its oil exports. These losses have accelerated under Obama. Iran’s economy lost 5 percent of GDP in 2012, and another 6.6 percent in 2013. Its currency lost more than two-thirds of its value in two years.

But there was a fatal flaw in the whole strategy. In 2006, the P5+1 (the Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany) reached an agreement that implied that force would not be used as long as the group remained committed to further sanctions. But the Iranian government quickly demonstrated that it was willing to suffer through sanctions, and impose that suffering on its people, for the sake of getting nuclear weapons. What the regime was likely not willing to do was risk its own survival. The P5+1 strategy signaled to Iran the one thing it needed to know before going full-steam ahead on its nuclear-weapons program: While force might be used as a last resort eventually, Iran had no reason to fear a military attack in the short term.

This fatal mix of long-term ambiguity and short-term clarity explains Iran’s truly impressive degree of intransigence in the face of withering sanctions. It also virtually guaranteed that Iran would end up with nuclear weapons.

When faced with the North Korean nuclear crisis of 1994, President Clinton declined to order a strike on the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon for fear that North Korea would retaliate. The decision made no sense. It would have been suicidal for North Korea to start a major war over a single attack on an exposed facility in the middle of nowhere. Even without U.S. help, the South Korean military would rip the North to shreds in a matter of weeks. And it was vital to strike the reactor at that moment, because Pyongyang’s discharge of plutonium-laden fuel rods from the reactor pool would mark the last time when we could realistically stop the entire program with a single air strike.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, at the height of U.S. influence and power, Clinton’s decision not to bomb the Yongbyon reactor signaled that the U.S. would not enforce the nuclear-non-proliferation regime by force. This ostensibly conservative decision was in truth catastrophically reckless, and we may suffer the consequences for decades to come. Clinton’s capitulation to North Korea encouraged Iran to go for nukes, a decision taken in the 1990s by President Ali Rafsanjani and implemented by his chief nuclear lieutenant, the supposedly moderate Rouhani.

By 2004, the U.S. was in over its head in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But the simple fact was that the U.S. air assets already deployed in the immediate vicinity could have destroyed every major government installation in Iran in a single night of bombing. And the mullahs had seen up close something we’ve since forgotten: that Saddam Hussein’s regime completely disintegrated after the first night of “shock and awe” in March 2003.

#page#The military option with respect to Iran has never even been carefully considered, either in the government or by the public. The national-security establishment has basically asked whether strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be likely to make a difference in the long run, to which the answer has usually been, “No, because Iran would reconstitute the program after a few years.”

But the chief value of military power in this context is not the ability to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. It is the ability to make the programs’ costs prohibitive within what Thomas Schelling would have seen as an ongoing “tacit negotiation.” The idea is to win through diplomatic leverage, without firing a shot — or firing as few shots as possible. That opens up a much wider range of military options, from non-violent over-flights to strikes against things the regime needs for purposes other than its nuclear program, such as the oil refineries without which Iran would be utterly crippled in a matter of weeks.

Iran has managed to exploit a dangerous vulnerability of democratic government. Public aversion to new confrontations, combined with the structural inability of democratic government to act with speed and decisiveness abroad, creates a situation in which even the great democracies routinely get bluffed and pushed around by far weaker powers. That is precisely what happened to Britain and France in the 1930s when confronting Nazi Germany, which was in no position to risk a fight until the Allies agreed to abandon the Czechs at Munich in 1938.

Among those who have an increasingly bad feeling about the entire situation is Congress. The Obama administration strenuously opposes the broadly bipartisan Menendez-Kirk bill, which would keep the sanctions in effect unless, among other things, Iran dismantled its “illicit nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities.” Ed Levine, a former adviser to then-senator Joe Biden, has criticized the bill because, he writes, in all likelihood “the complete suspension of enrichment will be impossible to achieve through diplomacy or will be achieved only for a short time before Iran is permitted to resume an agreed level of enrichment of an agreed quantity of uranium under international verification.”

This is both self-fulfilling and self-refuting. The whole point of Menendez-Kirk is to prevent the president from lifting sanctions unless the Iranians dismantle the heart of their nuclear-weapons program, because everyone can see that Obama is about to let them keep it.

At a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Obama-administration officials pledged that any final deal would require Iran to come back into compliance with its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and to answer the IAEA’s many outstanding questions about its nuclear facilities. But as former IAEA deputy chief Olli Heinonen testified to the committee, given the four-month extension, Iran can now “break out” from the already-agreed-on framework and build nuclear weapons in less time than it would take the IAEA to verify the implementation of a final agreement. To start with, environmental samples from which weapons-grade uranium at centrifuge facilities can be detected take months to assess. But we don’t actually know how many centrifuges Iran has built, so it may have a secret enrichment facility somewhere. And even in the best of circumstances — if Iran were, say, Finland — it would still take years for the IAEA to verify the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. In the case of Iran, with its consistent tendency to hide and delay and prevaricate, it will take much longer.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Secretary of State John Kerry touted Iran’s compliance with its obligations thus far: “Specifically, Iran has been eliminating its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium, limited its enrichment capability by not installing or starting up additional centrifuges, refrained from making further advances at its enrichment facilities and heavy-water reactor, and allowed new and more frequent inspections.” Notice what is missing from this list: any permanent dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and any mention of the IAEA’s outstanding questions or of Iran’s continued non-compliance with its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It’s incumbent upon Congress to make sure that Iran continues to pay a heavy price for its nuclear-weapons program. Continued sanctions are necessary for two reasons: first, to make sure that a future peaceful, democratic government in Iran has an incentive to give up its nuclear weapons, as South Africa did; and second, to ensure that other countries see disincentives in acquiring nukes of their own. Few countries are willing to pay as high a price for a nuclear-weapons capability as Iran has.

America and its allies have developed a very dangerous allergy to the use of force. We urgently need a lasting strategy of preventive defense based on principles that are broadly accepted by the public and enshrined in domestic and international law. Otherwise our leaders will keep lurching from one decision to the next without thinking beyond the months ahead. And the world has become far too dangerous for that.

Mario Loyola, a former White House environment-policy adviser and speechwriter, is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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