From Michael Rubin
The Islamic Republic has been pursuing a nuclear program for the better part of two decades. Concerns over Iranian intentions were among the reasons cited by Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, for example, when he inaugurated Germany’s “critical dialogue” in 1992. Subsequent years have been littered with failed diplomatic initiatives, most notably: Reagan’s controversial outreach in 1983; critical dialogue; a broader European critical engagement; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s apology; and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s offer to sit down with Iran if it suspended enrichment for the duration of talks, and her subsequent decision to reverse course and sign onto a generous incentive package. The constant throughout all of these initiatives has been continuation of Tehran’s nuclear program. Whether under ‘pragmatist’ president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, ‘reformist’ president Mohammad Khatami, or ‘principalist’ (Persian: usulgarayan) president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there have been differences of rhetoric, but remarkable continuity of Iran’s nuclear investments.
The clock is running down, though. President Obama will need to make decisions which Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush deferred. After all, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed that the Islamic Republic has now installed 4,000 centrifuges in its overt enrichment plant. According to Senators Dan Coats and Chuck Robb’s task force on U.S. Policy toward Iranian Nuclear Development (for which I served as drafter), with just 6,000 P-1 centrifuges, fuel-grade 4.8 percent enriched uranium feed, and tails enrichment of 2.26 percent, the Islamic Republic could produce 20 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium in 16 days; i.e., in the period between IAEA inspections. That is not to say that Iran can produce a bomb in less than three weeks, but producing a crude-bomb’s worth of 93.1 percent highly enriched uranium is the most difficult process in an indigenous bomb program.
Early in his administration, Obama will have to determine whether the United States can live with a nuclear weapons-capable Islamic Republic. If he decides the answer is no and if diplomatic and economic coercion fails to persuade Iran’s leaders to back away from their program, this would then mean commitment to a 1998 Operation Desert Fox-type operation. Any kinetic action against Iran would bring short-term gain at tremendous long-term cost: Iranians are nationalistic and would rally around the flag. While the Islamic Republic does not need nuclear arms for its defense, any military action against the Iran’s nuclear program would justify Tehran’s arguments in world opinion as the regime rebuilt.
Regardless, Obama’s policy positions and voting record suggest that he would never order any strike. This leaves both containment and deterrence as U.S. strategies. The problem here, though, is that across the political spectrum, U.S. officials speak of both strategies in rhetorical terms without acknowledging what they require. In this essay for the American Enterprise Institute’s Middle Eastern Outlook series, I explore what would be necessary to deter or contain a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic of Iran, and the consequences of speaking of either strategy without laying the groundwork for them.
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