The Challenge of Containing a Nuclear Iran

Start with a probable assumption: The Islamic Republic will soon be able to produce a nuclear weapon whenever the supreme leader decides to do so. A new atomic accord, currently being negotiated in Vienna, won’t change the fundamental atomic fact: Biden’s deal undoubtedly will leave in place Tehran’s progress with high-speed centrifuges and a loose inspection regime that doesn’t account for, let alone eliminate, Iran’s ample stockpile of the high-tech components and maraging steel needed for the production of advanced centrifuges. Removing Iranian surpluses of highly enriched uranium by allowing its export abroad to Russia—an embarrassing destination now for the White House and the Europeans—or to China doesn’t really matter so long as advanced centrifuges can produce bomb fuel quickly. Iran’s nuclear engineers have shown that they can build high-speed, sufficiently reliable, machines rapidly. 

Barring a great, felicitous surprise, the theocracy, which has clandestinely and overtly striven at great expense to develop the bomb since the 1980s, will have its nuke. Which brings up the question of what a post-nuke Iran policy would look like—assuming those who still want America to confront the clerical regime are in power with sufficient will and means to do something more than sanctions.  Let us take preventive war out of the equation since that’s certainly not happening with a Democratic president—even a hawkish Republican president likely wouldn’t strike, assuming Tehran doesn’t have the bomb by 2025 (would Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley want to start their term with another Middle Eastern war?). And the Israelis, too, are clearly not riding to the rescue: The current government of Naftali Bennett doesn’t nearly have the determination of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who tried and failed to get his cabinet to approve air raids against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites. Existential threat or not, senior commanders of the Israeli Defense Forces just don’t want to undertake this mission. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction is, by default, what Jerusalem will henceforth reluctantly accept. 

So what’s actually left for those who oppose the Biden administration’s approach? It’s a conundrum since anything likely to prove effective would risk conflict. Most things that might matter, for example, in an aggressive containment/regime-change strategy, would oblige Republicans either to bluff or bring the military to bear. And if you bluff in the Middle East repeatedly, you’re likely to get called.  A fresh round of Iranian terrorism—say a successful version of what could have happened in the exurbs of Paris in 2018, when the clerical regime tried to bomb an opposition rally that likely would have killed many Americans—might reignite an awareness that the Islamic Republic is irredeemable, possibly building the requisite volition for military action. When thinking about the ramifications of Iran’s long embrace of terrorism, however, it’s always worthwhile (and depressing) to remember the first mass-casualty event aimed at Americans: the Beirut barracks bombings in 1983. 

That act was then extraordinary: 241 Americans died. Intercepts at the time and later writings by Iran’s ambassador in Syria, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-pur, and the theocracy’s major domo, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, showed Iran to be proudly culpable. Although Secretary of State George Shultz strongly advocated for a military response, Ronald Reagan declined. A few years later, Reagan was trading arms for hostages. And to move forward: In Iraq, George W. Bush didn’t do anything serious against the Islamic Republic when it was killing American soldiers, even though we knew through Iraqi prisoners an impressive amount about its lethal operations.  Military action against Iran, for its nuclear ambitions, terrorism, or imperialist designs, just seems unlikely. Covert action, however, like sanctions, offers the possibility of doing something for those who can’t countenance war. 

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