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If Diplomatic Options Fail to Bear Fruit

by Gary Samore, Vice President and Director of Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
October 29, 2008

Thanks to all the members of the group for your active participation.  I’d like to extend our discussion, but I encourage you to continue to respond to Jim Walsh and Henry Sokolski’s recent posts below.

I think we’ve done a good job of kicking around the diplomatic options to significantly delay or limit Iran’s further development of an enrichment capacity.  Clearly, we can’t know beforehand whether a new diplomatic initiative will succeed (I tend to be on the skeptical side), but we need to give it our best shot because the alternatives are clearly inferior.  At the same time, it’s worth thinking about our options in the event that the diplomatic options we’ve discussed fail to bear fruit.

If the carrot and stick approach is unable to constrain Iran’s enrichment program in a meaningful way, is it possible to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold – from actually producing HEU and making nuclear weapons once it has completed an enrichment facility capable of producing significant quantities of HEU in a short period? What diplomatic and military policies could be applied to deter Iran from taking the risk of either nuclear break out or nuclear sneak out?  In other words, is it plausible that Iran could be convinced to live with a latent nuclear weapons capacity or is it inevitable that Iran will not rest until it has a nuclear arsenal?

In either case, how would we manage the regional and international consequences of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons option or actual nuclear weapons?  If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, how would we deter use or transfer of nuclear weapons and discourage other countries in the region from seeking their own nuclear deterrent?

Finally, is there viable military option? How do we calculate the effectiveness of a military attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities and the risks of military force verses the risks of trying to contain and deter a nuclear-capable or a nuclear-armed Iran?  Even if the U.S. decides against the use of force, what should our attitude be towards an Israeli option, if the Israelis decide they have no choice but to take action against an ‘existential’ threat?  Should we facilitate, discourage, or acquiesce?

I hope these questions will help wind up our Iran forum with a “bang.”

1 Comment

  • Posted by Ephraim Kam

    Following Gary’s last post, I would like to make a few comments regarding the options to stop Iran.

    I believe that Iran can still be stopped before it acquires nuclear weapons, yet under conditions that do not exist at the moment and should be created. All the relevant governments currently prefer the political option. Yet one has to assume that just negotiations will not stop the Iranians, simply because above all they want to get the bomb. If anything could convince them to suspend their nuclear activities it is the combination of two elements. First, impose severe and prolonged economic sanctions. Clearly, the sanctions currently imposed on Iran are not sufficient to change its approach, and it is difficult to achieve an international agreement on harsher sanctions. And second, convince the Iranians that if they continue to reject the deal offered to them, they might face a military attack against their nuclear facilities. This does not suggest that a military operation should necessarily be taken. But it does suggest that a credible threat should be created in order to support the diplomatic efforts. The fact is – as the December 2007 NIE report suggested – that when the Iranian were scared by the American intervention in Iraq in 2003, they decided to freeze the military part of their nuclear program.

    The other option to stop Iran is the military one. There are only two potential candidates to carry out a military operation against the Iranian nuclear sites – the US and Israel, who do not exclude this option. The military option is problematic, complicated and dangerous. Moreover, in order to decide whether to attack, a series of questions should be answered. These are the most important questions:

    • Has the diplomatic option been exhausted? As long as there is still a fair chance to stop Iran by political means, the tendency will be to postpone the military option. The problem is that it is difficult to agree when the diplomatic course is exhausted, because one can always hope that the next round of negotiations, or the next proposal, will bring better results.

    • When is the right time for a military operation? Since a military operation is relevant only as long as Iran has not acquired its first bomb, the timetable for the operation depends on the assessment of its acquisition. The problem is that until now all the assessments of the Iranian timetable have proved to be mistaken and it is not clear whether the current assessments are better.

    • What are the chances of success? The answer to this critical question depends on a number of factors, such as: the ability to gather accurate qualitative intelligence regarding what happens under the ground; the acquisition of advanced accurate ammunition; and the capability to bring this ammunition successfully to the target.

    • To what extent will the operation succeed to delay the Iranian nuclear program? A military operation will be justified only if it succeeds to delay the Iranian nuclear program by at least several years. If the assessment is that the Iranian nuclear program will be delayed for no more than one or two years, perhaps it should not be carried out.

    • What will be the Iranian reaction to the attack? There is no doubt that the Iranians will respond to the attack. The question is to what extent will their reaction create far reaching implications on the attacker, as well as for the region?

    • Will the US decide to attack, and alternatively, what will be the American attitude toward an Israeli operation? This is a critical question for Israel. If the US decides to attack, it will solve the very difficult dilemma for Israel. Alternatively, if the American administration tells Israel not to launch an attack, probably Israel will not be able to carry it out.

    • Finally, can we live with nuclear Iran? The question is critical especially for Israel, because Israel is the only country which takes into consideration the possibility of an Iranian nuclear attack against its territory. If Israel assumes that an Iranian nuclear attack is a possibility – even a low probability possibility – it might conclude that it has no other option but to attack. Alternatively, if Israel assumes that Iran will not attack, it might consider other options to minimize the other security problems that nuclear Iran will create.

    My conclusion is that a military attack, either by the US or Israel, is feasible, yet these two candidates should be able to give reliable answers to the above mentioned questions before a decision is made. In any case, the military option should be constantly prepared, both to increase the pressures on Iran, and to be ready to carry it out once the conditions are ripe for it