Living With a Nuclear-Armed Iran
Since becoming president, Donald Trump has sought to undo the Obama Administration’s policies towards Iran, especially regarding the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. He has withdrawn the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and staffed the upper ranks of his administration with hawks, like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, who have long seen force as America’s best option for defusing any Iranian threat. At the same time, the administration has voiced support for anti-government protests in Iran, and Trump has announced a willingness to talk to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
These mixed messages take already volatile situations in the Middle East and make them even more so. Fortunately, there is something the administration could do that would clarify U.S. intentions and undo much of the damage already done by Trump’s belligerent attitude thus far. It could choose to live with a nuclear-armed Iran.
History does not suggest that a preventive strike on a would-be nuclear power dissuades it from pursuing nuclear weapons. Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear facility at Osirak in 1981 was intended to force Saddam Hussein to give up his quest for a warhead. But when, after the 1991 Gulf War, international inspectors viewed Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs, they discovered that Iraq had continued its quest, not abandoned it.
Accepting Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon in the event it attains one is the lesser evil. This need not be an officially stated U.S. policy. The U.S. could choose not to forcibly prevent Iranian acquisition of the bomb. When military force is unlikely to work, and when the Trump Administration is sending mixed messages about its willingness to engage diplomatically, a de facto policy of inaction is the least bad option available.
There would be several obstacles to this policy. First would be Israel’s reaction. The Islamic Republic’s long hostility to Israel, plus Tehran’s support for implacably anti-Israel terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, make Israel naturally frightened of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
The U.S. could assuage these concerns by formalizing the U.S.-Israel alliance. It could turn it into a collective security treaty similar to the U.S.-South Korea Alliance formed in 1953. Furthermore, whether the Israeli government acknowledges it or not, the world is already well aware that Israel possesses nuclear weapons of its own. A mutual defense treaty that includes coordination of nuclear strategy between Jerusalem and Washington, perhaps combined with further investment in Israel’s missile defense systems, ought to mollify a sensible Israeli government.
Another concern would be the reaction of Saudi Arabia. Under both Obama and Trump, the U.S. has supported Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthis. Trump has also continued prior administrations’ arms sales, worth billions of dollars, to Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has made confrontation of Iranian proxies throughout the Middle East a key priority, would certainly be worried about an Iranian nuke.
The U.S. could temper that worry by extending its nuclear umbrella to the Middle East. Officials could announce what John F. Kennedy did during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he declared that any Soviet missile launched from Cuba, against any country in the Western Hemisphere, would provoke a “full retaliatory response” against the Soviet Union. The U.S. could announce that any Iranian nuclear attack, on any country, will be met with overwhelming force. Iran and its ally Russia might condemn such an announcement, but the U.S. should hold firm. By making clear that this move was a defensive one on behalf of vulnerable countries, Washington would signal that its policy toward Iran truly is one of deterrence. The upcoming modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal gives the U.S. a chance to update its nuclear strategy, formalizing an extension of nuclear protection from its European and Asian allies to any country Iran might strike.
A final worry concerns Iran’s allies. From the Houthis and Hezbollah to the Assad regime in Syria and Shiite militias in Iraq, Iran has asserted itself across the Middle East. A longstanding fear is that a nuclear weapon would embolden Iran even further.
A nation whose pride has been severely wounded by an attack would only become bolder in backing its proxies and undermining its rivals. Not only would Iran respond to a preventive strike by ramping up its nuclear program, as Iraq did, but it would see all the more reason to act against the U.S. and its allies. Thus preventive force would be counterproductive twice over, not only failing to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions but leading it to commit even more strongly to its friends.
The choice is not between an active Iran and a passive Iran. It is between an Iran whose people are divided and whose regional activities are forceful but limited and an Iran whose people are united in the wake of a foreign attack and which is aching for revenge. The U.S. has the capacity to protect its friends in the Middle East and deter Iranian aggression short of preventive force. Protecting friends is preferable to inadvertently emboldening an enemy. As frustrating as the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapon would be, living with it is the world’s least bad option.
Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst at Powell Strategies, a communications and analytics firm based in Annapolis, MD. All views expressed are entirely his own. In addition to Charged Affairs, he has written about international affairs and public policy for the Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, and France 24. You can follow him on Twitter @MDPurzycki.