Can Iranian Nukes be as contained as North Korea’s?

Can Iranian Nukes be as contained as North Korea’s?

Posted on March 5th, 2012 in Blog

The potential for nuclear war in and around Iran seems to be growing day by day.  Perhaps recent news stories about hoe the US and North Korea are entering yet another period of apparent détente regarding the “Hermit Kingdom’s” nuclear program presents an opportune time to take account of the US strategy towards Iran, however.

For reasons both political and practical, over the last 30 years the US has stopped short of using military action against North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons program, instead relying on a mix of political and economic coercion to increase North Korea’s development costs and slow their progress. In return, North Korea has oscillated between defiance and limited acquiescence in order to periodically elicit concessions from the international community, only occasionally escalating to isolated military attacks. In short, a perverse stability has emerged, but it is stability nonetheless, and this is instructive in considering courses of action with Iran.

More to the point, many analysts have concluded that going after Iran’s nuclear facilities through direct attack is likely both unwise and unnecessary. It would be unwise because no one (the US included) has the capability to eliminate the most critical pieces of the program – it would amount to another delay tactic, but we have demonstrated that there are easier ways to mitigate nuclear development that don’t carry with them such high likelihood of undesirable escalation. It is therefore pragmatic for the US to continue conducting opportunistic asymmetric attacks (cyber, assassinations, etc.) against Iran to slow its nuclear weapons development, because slowing the program is all you can hope to achieve, short of an Iraq-style military occupation (which would be far uglier than our Iraq experience).

At the same time, action now is unnecessary because a new balance of power is emerging in the post-Saddam Middle East.  Indeed, even if al-Assad’s regime retains power in Syria, other developments are taking hold. Saudi Arabia is rapidly bolstering it defense apparatus, recently signing the largest ever (by far) foreign military sales contract with the US (for a whopping $29.4B). Azerbaijan, to a much lesser extent, is doing the same with purchases from Israel. And, in the midst of rising tensions, Turkey has shown a propensity to support the West vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program, and also serve as a credible mediator when conflicts flare.

But most importantly, Israel can serve as a local nuclear power to balance Iran’s emerging capability, with the explicit backing of the US nuclear arsenal as well. The use of a nuclear weapon against Israel or another US ally would amount to national suicide by the Iranians. It is so unlikely a scenario as to be immaterial to the discussion, regardless of domestic political hyperbole from both Israel and Iran. There remains the scenario whereby a nuclear weapon from Iran’s stockpile falls into the wrong hands (e.g. a malicious non-state actor), but the US can mitigate this possibility through intelligence, policy, and diplomacy.

Important positive steps begin with the US redoubling its efforts on nuclear forensics, so that if a nuclear detonation were to occur we could quickly and definitively identify the source. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) has been working nuclear forensics for years, but requires more focus in terms of funding and intelligence support. The accompanying policy, promulgated diplomatically, would be to hold accountable the source nation as if it had conducted the attack itself. The message to Iran and other nuclear nations would be, “welcome to the Big Boy Club, better act responsibly.”  This is similar to the well-accepted approach of holding a parent accountable if a child gets access to a firearm and shoots a friend – with possession comes responsibility.

Ultimately it is possible that Iran can be a relatively peaceful, balancing member of the nuclear community, engendering stability in the Middle East. Like with North Korea, the situation could then be managed externally for a long period of time, and over time conditions will change that may include much less dire outcomes than precipitating open conflict with a strike now.

Not that this is an ideal solution, mind you – we would all prefer that these provocative states be forced into compliance with Western international norms. But in the end, internal regime evolution is almost always a better option than external intervention, occupation, and nation building.