Iran: All About Nukes?

Imagine a fistfight between a National Football League lineman and say, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. Imagine the lineman, after effortlessly decking the Senior Fellow, offering a second round, but with one key difference: each fighter would be armed with a .38 Special. Why, you may ask, would the football behemoth offer to level the playing field in such a potentially fatal manner? One might just as well ask why Iran—absent any credible threat of external regime change to the Islamic Republic—would want to prompt the proliferation of nuclear weapons in its neighborhood by acquiring one itself. Why would Iran, which uses its sheer size and weight to intervene with impunity where it pleases in Mesopotamia, the Levant, and elsewhere, wish to turn every such intervention into a potentially fatal nuclear encounter?

There is no doubt that Iran has sought—quite successfully—to get itself to the brink of being able to produce nuclear weapons. At one time, it was no doubt inspired by the Saddam Hussein rendition of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” To the extent that a final nuclear agreement moves Iran back from that brink by a year or so, existing regional appetites for nuclear proliferation might well be dampened. There is nothing wrong with moving Iran back from that brink. Those who criticize efforts to do so on the grounds that Tehran should be stripped naked of all weaponization capabilities make the unattainable perfect the enemy of the doable (and useful) good.

Still, President Barack Obama’s insistence that the alternative to an agreement months from finalization is some version of the apocalypse inevitably raises the question: with respect to Iran, has the United States been chasing the wrong rabbit down the wrong hole? Again, there is nothing wrong with putting distance between Tehran and the nuclear weapons starting gate. But is it correct to say that, absent a deal, Iran will resume its march toward mounting a nuclear warhead atop a missile? Given the certainty of the regional reaction, would it still rush to trade in its impressive conventional advantages for neutralization by lacing the region with nuclear tripwires?

Countries do behave stupidly. The rational actor model is an imperfect guide. An agreement that would make Tehran’s stupidity visible to the naked eye is something worth having, but is the nuclear issue the true center of gravity when it comes to concerns—Western and regional—about Iranian behavior? For Israel perhaps it is, because Iranian nuclear weapons capability, even if never used, could provide a motive for Israel’s best and brightest—people with global options—to leave to pursue careers and raise families in better neighborhoods. When thoughtful Israelis speak of an Iranian nuclear threat to Israel’s existence, this—not some maniacal suicide attack—is what they mean. Israel, aside, however, is Iran’s relative proximity to warhead production the most vital of concerns?

If one truly believes that, given half a chance, Iran will mount nuclear tips on Shihab missiles then yes, the nuclear matter is arguably the top concern. If one believes, as many Iranians do, that Tehran has gotten away with murder without nuclear weapons and would only handicap itself grievously were it to acquire them, then the real remedy to the regional destabilization wrought by Iran lies elsewhere—again, without discounting the value of lengthening Tehran’s breakout time.

It will be interesting, for example, to see if the Obama administration’s tolerance of Tehran-abetted mass murder in Syria continues. With what appears to be broad agreement on nuclear principles in hand, will the administration continue to be operationally frozen, doing nothing to complicate the ability of the Iranian-propped Assad regime to visit mass terror on civilian populations? Will it now feel liberated to save lives in Syria, or will it see the June 30 deadline for a final nuclear agreement as an extended death sentence for Syrian children on the receiving end of barrel bombs? If June 30 is crowned with a final agreement, will Syria’s unabated agony be extended yet again for the sake of insuring Tehran’s full compliance as its coffers are replenished?

President Obama recently said, “The nuclear deal that we’ve put together is not based on the idea that somehow the [Iranian] regime changes.” That is reassuring. But what are the implications of an unchanged Iranian regional outlook on a region—beginning with Syria—that has suffered immeasurably from its sectarian barbarity? President Obama says he is “not counting” on “forces inside of Iran” to refocus the nation away from the “lens of [the] war machine.” Good. Will he exert even a quarter of the effort to save Syrian lives that the Supreme Leader has expended to imperil them?

In his recent interview with Thomas Friedman, President Obama said about Syria, “But the question is: Why is it that we can’t have Arabs fighting [against] the terrible human rights abuses that have been perpetrated, or fighting against what Assad has done?” It is a fair question. Some Syrian Arabs have done so, albeit with scant, half-hearted assistance from Washington. Then, at the very end, he dropped something of a bombshell. Saying that American core interests in the region are not related to oil or territory, he observed “Our core interests are that everybody is living in peace, that it [the region] is orderly, that children are not having barrel bombs dropped on them, that massive displacements aren’t taking place.” Fine: what will the United States actually do with respect to this core interest?

Almost all of the debate on the nuclear framework understanding to date has focused on what has been agreed and not, and whether or not the things that appear to be agreed will—if embodied in a final agreement—move Iran’s breakout time for weaponization sufficiently backward. As Syrians witness hundreds of thousands lives lost and ruined by the Assad regime in the course of a survival campaign orchestrated by Iran, the debate over centrifuges seems not trivial, but just a bit esoteric. Iran has done very well indeed without nuclear weapons—arguably much better than if every bloody-minded act of Iranian aggression would have had to be contemplated in the context of neighbors with nukes; neighbors inspired by Iranian nukes. Making sure Tehran is more than arm’s-length from the .38 Special is fine. Protecting innocent people from a brass-knuckled lineman run amok ought to be of some interest to an administration working on a foreign policy legacy. Indeed, the president has elevated civilian protection to a core interest. Now what will he do?

Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (centre L), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (centre R) and European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini (2nd R) arrive to deliver statements after nuclear talks in Lausanne, April 2, 2015. (Reuters)