Nuclear Iran:  Accepting the ‘Unacceptable’

Iran Nuclear Weapons

Iran possessing nuclear weapons is “unacceptable,” a warning repeated by many heads of state and senior government officials. The same was said of North Korea,although it may have little more than a nuclear device and thus far lacks a means of delivery.

So what to do about Iran?

The call is for tough sanctions. But sanctions really don’t work and will punish Iranians more than their government. We should have learned that in Iraq.

A military strike would postpone Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Obviously a different regime in Tehran committed to honoring the Non-Proliferation Treaty could assure the same outcome. For the time being, absent a ground invasion to remove the current government and install a new one, that won’t happen.

For those in favor of that option and who argue that George W. Bush’s mistake wasn’t attempting to change the “geostrategic landscape of the Middle East” but picking the wrong country for that purpose, a Pentagon study drafted in the late 1970’s during the Carter administration by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz on a Persian Gulf Strategy should be mandatory reading.

The Carter administration worried that if war broke out with the Soviet Union, the Red Army would race south into Iran, then our close ally, to seize the oil fields. To counter a Soviet attack, the United States created the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, which ultimately would become Central Command well after the shah had fallen victim to the Khomeini revolution. Its first commander, Lt. Gen. P. X. Kelley, later commandant of the Marine Corps, quipped that the RDJTF was not rapid, not deployable and certainly not joint. That, of course, changed dramatically.

However, the study underscored the logistical and geographical difficulties of deploying a major U.S. combat force to fight in Iran. Those conditions haven’t changed for the better especially if a ground assault rallied the Iranian public to fight the invaders.

And if Iran and its nuclear facilities were attacked, retaliation would be almost certain. The unleashing of Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel; 100,000 revolutionary guards storming into Iraq; shutting off of oil exports; and many other options would be considered by Tehran.

So how unacceptable is Iran’s obtaining of nuclear weapons against these contexts?

A little history and some “out of the box” thinking help.

Iran’s leadership cannot be blind to Saddam Hussein’s failed gambit. Saddam pretended to have weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent to his enemies and as a means of convincing his military of a fearsome capability that didn’t exist. Iran would take a different

tack — retaining the nuclear option while adhering to the NPT. That uncertainty could keep the United States off balance and provide Iran with greater influence in the region.

Suppose, however, Iran does build a bomb. Does “unacceptable” automatically turn into crisis and potential disaster?

Or, beyond rhetoric and the limitations of realistic or effective preventative actions, what can be done not merely to respond but to make the best of this otherwise unacceptable situation?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has suggested the basis for a course of action — extending a nuclear deterrent regime to the region. That deterrent must include more than the United States. Private discussions with the other major nuclear powers– Britain, France, Russia and China — should begin, if they haven’t already, to consider how a nuclear deterrent regime could be shaped for the region.

Such a regime would protect Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, negating the need for their own nuclear weapons, and assure the security of Israel and Palestine recognizing that an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel would probably kill as many Muslims and Palestinians as Jews.

Concurrently, and as an off-shoot of the Nuclear Security Summit, a quiet meeting of all nuclear states to include India and Pakistan with invitations to Israel, Iran and both Koreas should be convened for preventing the use or misuse, i.e. theft, of nuclear weapons.

The known nuclear powers have had ample experience with these systems and appreciate the grave responsibilities these weapons impose from safety and security to command and control. Iran has had none and North Korea little.

The most chilling scenario of all is how well or badly equipped the latter are in understanding these responsibilities.

While many will argue (wrongly) that any such discussion risks facilitating Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the best prevention could be a combination of the major nuclear powers intent to impose a deterrent regime while ensuring Iran understands the responsibilities, risks and elaborate infrastructure required by nuclear weapons — areas where there is little evidence this has occurred.

Sadly, all policies aren’t always based on rationality. But in this case, the unacceptable may have to become the acceptable.

Harlan Ullman is an Atlantic Council Senior Advisor and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business.  This column was syndicated by UPI. Photo credit: