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The author presents a complex, insightful analysis of the options open to the United States and the West regarding the threat of nuclear weaponry in Iranian hands. He finds little room for maneuver and, accordingly, reaches a gloomy conclusion. – Ed.

by David T. Jones

For over fifty-five years, the United States has sought Middle East agreements that would create a secure peace for the countries in the region within mutually recognized boundaries. For decades the United States has struggled through assorted peace processes and “road maps” to devise a peace that would be more than just a pause for reloading weapons.

For over twenty-five years, the United States has sought to counter an aggressive Iranian state. Indeed, the nation still mourns its losses from the failed rescue attempt at Desert 1 and, for some—particularly the U. S. diplomatic community—the 444 days of “America held hostage” still rankles. We have now struggled to isolate Tehran for longer than we sought to isolate Beijing (1949-72). More recently we have orchestrated multiple efforts to thwart Iran’s perceived drive for nuclear weapons.

Both objectives: a secure, peaceful Middle East and a nonnuclear Iran are worthy—and indeed globally endorsed. Both are likely to fail.

In the Middle East, the Israel/Palestine interlock has defied solution by some of the most dedicated men and creative minds of this generation. The participants are still struggling with both the existence of the Israeli state and the consequences of the 1967 war. The most recent eruption in Lebanon is only one manifestation tearing open a wound believed on the way to healing. Some parts of the Middle East complex have been parsed away and, in the process, there have been Israeli agreements trading “land for peace” (albeit a Cold Peace) with Egypt and (albeit temporarily) with Lebanon as well as a working political arrangement with Jordan. Following the invidious experience of the Clinton Administration, which rode the rollercoaster from Oslo in 1993 to Camp David in July 2000, the USG concluded that Palestinian leader Yasar Arafat was not a valid interlocutor. Rather than plunging back into the diplomatic fray after its election, the Bush Administration temporized with a “roadmap” whose implementation appeared problematic from its initial cartographic sketch.

Conveniently, Arafat died and Washington—in a triumph of hope over experience—hypothesized potential openings for agreements that could end with security for Israel and a viable state for Palestinians. Thus the election of Mahmoud Abbas in January 2005 followed later in the year by Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and strong intimations by then PM Sharon that Israel would withdraw from most of the West Bank suggested that peace was again at least a prospect. The Palestinian legislative election on January 25, 2006, and the March 28 Israeli election were supposed to provide further impetus to peace.

Unfortunately for the hopeful, Sharon’s permanent incapacitation and the Hamas legislative victory kicked over the card houses. We face two incompatible truths. Hamas is at least a semi-terrorist organization seeking the destruction of Israel; and Hamas also has been legitimately elected to a majority in the Palestinian legislature.

The US response has been to require Hamas to accept previous Palestinian agreements regarding the legitimacy of Israel, to disarm its militias, and to cease acts of terrorism. Hamas has declined/dissembled, and we and other states have ended direct financial support for the Palestinian government and declined in turn to negotiate with the Hamas leadership. Indeed, there is no reason why we should either fund or temporize with terrorists. However, in so doing, we have chosen to demonize Hamas and in the process may well turn the Palestinians into devil worshipers.

Periodically, “hopeful” signs suggesting some Fatah-Hamas rapprochement devolve into “hopeless” signs with fresh epistles of violence as the method of communication with each other and Israeli authorities. Fresh combat across the Gaza Strip in July between Israel and Hamas surrogates put new weight on the “hopeless” side of the balance beam.

There is no reason to expect Hamas or Hezbollah to accept Israeli sovereignty over territory it believes was illegally seized. Whatever circumlocutions Hamas may mouth in hopes of obtaining European financing, or in playing on the emotions of the guilt-ridden, must be regarded as suspect. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a Palestinian, a Muslim Lebanese, a Syrian, etc, who does not viscerally believe that Israel seized Palestinian lands illegitimately and holds them by right of force, rather than by right of law. But why should this attitude surprise us? Did the French ever accept German sovereignty over Alsace-Lorraine? Did the Chinese accept the Japanese conquest of Manchuria? Has Pakistan given up its claims to Kashmir? For its part, the United States rejected Soviet control over the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) for over fifty years and dismissed all “realistic” argument that we should accept Moscow’s sovereignty. Indeed, we maintained Baltic States embassies in Washington, even when virtually all of the original members of these diplomatic missions were dead.

Palestinian historical claims over the region are as deep, emotional, and persistent as Israeli/Jewish claims. And let us suppose that Hamas declares a Palestinian State—and then announces that the armed militias are now the Army of Palestine? Do we demand that a state disband its armed forces? Indeed, the more that our economic pressures or Israeli military force impoverish and infuriate the Palestinians, the more they will hate—not Hamas—but the United States and Israel. Would we expect that Israelis would buckle under economic pressure? Would Americans “eat stone soup” rather than quit? Why should we hypothesize that Palestinians are less cause committed? Nor are the Palestinians likely to be without foreign resources from states that either support their cause from religious conviction or see it as an excellent device to frustrate Western and U. S. interests. We have seen public announcements of such support—and secret, private contributions through permeable informal international financial systems will supplement many Palestinian families. Indeed, Hamas also might be able to borrow against the $50 million in tax revenues Israel refuses to release. No, reconciling two “rights” (or two “wrongs”) is not in the cards; the dove of peace has been plucked and roasted as squab.

Our very best hope in the Middle East is not for “peace” but a bristling state of intermittent violence with the random rockets matched by targeted killings. Repeated rounds of infrastructure destroyed/infrastructure rebuilt looks to be the norm, as are hostages taken/suspects arrested/exchanges not made—or made. We have such conditions elsewhere in the world where the League of Women Voters’ “one person; one vote” democracy fails to prevail, but even such invidious circumstances are improvements over historical precedent: Think Cyprus; DMZ Korea; Golan Heights; the India-China Line of Control. Such ad hoc conclusions are not inconsequential for those who are no longer dying daily to be sure, but they should not be confused with peace.

Likewise, the expectation that “talk/talk” will persuade the Iranian government to abandon a nuclear weapons program is feckless. Indeed, there is no reason why Tehran should not seek nuclear capability. Just review the logic from its position:

Nuclear weapons are the great deterrent against attack. No country has ever attacked a clearly armed nuclear weapons state. Washington can hardly argue to the contrary, having depended on NATO’s nuclear deterrent for a generation to thwart a Soviet attack in Europe;

Further, nuclear weapons provide a national credibility that no other circumstance can equal. Without nukes North Korea would be a pitiful starveling backwater;

Nuclear weapons are likewise the great intimidator against nonnuclear states, even if they are allied with nuclear weapon states. Would the Saudis stand firm against the prospective annihilation of Mecca/Medina even if they knew that Tehran would be cinders in retaliation?;

The United States and the West want to prevent this program—hence, it provides Tehran an incentive to build these weapons. Not to do so would suggest that the government was weak, cowardly, and intimidated. To do so—against outside pressures—provides a courageous rallying point to generate domestic support of pure nationalism.

So where is the downside for Tehran? Does anyone think that the West would embrace the mullahs like evangelical pastors if they gave up nuclear weapons plans? Or trust them if they so agreed?

Unfortunately, we cannot even prove that the Iranian government has a nuclear program directed toward producing nuclear weapons. And every expert has a different timeline for a hypothetical nuclear weapons program, demonstrating the confusion level. Equally unfortunate for those who seek a “just in time” inventory precision, an enormous part of any nuclear program is capable of dual use—for either peaceful or weapons projects. In that regard, we might recall that India used the fig leaf of a “peaceful nuclear explosives” program to flaunt its nuclear status after having exploited its Canadian-origin peaceful nuclear reactors. Nor does work that arguably would be directly related to a weapons program mean that Iran will produce nuclear weapons—Tehran may be exploring the potential for such a program (in the same way that the West is exploring the potential for military strikes against such a program). The decision to build nuclear weapons is one that can be made—or reversed—at many points on the theoretical, experimental, or engineering glide path. Indeed, as South Africa proved, nuclear weapons can be created in secret, maintained in secret, and destroyed in secret—a process totally unknown outside South Africa until announced by Pretoria in 1993.

One can say (with no sense of irony in the saying) that the intelligence indicators for an Iranian nuclear weapons program are comparable to those positing a WMD program in Iraq—or the nuclear program in Pakistan. In theory we could have gained full access to a Pakistani nuclear program at many points in the process—and been totally convinced that it was designed only for peaceful, experimental uses. Not even the best-informed members of the Pakistani program could have been absolutely sure of the final outcome of their work. So, indeed, until those explosions actually occurred, no one could be 100 percent certain that Pakistan had mastered the technology.

And so it will be with Iran. To be sure, Iranian disclaimers appear disingenuous. To be sure, the government’s actions have been duplicitous. And, to be sure, current Iranian efforts to evade comprehensive inspection are suggestive. But, absent that mushroom cloud or the unique seismic signature from underground nuclear testing, we have no proof.

And, even less happily, global politico-economic leverage over Iranian action appears inadequate to the task of reversing a decision to “go nuclear”—assuming it has made such a decision. The ongoing jaw-jaw in the United Nations takes place with an air of spurious seriousness; it appears more to be an exercise in counting debating points than a process for reaching its objective: a non-nuclear Iran. Each bright idea ignited by the EU and/or U.S. flickers for a moment—and then darkness falls anew. The prospect of moving toward economic sanctions is equally risible. The legacy of economic sanctions is pitiful so far as effecting policy change by those against whom the sanctions are directed. And Iran could deploy counter sanctions in the form of oil export cuts that would be as disconcerting to the West as any economic sanctions would be for Iran. Neither China nor Russia sees any need to carry water to this fire; neither they nor their clients are likely to be burned by a nuclear Iran. If Iranian nuclear weapons disconcert and distract the United States from other areas, such action benefits Moscow and Beijing. And, in the worst of conceivable worst cases—Iranian nuclear weapons are used to attack Israel (and an Israeli counter strike incinerates urban Iran)—neither China nor Russia has much to lose in purely physical/population terms.

Consequently, we are left with nothing but bad choices. Our intelligence estimates, fallible as they may be, indicate that Iran will obtain nuclear weapons in the short, medium, or longer term; there is no technical reason why it cannot make such weapons. The key remains possession of special nuclear material (explosives grade Uranium-235 or Plutonium-230), and Iran has announced such capability. The atomic bomb is, like “rocket science,” 60-year old engineering. We cannot anticipate that either UN-derived political criticism or the prospect of economic sanctions will derail an Iranian nuclear weapons program; if it elects such a course, Iran’s leaders will have counted the costs and are willing to pay them. Tehran’s demurs to the effect that it is a nation of choirboys are not convincing, and its rhetoric is incendiary—for a country such as Israel that has “never again” embedded in its cultural DNA, ignoring such a threat is impossible. Moreover, the prospect of military action is daunting—the United States has the heaviest “hammer” on the globe, but we also know that even the most inviting “nail” can not always be effectively hammered—or at least not without the distinct prospect of hitting your thumb in the process.

So we have been engaged in diplomacy a la Mr. Micawber; the cheery Dickensian character who hypothesized that “something will soon turn up” to get him out of the pickle of the moment. Perhaps the Iranians will say mea culpa to the United Nations and throw open their nuclear facilities to intrusive inspection. Perhaps there will be comprehensive regime change sweeping away the malignant mullahs. Perhaps the Israelis will decide we are not going to pull their acorns out of the fire and do the job themselves—and damn the consequences. Diplomacy is the art of the possible, but there are circumstances where even the most skilled negotiator is faced with the impossible. But we still have time to fiddle and just perhaps, recalling the punch line of the old story, “the horse will learn to sing.”End.


David T. Jones
David T. Jones

David T. Jones, a retired senior Foreign Service officer, has written extensively over the years for U.S. and Canadian publications. He has contributed frequently to this journal, especially in the field of the Canadian political scene.


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