Iran’s Nuclear Deterrent, Redux

My post on Iran’s nuclear deterrent bothered Sam Roggeveen, which usually indicates one of two things. Either, a) I need to clarify my argument; or b) I was wrong. I’ll go with option “a,” and see if that helps.

The hard-line Israeli argument against an Iranian civilian nuclear program goes something like this: If Iran is allowed to master civilian nuclear technology — in particular the fuel enrichment cycle — it will eventually use that technology to arm itself with nuclear weapons. Those weapons will at worst pose an existential threat to Israel, and at best transform the strategic balance of power in Israel’s immediate neighborhood by offering a nuclear umbrella to Hamas and Hezbollah. Therefore the goal must be not a transparent Iranian nuclear program, but no uranium enrichment in Iran. Period.

Now, I don’t subscribe to that assessment. But for argument’s sake, let’s assume it’s true. And let’s assume, again for argument’s sake, that neither diplomatic engagement nor sanctions dissuade Iran from pursuing its civilian nuclear program. The only option left on the table then will be military strikes.

But we also know that although military strikes might degrade Iran’s program, they will be unable to actually stop it. Given the latest IAEA reports about Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity, that means that the “red line” on this slippery slope has already been crossed. We’re still years away from an Iranian ability to weaponize. But the only thing standing in the way of that ultimately happening is the Iranian political decision to do so or not.

In other words, by the very logic of the hard-line Israeli argument, the unacceptable, existential threat posed by a nuclear Iran already exists, albeit in a weakened — because immature — form. And the military strikes that are supposed to prevent it would in fact hasten it, by triggering the Iranian political will to weaponize that may or may not exist today.

My initial post was simply intended to point out that the strategic calculations that are being used to assess the potential costs of a military strike have yet to take that into account. The Iranian deterrent is still being measured in conventional and asymmetric ripostes, targeting both Israel and U.S. interests. But because an Israeli strike would not pre-empt, or even prevent, the Iranian nuclear threat, it would represent the opening conventional strikein a conflict that would eventually involve nuclear implications. Those implications would be delayed. But at this point, they can no longer be excluded from the strategic calculations.

To my mind, that’s an argument for accepting a “Japan option” for Iran as a best-case scenario, not a justification for war. But either way, it’s worth pointing out that the strategic logic being used is at least two years out of date.