Iran’s Nuclear Deterrent

Monday’s meeting between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put the Iranian nuclear program in the spotlight. As one of the participants in the France 24 program I was on the other day put it, for Israel, “Iran and atom can’t exist.”

The heart of the debate these days is how to keep that from happening,with this Patrick Barry post at Democracy Arsenal a good example of thecompeting views between whether coercion or engagement will work best.Barry discusses everything that’s changed since 2003 to diminish theU.S. ability to coerce Iran into foregoing a nuclear capacity.

But amore fundamental change since 2003, and one that has so far eluded serious discussion, is that “Iran and atom” alreadyexists. Iran has mastered the fuel enrichment cycle, and has essentially achieved the “Japan option,” if a lengthier version of it. Assembling a deliverable warhead is simply a matter of political intention and time.

I’m not convinced the political intention is present at this point. The major argument against military strikes is that they will almost certainly create such a political intention, while leaving the “matter of time” element lengthened but still in place. The major argument against engagement is that it allows Iran to use the time to advance its ability to weaponize even in the absence of political intention to do so. In other words, Iran is already exercising a weakened form of nuclear deterrence, and both of the policy options intended to contain it will in all likelihood have the opposite effect of strengthening it.

From a strategic point of view, the military option that Netanyahu and Obama insist on leaving on the table is no longer a pre-emptive strike. It’s a first strike. That’s an important distinction that has yet to be clearly made.