Iran’s Nuclear Rubicon

ICangles Investment Post…

Clear analysis on Iran’s nuclear program is surprisingly difficult to find, and misperceptions are common. Among these misconceptions is that a metaphorical clock is ticking down, and if Iran’s nuclear program is not halted soon the country will field nuclear weapons. But while Israel’s government speaks of a clock it appears for the current U.S. administration the preferred analogy is that of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon. Iran’s nuclear program can be thought of as two parts. The first part, which is indeed nearly completed, is centered around manufacturing fissionable materials that could power a nuclear reactor. The second is utilizing that infrastructure to create much more refined, weapon’s grade materials. Similar to the crossing of the Rubicon River being Caesar’s point of no return, where he was committed to the overthrow of the Roman Republic, the initiation of weapon’s grade material production would commit Iran to fielding nuclear weapons and leave behind any pretences of a peaceful nuclear energy program.

So far it appears Iran has marched forward in building the infrastructure for not just a nuclear energy program, but a nuclear weapons program, without initiating the final step of creating weapons material. Many nations have opposed Iran’s nuclear program, and responses have ranged from economic sanctions, targeted assassinations, cyber attacks and other efforts, including the verbal threat of airstrikes, which fall just short of full-scale military strikes. Given the state of events it is a logical assumption that despite protestations to the contrary, military strikes by either Israel or the United States against Iran’s nuclear program will only be seriously considered if Iran crosses its Rubicon of beginning the process of manufacturing weapons grade nuclear materials. Although some think we could have years to resolve this situation, including Israel’s retired spy chief, if Iran were to cross the Rubicon of beginning the refinement process there might be only months to act.

Assessing Iran’s Nuclear Program

Several questions naturally arise in an assessment of the Iran nuclear situation. Among them is to what degree of confidence should one have in the claims made by the United States and Israel in regards to Iran’s purported program, especially considering the failure of U.S. intelligence in terms of Saddam Hussein’s weapons program. The answer is that high confidence is warranted in this particular situation. Although some debate the military implications, the existence of a nuclear program is well established by multiple sources. In terms of that program’s military implications, it is fair to have doubts about the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community. In fact at one point in the Middle East it was joked that one could tell the C.I.A. was behind an assassination attempt because everyone other than the target was killed. But the Israeli Mossad is a different story, and no one jokes about them missing their targets. And so far they appear to have penetrated Iran’s nuclear efforts to a great enough degree to not only gather accurate intelligence, but assassinate personnel in the program. Also, Israel’s successful attack on Iraq’s earlier nuclear reactor and a facility in Syria point to the ability to both know and act on existential threats.

Accepting that Israel will know if and when Iran begins weaponizing materials, another question that arises is if sanctions or diplomatic efforts alone can stop an Iranian weapons program, abrogating the need for a military strike. Without getting into the merits of sanctions or issues around Chinese and Russian involvement the short answer is a sanctions regime will not force Iran to change behavior, although this does not preclude the possibility of a peaceful resolution. Historical examples of such resolutions include the negotiated settlement of the Cuban missile crisis, as well as the more inconvenient recent instance of Libya’s Gaddafi negotiating an abandonment of his program after the invasion of Iraq and before his Western-supported overthrow—an example that might unfortunately encourage Iran’s government to preserve its own program as a deterrent to exactly such Western intervention. Nevertheless, there is a real chance that the threat of military strikes, some form of diplomatic inducements, including elimination of sanctions, and a continuing reduction of the American military presence on its borders with Iraq and Afghanistan could facilitate such an agreement.

What is far less likely is that the Iranian regime will implode, as Libya’s has or Syria’s may. Despite fairly recent protests, Iran is not Libya or Syria—countries ruled by tribal minorities in one case and a religious minority in the other. Iran is not ruled by a minority group, but rather is an Islamic theocracy and it should be kept in mind that despite scenes of young people protesting in both Iran and Egypt, recent elections in Egypt resulted in Islamic parties not represented in such protests wining almost three fourths of the popular vote. Despite recent Iranian elections banning the participation of reformist parties they may reflect the will of the people to a greater degree than some Western observers would like to believe, and are also not inconsequential to the resolution of the nuclear issue. Although commitment to the principles of the Islamic revolution appear firm in Iran, the commitment to a nuclear weapons program appears less so. Elections could change the decision making dynamic around a negotiated settlement, and this rather than revolution is the more likely optimistic scenario.

The Fallout from Iran’s Program

Assuming an optimistic political scenario does not transpire however, a question that needs to be grappled with is how bad would it be for Iran to possess nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia has already made noises about also acquiring nuclear weapons if Iran does so, and given its resources and relationships with both Pakistan and China this is no idle boast. But even if the home of most of the 911 hijackers, Saudi Arabia, as well as other Middle Eastern nations did not go nuclear in response, a major supporter of terrorism would still possess nuclear materials. Although some are too quick to embrace worries that religious zealots, including Iran’s president, who believe in the Twelfth Imam, will want to accelerate the end of the world so the Imam returns, others are perhaps too quick to dismiss the possibility such beliefs could influence decision cycles in a dangerous manner. Lastly, even assuming further proliferation threats do not materialize, and Iran acts in an utterly rational manner with its weapons, this would still result in two countries that don’t speak with each other pointing nuclear weapons at one another. And while Israel has relatively strong command and control safeguards, Iran will simply be deficient in this capacity. The likelihood of any tensions escalating to an unsought nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran would be far too high for comfort.

Given all the negative implications, it is no surprise the U.S. and Israel are seriously considering a military strike.  Until Iran begins weaponization such a strike is unlikely, however, because the fallout of such an action could be dire. An increase in unrest throughout an already unstable Middle East is only a question of degree, although a wider conflict beyond Iran, Lebanon and Israel is unlikely. However, a spike in oil prices and a resulting negative impact on the global economy is a certainty. Although Iran lacks the military capabilities to effectively defend its airspace or control oil flow out of the Straits of Hormuz it could still cause an oil supply disruption until its offensive capabilities were downgraded through additional strikes. Furthermore, through its Hezbollah proxy Iran could not only threaten Israel along its Lebanon border, but engage in acts of terrorism around the world. Nevertheless if attacking Iran’s nuclear weapons program amounted to a single precision strike, like Israel’s earlier attacks on Iraq and Syria, such an attack would likely already have been undertaken by Israel.

Unfortunately for any aggressor, Iran has gone about building its nuclear program with an attack in mind. There are multiple sites dispersed throughout the country, hardened and underground, as well as defended with military assets. This has led some to question whether an attack could even be successful or if Israel possesses the capabilities to mount such an attack. Among the many lessons of military history, however, is that no defense is insurmountable. The United States definitely possesses the capabilities to seriously damage, Iran’s program, although left alone, like any industrial program, it could be reconstituted over time. The amount of destruction to not just the physical infrastructure, but the institutional knowledge in the form of personnel killed, would determine the degree of damage. In terms of that degree America’s willingness to embrace creative technical solutions and its political calculations to avoid loss of life are likely to be the limiting factors on the level of damage inflicted, rather than its strategic strike capabilities, which are immense. Israel on the other hand will be pushing its largely tactical strike capabilities to the limit and embracing greater risks to operational success in the process, in order to engage in such a formidable strategic bombing operation.

For these purely military reasons Israel is likely to prefer American action to its own or at the very least to receive the maximum amount of technical and material support possible. This combined with the negative economic repercussions, which will influence any American presidential administration seeking an economic environment conducive to its own reelection, contribute to the timing of any strike likely not being undertaken until after the U.S. election. More importantly is the before mentioned Rubicon event of Iran initiating materials weaponization, which has not happened yet. Especially because of the challenges of a military strike and the possible repercussions, such an attack is unlikely to transpire soon and probably won’t be seriously contemplated until Iran does fully commit to weaponization. Of course Iran, along with the United States, Israel and other nations, understand this dynamic and aggressive posturing as both sides attempt to gain advantage will almost assuredly continue.

UPDATE: In April the Israeli army chief gave an interview corroborating the main assertion of this post that Iran has not yet and may not take the final step of building a nuclear weapon.

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