After more than ten years of diplomacy and duplicity, we are at an endgame with Iran. Only days after the second failed visit by IAEA inspectors in a month, the latest Agency report records substantial progress in Iran’s nuclear-enrichment program. This includes the start of operations at the new, and well-defended, Fordow site, which is producing 20-percent-enriched uranium, allowing a clear path to breakout. Most significant, the alarming questions raised about weaponization in the November report have not been answered. Instead, Tehran has continued to stonewall, denying access to the people, facilities, and documentation necessary to address the inspectors’ concerns.
Time is not on our side, no matter how hard we may try to convince ourselves otherwise. Sanctions are taking an increasingly heavy toll on Iran’s government and economy, but there is no evidence that they are having any effect on the nuclear program. In fact, despite the hope that economic penalties will compel the mullahs to slow the program, all evidence is to the contrary. Further, despite the Obama administration’s assessments that Iran has not yet decided to build a nuclear weapon (and that, once they did decide, it would take an additional two years to complete), all evidence is to the contrary. The description of recent weaponization activities presented in the last IAEA report is just that, evidence of weaponization. To conclude that Iran has not decided to build the bomb based on the absence of definitive proof, like a formal decision memorandum signed by the supreme leader, is simply self-deluding.
Contrary to our wishful thinking, Iran’s religious and secular leaders may have concluded that accelerating their weapons program is the best way to end the sanctions. Looking at the international community’s response to previous proliferators, they may well believe that, once they have gone nuclear, the worst will be over and that, over time, the sanctions will be lifted (especially given the world’s growing appetite for oil).
Perhaps even more important, these leaders may well have concluded that they do not intend to share Qaddafi’s fate. The logic is simple: Qaddafi gave up his nuclear-weapons program; the West intervened in Libya; and he was hunted down and killed by his own people. The lesson: Possession of nuclear weapons will allow the regime to pursue its aggressive agenda in the region and repress its own people without threat of outside intervention. Supreme Leader Khamenei underlined this point by stating that, unlike Libya, Iran will not give in to Western pressure but will increase its nuclear capabilities “against the wish of the enemy.”
It is in this context that Tehran has recently renewed calls for negotiations, an old but effective tactic. Iran has repeatedly dangled the prospect of negotiations before the United States and others whenever it appeared useful to buy time or divide opposing coalitions. But negotiation has always meant negotiating about the negotiations; Iran has never been willing to deal in good faith over its nuclear program. Why would this time be different from the ten, eleven, or twelve previous times? Some would argue that this time is different thanks to the bite of sanctions, and the likelihood of more to come. But this answer, like most proffered about Iran, neglects the hard reality that there are no easy or even good solutions to this complex and dangerous challenge. For far too long, U.S. policy has reflected the triumph of hope over experience, while the mullahs have marched forward toward a nuclear weapon.
The Obama administration has apparently ruled out the two remaining steps that have any chance to end the program. First, despite the administration’s claim that “all options are on the table,” it has given Iran every reason to believe force will not be used — from statements by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of defense to public pressure on Israel not to attack. An Israeli attack would not stop the program, but could delay it by one to three years, allowing for a permanent solution to emerge. Second, the administration has been loath even to suggest regime change — the only permanent way to end the weapons program. In 2009, the United States turned its back on the protesters in the streets of Tehran, and, in 2012, it remains unwilling to provide effective support to the opposition, vainly hoping that dialogue and engagement are still possible.
By imposing these limits on its policies — by declining to use force or aid the opposition — the administration is abandoning what may be the only effective tools to achieve its goal. Like all dictatorships, Iran most fears its own people and outside intervention. Yet, instead of feeding these fears and employing these instruments to pressure the regime, the Obama policy is to back away from intervention, showing weakness both to Iranian leaders and to our friends and allies in the region (who have urged such actions in private). In their view, failure to act will lead to a nuclear Iran, compelling them to seek their own nuclear capability.
Despite many high-profile statements about not allowing Iran to have nuclear weapons, the administration appears to have adopted the message put out by Iran’s leaders, that the cost of a military strike would be prohibitively high. While the administration will seek to impose additional sanctions, it now seems willing to live with the failure of its policy and rely on the belief that a nuclear-armed Iran can be deterred and contained. It is this core belief that defines the difference between U.S. and Israeli perspectives and policies. For Israel, a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat; Israel cannot exist in such a world. Our president seems already resigned to it.
— Robert Joseph, a senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy, was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security from 2005 to 2007.