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Defusing the Mullahs' Bomb By: Henry Sokolski
Policy Review | Wednesday, August 03, 2005


hen it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, most U.S. and allied officials are in one or another state of denial. All insist it is critical to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Yet, few understand just how late it is to attempt this. Iran is now no more than 12 to 48 months from acquiring a nuclear bomb, lacks for nothing technologically or materially to produce it, and seems dead set on securing an option to do so.

This article, relying on research and meetings with the nation’s leading experts on Iran, the Middle East, and nuclear proliferation — and based upon a working group report on these issues — is intended to make recommendations designed to reduce the harm Iran might do or encourage if it gained nuclear weapons. There are three threats that are likely to increase following Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear option.

Even more nuclear proliferation. Iran’s continued insistence that it acquired its nuclear capabilities legally under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (npt) would, if unchallenged, encourage its neighbors (including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Algeria) to develop nuclear options of their own and overtly declare possession or import weapons from elsewhere. Such announcements and efforts would likely undermine nuclear nonproliferation restraints internationally and strain American relations with most of its friends in the Middle East.

Dramatically higher oil prices. A nuclear-ready Iran could be emboldened to manipulate oil prices upward, either by threatening the freedom of the seas (by mining oil transit points as it did in the 1980s or by seeking to close the Straits of Hormuz) or by using terrorist proxies to threaten the destruction of Saudi and other Gulf state oil facilities and pipelines.

Increased terrorism geared to diminish U.S. influence. With a nuclear weapons option acting as a deterrent to U.S. and allied action against it, Iran would likely lend greater support to terrorists operating against Israel, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Europe, and the U.S. The objective would be to reduce American support for U.S. involvement in the Middle East, for Israel, and for actions against Iran generally, and to elevate Iran as an equal to the U.S. and its allies on all matters connected to the Persian Gulf and related regions. An additional aim of Iran’s support for terrorism would be to keep other nations from backing U.S. policies, including a continued U.S. military presence in the Middle East.

All of these threats are serious. If realized, they would undermine U.S. and allied efforts to foster moderate rule in the Middle East, and set into play a series of international competitions that could ultimately result in major wars. Most U.S. and allied policymakers understand this and are now occupied with trying to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. As Iran gets closer to securing this option, though, two possible courses of action — bombing or bribing Iran — have become increasingly popular. Neither, however, is likely to succeed, and each could easily make matters worse.


Bombs and bribes


argeting iran’s nuclear facilities risks leaving other covert facilities and Iran’s cadre of nuclear technicians untouched. More important, any overt military attack would give Tehran a casus belli either to withdraw from the npt or to rally Islamic Jihadists to wage war against the U.S. and its allies more directly. Whatever might be gained by technically delaying the completion of Iran’s bomb option, then, would have to be weighed against what might be lost in Washington’s long-term effort to encourage more moderate Islamic rule in Iran and the Middle East, to synchronize allied policies against nuclear proliferation, and to deflate Iran’s rhetorical demonstrations against U.S. and allied hostility. Moreover, bluffing an attack against Iran — sometimes urged as a way around these difficulties — would only aggravate matters: The bluff would inevitably be exposed and further embolden Iran and weaken U.S. and allied credibility.

As for negotiating directly with Tehran to limit its declared nuclear program — an approach preferred by most of America’s European allies — this too seems self-defeating. First, any deal the Iranian regime would agree to would validate the claim that the npt legally allows its members to acquire all the capabilities Iran possesses. In other words, working supposedly within the terms of the npt, any state can get as far along as Tehran is now. Second, it would foster the view internationally that the only risk in violating required npt inspections would be getting caught at it — and that the consequence of getting caught would amount to being bribed to limit only those activities the inspectors managed to discover.

Considering these shortcomings, the working group felt it would be useful to devise ways of curbing the harm Iran might do or encourage once it secured a nuclear option, rather than merely trying to eliminate its ability to develop that option, which in any case may no longer be possible. The group produced seven recommendations in areas its members believe have not received sufficient attention. These steps, they argued, would increase the credibility of current efforts to prevent Iran from going nuclear and need to be pursued, in any case, if prevention fails. These recommendations include:

  • Discrediting the legitimacy of Iran’s nuclear program as a model for other proliferators through a series of follow-on meetings to the 2005 npt Review Conference to clarify what activities qualify as being “peaceful” under the npt.

  • Increasing the costs for Iran and its neighbors to leave or infringe the npt by establishing country-neutral rules at the un Security Council against violators withdrawing from the treaty and violators more generally.

  • Securing Russian cooperation in these efforts by offering Moscow a lucrative U.S. nuclear cooperative agreement.

  • Reducing Persian Gulf production and distribution system vulnerabilities to possible terrorist disruptions by building additional back-up capabilities in Saudi Arabia.

  • Limiting Iran’s freedom to threaten oil and gas shipping by proposing a Montreux-like convention to demilitarize the Straits of Hormuz and an agreement to limit possible incidents at sea.

  • Isolating Iran as a regional producer of fissile materials by encouraging Israel to take the first steps to freeze and dismantle such capabilities.

  • Backing these diplomatic-economic initiatives with increased U.S.-allied anti-terrorist, defense, naval, and nuclear nonproliferation cooperation.

Would taking these steps eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat? No. Given Iran’s extensive nuclear know-how and capabilities, it is unlikely that the U.S. or its allies can deny Tehran the technical ability to covertly make nuclear weapons. Yet, if the steps described above were to be adopted, it would prove far riskier diplomatically, economically, and militarily for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons than it is at present. More important, taking these steps would undermine Iran’s efforts to divide the U.S. from its allies and to deter them from acting against Iranian misbehavior. It would not only discourage Iran’s neighbors from following Tehran’s nuclear example, but also force a needed reconsideration of which nuclear activities ought to be protected under the npt (including those Iran has used to justify completing nuclear breakout capabilities). Finally, it would map a nonnuclear future for the Middle East that might eventually be realized — assuming a change of heart by Iran and others — through verifiable deeds rather than precise intelligence (which is all too elusive).


“Unacceptable”?


hen u.s. and allied officials speak of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, they use imperatives freely: Iran, we are told, must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons; the U.S. and its allies cannot tolerate Iran’s going nuclear; a nuclear-armed Tehran is unthinkable.

But the truth is that Iran can get and soon will have a bomb option. All Iranian engineers need is a bit more time — one to four years at most. No other major gaps remain: Iran has the requisite equipment to make the weapons fuel, the know-how to assemble the bombs, and the missile and naval systems necessary to deliver them beyond its borders. No scheme, including “just-in-time” delivery of fresh fuel and removal of spent fuel from the Bushehr reactor, will provide much protection if Iran diverts its peaceful nuclear program to complement its covert efforts to make bombs.

As for eliminating Iran’s nuclear capabilities militarily, the U.S. and Israel lack the targeting intelligence to do so. In fact, Iran has long had considerable success in concealing its nuclear activities from U.S. intelligence analysts and International Atomic Energy Agency (iaea) inspectors (the latter recently warned against assuming the agency could find all of Iran’s illicit uranium enrichment activities). As it is, Iran could already have hidden all it needs to reconstitute a bomb program, assuming its known declared nuclear plants are hit.

Compounding these difficulties is what Iran might do in response to such an attack. After being struck, Tehran could declare that it must acquire nuclear weapons as a matter of self-defense, withdraw from the npt, and accelerate its nuclear endeavors. This would increase pressure on Israel (which insists it will not be “second” in possessing nuclear arms in the Middle East) to confirm its possession of nuclear weapons publicly and possibly set off a chain of nuclear reactions in Cairo, Damascus, Riyadh, Algiers, and Ankara.

On the other hand, Iran could continue to pretend to comply with the npt, which could produce equally disastrous results. After being attacked, Tehran might appeal to the iaea, the Arab League, the Non-Aligned Movement, the European Union, and the United Nations to make its nuclear program whole again, and use this “peaceful” program to energize and serve as a cover for its covert nuclear weapon activities. This would put the entire neighborhood on edge, debase the npt, and set a clear example for all of Iran’s neighbors to follow on how to get a weapons option. In addition, as more of Iran’s neighbors secured their own nuclear options, Washington’s influence over its friends in the region (e.g., Egypt and Saudi Arabia) would likely decline, as would the U.S.’s ability to protect nato and non-nato allies there (e.g., Israel and Turkey).

Furthermore, Iran might respond to an overt military attack by striking back covertly against the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Israel through the support of non-Iranian terrorist organizations. The ramifications of any of these responses are difficult to minimize.

Finally, Iran could take any and all of these actions without actually ever testing, sharing, or deploying nuclear weapons. As long as most nations buy Tehran’s argument that the npt’s guarantee of “peaceful” nuclear energy gives it the right to develop everything needed to come within a screwdriver’s turn of a nuclear arsenal, Iran will be best served by getting to this point and going no farther. Indeed, by showing such “restraint,” the mullahs could avoid domestic and international controversies that might undermine their political standing, additional economic sanctions, and the further costs of fielding a survivable nuclear force. Meanwhile, as long as Iran could acquire nuclear weapons quickly, Tehran could intimidate others as effectively as if it already had such systems deployed.

None of this, of course, argues for reducing pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear activities. The U.S. and its allies should continue to do all they can to head Iran off, including efforts to stifle its “civilian” program. Indeed, restricting themselves to insisting that Tehran not openly acquire nuclear arms, without demanding that it give up its “civilian” nuclear efforts, would make it all the easier for Iran to get a quick nuclear breakout capability, claim its entire nuclear program is legal under the npt, and use its quick breakout capabilities as it would if it actually had nuclear weapons.



Breakout option


hat should we expect when, in the next 12 to 48 months, Iran secures such a breakout option? If the U.S. and its allies do no more than they have already done, two things are likely.

First, many of its neighbors will do their best to follow Iran’s “peaceful” example. Egypt, Algeria, Syria, and Saudi Arabia will all claim that they too need to pursue nuclear research and development to the point of having nuclear weapons options and, as a further slap in Washington’s face (and Jerusalem’s), will point to Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear program and Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal to help justify their own “civil” nuclear activities. Second, an ever more nuclear-ready Iran will try to lead the revolutionary vanguard throughout the Islamic world by becoming the main support for terrorist organizations aimed against the U.S. and Washington’s key regional ally, Israel; America’s key energy source, Saudi Arabia; and Washington’s prospective democratic ally, Iraq.

Senior Saudi officials announced in 2004 that they were studying the possibility of acquiring or “leasing” nuclear weapons from China or Pakistan (this would be legal under the npt so long as the weapons were kept under Chinese or Pakistani “control”). Egypt, too, announced plans to develop a large nuclear desalinization plant and is reported recently to have received sensitive nuclear technology from Libya. Syria, meanwhile, is now interested in uranium enrichment; some intelligence sources believe Damascus may already be experimenting with centrifuges. And Algeria is in the midst of upgrading its second large research reactor facility (which is still ringed with air defense units).

If these states, spurred on by Iran’s example, continue to pursue their nuclear dreams, could Iraq, which still has a considerable number of nuclear scientists and engineers, be expected to stand idly by? And what of Turkey, whose private sector was recently revealed to have been part of the network of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who was helping other states develop weapons programs until his exposure? Will nuclear agitation to its south and its repeated rejection by the European Union cause Turkey to reconsider its nonnuclear status? Most of these nations are now friends of the United States. Efforts on their part to acquire a bomb under the guise of developing “peaceful” nuclear energy (with Latin American, Asian, European, Russian, or Chinese help), though, will only serve to strain their relations with Washington.

With such regional nuclear enthusiasm will come increased diplomatic pressure on Israel, an undeclared nuclear weapons state and America’s closest Middle East ally. Early in July 2004, the iaea director and the major states within the Middle East urged Israel to give up its nuclear arms in proposed regional arms control negotiations. Israel’s understandable reluctance to be dragged into such talks or to admit to having nuclear arms will not end these pressures. If Israel has a secret nuclear arsenal, Arabs argue, why not balance it with an Iranian, Saudi, Egyptian, or other covert nuclear capability? How fair is it for the U.S. and Europe to demand that these nations restrain their own “peaceful” nuclear ambitions if Israel itself already has the bomb and is publicly arguing that it will not be “second” to introduce nuclear weapons into the region? Wouldn’t it make more sense, the argument goes, to force Israel to admit it has nuclear weapons and then give them up in a regional arms control negotiations effort (even though once Israel admits it has weapons, many of its neighbors, who still don’t recognize Israel, are only likely to use the admission to justify getting nuclear weapons themselves)?

This then brings us to the second likely result of Iran’s becoming ever more nuclear-ready: a more confident Iran, more willing to sponsor terrorist organizations, especially those opposed to Israel and the current government in Iraq. With Hamas in decline, Iran has already been seen to be increasing its support to groups like Hezbollah in Israel and Lebanon who want to liberate Palestine from “Israeli occupation.” Further increasing this aid would help Iran take the lead in the Islamic crusade to rid the region of Zionist/American forces, making it worthy of tribute and consideration by other Islamic states. Moreover, bolstering such terrorist activity would help Tehran deter Israel and the U.S. from striking it militarily.

Beyond this, Iran is likely to increase its assistance to groups willing to risk striking the United States. News reports in August 2004 claimed that Iranian diplomats assigned to U.N. headquarters in New York were to survey 29 American targets to help terrorist organizations interested in hitting the U.S. The aim here appears to be, again, to deter the U.S. from hitting Iran and to divide U.S. opinion about the merits of backing Israel and any other anti-Iranian measure or group.

A nuclear-ready Iran is also likely to step up its terrorist activities against Iraq, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. Tehran already is reported to have several thousand intelligence agents operating in Shia regions of Iraq and is actively contributing to community associations there. Meanwhile, there are nearly a dozen terrorist organizations employing Hezbollah in their groups’ names operating within Iraq now. As was the case with the Iranian penetration of Lebanon, these efforts will enable Iran to scout, recruit, and control terrorist operatives. The aim here will be to pressure the U.S. and its allies to remove their military forces from Iraq and allow a government more sympathetic to Iran to emerge there.

As for Libya, Iran’s mullahs are concerned about how much Qaddafi might tell the U.S. and the iaea about what illicit nuclear technology Iran may have gained from Libya, Pakistan, and others. News reports indicate that Tehran has been arming the Libyan Combat Islamic Group — an organization Qaddafi expelled in the late 1990s and that the U.S. expelled from Afghanistan in 2001 — at camps in southern Iran. If true, these reports suggest how Iran might leverage Qaddafi’s behavior.

Iran also has a history of supporting terrorist activity in Saudi Arabia. Although only roughly 10 percent of the country’s population is Shia, this sect constitutes an overwhelming majority of the population of Saudi Arabia’s key northern oil-producing region. Any terrorist action anywhere in Saudi Arabia, though, tends to raise questions about the general viability of the Saudi regime and the security of the world’s largest oil reserves. Historically, after a major terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, markets worry, the price of oil increases, and Iran’s own oil revenues surge upward. The reason is simple: Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest reserve oil production capacity (roughly 7 million barrels a day). Damage Saudi Arabia’s ability to ramp up production or to export what it can produce (or merely raise doubts about the current Saudi government’s continued ability to protect these capabilities) and you effectively cripple the world’s capacity to meet increased demand for oil. Terrorism in Saudi Arabia, in short, provides Iran with a quick, effective way to manipulate international oil prices. This cannot help but garner Iran greater leverage in getting opec support for its long-ignored calls to increase oil prices. It will also help Iran gain increased European and Asian backing when it calls for more financial support, investment, and high technology. It also will help keep the current regime in power longer (since it thrives on corruption and central planning, both of which require ever larger amounts of cash), will further reduce U.S. influence in the region, and will make action in the un Security Council against Tehran far less likely.

Yet another way Iran could drive up oil prices is by threatening free passage of oil through the Straits of Hormuz or by engaging in naval mining in the Gulf (by its surface fleet of fast boats or with its smaller submarines) and other key locations (as it did in the late 1980s). Iran has already deployed anti-shipping missiles at Qeshm, Abu Musa Island, and on Sirri Island, all of which are in range of shipping through the Strait. It has also occupied and fortified three islands inside the shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz —Abu Musa, the Greater Tunbs, and the Lesser Tunbs. Given that one-fifth of the world’s oil flows through the Straits (as well as roughly a quarter of America’s supply of oil) and that no other nation has fortified its shores near Hormuz, an Iranian threat to disrupt commerce there would have to be taken seriously by commercial concerns (e.g., insurers and commodity markets) and other nations.


Finding the levers — and pulling


hat are the chances of Iran’s credibly making these threats? If the U.S. and its friends do little more than they already have done, the odds are high enough to be worrisome.

What more should the U.S. and its friends do? Ultimately, nothing less than creating moderate self-government in Iraq, Iran, and other states in the region will bring lasting peace and nonproliferation. This, however, will take time. Meanwhile, the U.S. and its friends must do much more than they are currently doing to frustrate Iran’s efforts to divide the U.S., Israel, and Europe from one another, as well as from other friends in the Middle East and Asia, and to defeat Tehran’s efforts to use its nuclear capabilities to deter others from taking firm action against Iranian misbehavior.

This is a tall order, one that will require new efforts to:

  • Significantly increase the diplomatic costs to Iran of deploying nuclear weapons, or to any of its neighbors of following Iran’s model of “peaceful” nuclear activity, by getting the international community to insist on a tougher view of the npt.

  • Make Russia, Iran’s key nuclear partner, a willing backer of U.S. and European efforts to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and of nuclear restraint in the Middle East more generally.

  • Reduce the vulnerability of Middle Eastern oil and gas production and distribution systems to Iranian-backed terrorist attacks that could significantly increase energy prices.

  • Force Iran to choose between backing free passage of energy commerce in and out of the Gulf or becoming an outlaw in the eyes not only of the U.S., but also of Europe and Asia.

  • Strengthen U.S. and allied support of Israel by cooperating on a positive Middle Eastern nuclear restraint agenda that Jerusalem could pace by deeds (rather than negotiation), and highlight the problem of large nuclear facilities located in Iran and the Middle East more generally.

How might these goals be achieved? First, by exploiting or leveraging:

  • French proposals to the European Union and the npt Review Preparatory Committee to make withdrawal from the npt difficult and sanctions likely for any nation the iaea cannot find to be in full compliance with the npt.

  • Russia’s long-standing interest in securing a nuclear cooperative agreement with the U.S. to secure Russia’s backing to strengthen nuclear restraints internationally.

  • Oil producers’ wish to increase the security of Saudi oil production and distribution systems against possible terrorist attacks.

  • Tehran’s desire to secure multinational guarantees to enhance Iran’s security.

  • Israel’s clear regional lead in advanced nuclear capabilities.

  • Europe’s desire to play an active role in promoting nuclear nonproliferation in the Middle East.

The U.S. and other like-minded nations should convene a series of follow-on meetings to the May 2005 npt Review dedicated to reevaluating under what circumstances, and which forms of, nuclear power should be considered “peaceful” and thus protected by the npt. These meetings should take into account the latest information regarding the spread of covert centrifuge and reprocessing technology, bomb design, and the availability of separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium. In addition, they should raise the questions of what nuclear materials and activities can be safeguarded in a manner that will detect potential violations early enough to achieve the iaea’s and the npt’s goal of “preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” This set of international gatherings, which should meet periodically in anticipation of the next npt review conference in 2010, should also evaluate how increased use of free market competitions and private financing could help identify uneconomic, suspect nuclear activities. These meetings could be held under iaea or un Security Council auspices. If this proves to be impractical, though, the U.S. should proceed (much as the Proliferation Security Initiative was promoted) to hold these meetings with as many like-minded nuclear power and large nuclear research reactor-capable nations as possible.

In addition, the U.S. and its allies should build on France’s recent proposals that the Security Council adopt a set of a country-neutral rules for dealing with npt violators, such as Iran and North Korea, which would stipulate that countries that reject inspections and withdraw from the npt without first addressing their previous violations must surrender and dismantle their large nuclear capabilities (i.e., large research and power reactors and bulk handling facilities) to come back into compliance. Until the Security Council unanimously agrees otherwise, violators would lose the right to acquire nuclear technology under the npt (a ban against exporting such help to these nations would be imposed), and international financial institutions’ support for major projects within their borders would be suspended. Moreover, countries that violate their safeguards obligations under the npt and that the iaea cannot find to be in full compliance should no longer receive nuclear assistance or exports from any other country until the iaea Board of Governors is able to unanimously give them a clean bill of health.

The idea in passing these resolutions would be to make it clear to both Iran and its neighbors that using the npt to acquire a nuclear breakout capability will have consequences for their nuclear programs and for continued international financial institution support. Diplomatically, this will help the U.S. and its allies identify and treat Iran and North Korea in a country-neutral manner, not as an equal in negotiations, but as legally branded violators of the npt.

To help secure the support for these resolutions from Russia, furthermore, the U.S. should offer a nuclear cooperative deal that Moscow has long sought. This deal would allow Russia to store U.S.-origin spent fuel from Asia and Europe, pocketing $10 billion to $20 billion in revenues. For nearly a decade, progress on this deal has been stymied in the U.S. because of Russia’s unwillingness to drop its nuclear cooperation with Iran. Russia, meanwhile, insists that its cooperation with Iran is peaceful. Moscow has made it clear, however, that it would suspend its nuclear cooperation with Tehran if asked to do so by a resolution of the iaea or the unsc. If the country-neutral rules described above were passed, Russia would have to announce only that it was temporarily suspending nuclear cooperation with Iran as required by the resolution, but not that it was permanently dropping nuclear cooperation on Bushehr. Any resumption of Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation that violated the resolution, however, would jeopardize Moscow’s relationship with the U.S. on this subject. U.S. consent to send additional U.S.-origin spent fuel should continue to require case-by-case approval by Washington (as is normally the case) under any nuclear cooperative agreement the U.S. strikes with Russia.

In a study conducted for npec by energy researchers at Rice University, two key vulnerabilities in the Gulf oil production and distribution system in Saudi Arabia were identified. The first is an Iranian threat to close the Straits of Hormuz. Such a threat, Rice analysts argue, could be significantly reduced by upgrading and complementing the trans-Saudi Arabian Petroline, which would allow 11 million barrels a day to be shipped to ports on the Red Sea. This could be done with technical upgrades to the trans-Saudi Arabian line and by bringing the Iraqi-Saudi pipeline (Ipsa–2) back on line. To do the latter would require an agreement with Baghdad. The cost of the entire project is estimated to be $600 million. Assuming the worst — a complete closure of the Straits of Hormuz — this bypass system is estimated to be capable of reducing the economic impact on the U.S. to a loss of only 1 percent of gross domestic product. This figure could be reduced even further if additional pipelines were built from Abu Dhabi to ports in Oman. There are a number of ways in which these projects could be financed. Given the high price of oil and the large revenue streams high prices are now generating, the best time to finance such construction is now.

The second vulnerability Rice researchers identified is the major oil processing facilities located at Abqaiq. If terrorists were to attack these facilities, the loss could be as high as several million barrels a day of production. Work needs to be done to detail how best to reduce this vulnerability — but, again, the time to address these concerns (and finance their fixes) is now, when oil prices are high. In the longer run, of course, the steady rise in energy prices is likely to produce both increased conservation and new alternative sources of energy that will reduce U.S. and allied reliance on Gulf oil and gas.

One of the constant complaints of Iranian diplomats is that the U.S. and other major powers are unwilling to negotiate directly with Iran to guarantee its security. Certainly, the U.S. is loath to directly negotiate with Iran’s representatives for fear this would give its current revolutionary government greater support than it otherwise would have. More important, after having been disappointed so many times, Washington officials are rightly skeptical that Tehran is serious about reaching substantive agreements. The Council on Foreign Relations highlighted this problem in a July 2004 report, which rejected attempting any grand bargaining with Tehran. Several of America’s key European allies are inclined to negotiate, if at all possible, incrementally. This suggests that talks of some sort will happen.

Where should such efforts be focused? One idea is demilitarizing and guaranteeing free passage through the Straits of Hormuz and agreeing to naval standards of behavior in and around the Gulf. Unlike nuclear and human rights matters — where it is in Iran’s interest to hide its hand or lie, and where negotiating with Tehran would only lend greater legitimacy to the regime’s bad policies — this is a sensible area to begin. Securing for the Straits a Montreux-like agreement of the sort in place for the Dardanelles, and an incidents-at-sea agreement like the one the U.S. secured during the Cold War with the Soviets, would be in Iran’s interest. An agreement regarding Hormuz could ensure multi-power efforts to prevent any foreign nation from closing the straits (through which nearly all of Iran’s own oil exports flow). It would require submarines — including U.S., Israeli, French, and British special forces vessels — to surface before entering or exiting the Straits. It would ultimately (after initial sounding talks with key European nations) entail negotiations with the United States.

Such an agreement would also be in the interest of the U.S. and its allies. It would require Iran to demilitarize all of the islands and territorial coastline it has fortified near or adjacent to the straits with artillery and anti-shipping missiles. It would provide additional international legal grounds for military action against Iran if it should threaten to close the straits. Placing Iranian military systems beyond an agreed demilitarized zone would help give timely warning of Iranian efforts to cheat and allow superior allied air and reconnaissance capabilities a clear shot at identifiable ground or sea movements. Finally, an agreement of this sort would serve as a confined, limited set of talks whose progress could be used as a barometer of Iranian seriousness in negotiations generally. Similar benefits could be secured with an incidents-at-sea-like agreement with Iran that might include provisions to restrict any nation’s ability to covertly mine key waterways in or near the Gulf.


Israel’s nukes


nother area of focus is Israel’s nuclear program. The Israelis should detail how much weapons-usable material they have produced and agree that they will unilaterally mothball (though not yet dismantle) their reactor at Dimona and place the reactor’s mothballing under iaea monitoring. If at least two of three other Middle Eastern nations — say, Algeria, Egypt, or Iran — follow suit, mothballing their own declared nuclear facilities, Israel should announce further that it will dismantle Dimona and place the special nuclear material it has produced in “escrow” in Israel with a third trusted declared nuclear state, like the U.S. It should be made clear, however, that Israel will take the additional step of handing over control of its weapons-usable fissile material to the iaea only when all states in the Middle East dismantle their fissile producing facilities (large research and power reactors, hexafluoride, enrichment plants, and all reprocessing capabilities) and all nuclear weapons states (including Pakistan) formally agree not to redeploy nuclear weapons onto any Middle Eastern nation’s soil in time of peace.

Such arms restraint by deed rather than negotiation should avoid the awkwardness of current Middle Eastern arms control proposals that would have Israel both enter into talks with states that don’t recognize it and admit that it has nuclear weapons — an admission that would give Israel’s neighbors an excuse to justify some security reaction, including getting bombs of their own.

A key derivative benefit of pursuing the proposals described above is their potential to frustrate Tehran’s efforts to divide the U.S. from its friends and deter them from acting against the worst of what Iran might do. In particular, it would be useful to have the U.S. canvass the European Union, international financial institutions, and other nations about their willingness to back an Israeli nuclear restraint initiative of the sort described above. Clearly, it would make little sense for Israel to launch this initiative if other key nations dismissed it. To help determine its prospects for success, the U.S. ought to talk with its allies in Europe and elsewhere to gauge their willingness to back the proposal described. Would the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and other European Union nations see the proposal as a positive step that other Middle Eastern nations should be encouraged to follow? Would they be willing to announce their readiness to provide help — by funding nonnuclear-powered energy systems and smaller research reactors (that cannot make a critical weapon’s worth of material in anything less than a decade) — to any Middle Eastern nation that matched Israel’s actions? Construction of these facilities might begin once dismantlement commenced. Would international financial institutions, meanwhile, be prepared to announce their willingness to put on hold loans to states subsidizing or investing in uneconomical large research, desalination, or power reactors and other nuclear bulk-handling facilities in the Middle East? If so, and assuming Israel’s willingness to proceed, Washington should announce that America will use existing U.S. cooperative threat-reduction efforts to commence securing escrowed Israeli nuclear material and converting it into appropriate storable form on a schedule that Israel will set.

An additional measure meriting consideration would be increasing the level and tempo of allied naval exercises in an around the Persian Gulf. These exercises should emphasize mine-clearing, protection of commercial shipping, nuclear export and import interdictions, and reopening the straits under a variety of “seizure” scenarios. The exercises should be conducted with as many other interested Gulf and non-Gulf nations as possible. Another would be to increase international cooperation to help Iran’s neighbors secure their borders against illicit intrusions and illegal immigration. One of the key problems facing Iran’s neighbors, especially Iraq and Turkey, is the threat of terrorists transiting into their territories. Cooperative efforts to secure these borders could be made a part of a larger international effort to help European and other states protect their borders and shores as well. It would be worthwhile, moreover, to involve more Middle Eastern nations in the Proliferation Security Initiative.

Finally, it would be useful to consider ways of sharing the benefits of turn-key missile defense and reconnaissance systems in the Middle East in a manner that would avoid compromising these systems. The utility of missile defense and reconnaissance cooperation with friendly nations is clear enough.


No guarantees


one of these proposals can guarantee that Iran will not go nuclear. Assuming the U.S. continues to stick by its key friends in the Middle East, though, these measures will give Iran and its neighbors much greater cause to hesitate in further violating the npt. More important, they will go a long way to frustrate Tehran’s efforts to divide the U.S. from its major allies and deter them from taking firm actions against misdeeds Iran would be tempted to engage in once it became nuclear-ready. Finally, and most important, these proposals, if implemented, are much more likely in the near term to restrain Iran’s nuclear enthusiasm and that of its neighbors than any effort to bargain over Tehran’s nuclear capabilities or to try to bomb them away. In the end, however, only Iran’s eventual transition to more moderate self-rule will afford much chance for lasting, effective nonproliferation. Until then, the suggestions here are our best course.


Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and co-editor with Patrick Clawson of Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran (Strategic Studies Institute, 2005).


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