WASHINGTON – While a nuclear-armed Iran would pose significant new challenges to the United States and Israel, a military attack by either country to prevent Tehran from developing a weapon could well prove counter-productive, according to a major new report released on Wednesday by a think tank close to the administration of President Barack Obama.
While preventive military action should remain on the table, it should only be considered if Iran “has made a clear move toward weaponization”, and there is a “reasonable expectation” that such a strike would set back Iran’s program “significantly”, among other conditions, according to the 55-page report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
The report, “Risk and Rivalry: Iran, Israel and the Bomb,” also argues that both the US and Israel should avoid taking any steps that limit prospects for a negotiated agreement designed to dissuade Tehran from “weaponizing” its nuclear program.
In particular, they should not insist – as Israel and its backers in the US Congress are doing – that Tehran end all uranium enrichment on its own territory as a condition of any negotiated settlement since such a stance “would most likely result in no deal at all”, according to the report, whose lead author, Colin Kahl, served as the Pentagon’s top Middle East policy-maker under Obama until January.
Iran, it argues, appears to be pursuing a “nuclear hedging” strategy designed to develop the indigenous technical capability to rapidly produce nuclear weapons if its leadership decides to do so, but, as of now, it would need at least a year – and probably more – to achieve that goal. It is quite possible, according to the report, that the regime will be satisfied with achieving a “‘threshold’ capability just short of full-fledged weaponization”.
If, however, it does develop a weapon, say the report’s authors, who also include Melissa Dalton and Matthew Irvine, Tehran is “unlikely” to use it or transfer a nuclear device to terrorists to use against Israel or any other target.
“The Iranian regime is not suicidal and is sufficiently rational for the basic logic of nuclear deterrence to hold,” the report asserts, although it stresses as well that a nuclear-armed Iran would probably be “more aggressive and dangerous than an Iran without nuclear weapons”. Moreover, it would likely intensify an Israeli-Iranian rivalry and thus create “some inherent risk of inadvertent nuclear war”.
The new report comes at a key moment – roughly the mid-point between the second round of negotiations in Baghdad between Iran and the so-called P5+1 – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – and the third scheduled to take place in Moscow June 18-19.
Iranian officials have expressed considerable disappointment over what they say was the failure by the P5+1 in Baghdad to offer key concessions in exchange for Tehran’s suspension of its enrichment of uranium of up to 20% and the further possibility that it would ship out of the country all or part of its existing 20% enriched uranium stockpile.
In particular, Tehran is seeking some easing of tough financial and oil-related sanctions that are taking a growing toll on its increasingly strapped economy, as well as formal recognition by the US and its allies that Iran has the right to continue enriching uranium to concentrations of up to 5% as part of its civilian nuclear power program.
While US and European Union officials have suggested in recent months that they were open to such concessions under the right circumstances, they apparently failed to address them during the two days of talks.
The apparent impasse has given heart to anti-Iran hawks in Washington and in Israel who have argued that Iran is using the talks to buy time to develop a weapon and who have insisted that Tehran must be forced to abandon its enrichment program altogether as part of any negotiated agreement.
Thus, John Bolton, who served as Washington’s ambassador to the UN under George W Bush and is currently acting as a top adviser to the presumptive 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, expressed relief in an op-ed published by the Washington Times that no agreement was achieved in Baghdad.
Bolton, currently at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), has regularly called for the US to support an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities since at least 2008.
The CNAS report is only the latest in a series of studies and analyses that have warned against a preventive attack on Iran, particularly by Israel.
Last month, experts at the RAND Corporation, a think tank closely tied to the Pentagon, summarized the findings of two of its recent reports by concluding that “an Israeli or American attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would make it more, not less, likely that the Iranian regime would decide to produce and deploy nuclear weapons. … Such an attack would also make it more, not less, difficult to contain Iranian influence.”
In fact,” a post-attack Middle East may result in the worst of both worlds: a nuclear-armed Iran more determined than ever to challenge the Jewish state, and with far fewer regional and international impediments to doing so,” the report stated, adding that Washington “should support the assessments of former and current Israeli officials who have argued against a military option”.
The CNAS study sets forth four conditions before a military strike either by Israel or the US would be justified, including the exhaustion of all non-military options; a clear move by Iran toward weaponization; a reasonable likelihood that Iran’s nuclear program would be significantly set back; and the existence of a sufficiently large international coalition to help manage the destabilizing consequences of such a strike and to work together in its aftermath to contain Iran and hinder any effort to rebuild its nuclear program.
The study notes that a unilateral Israeli attack in the short term would fail to meet any of those conditions.
“Only the United States – if it had exhausted all other options and faced compelling evidence that Iran was determined to produce a bomb – would have any hope of producing a significant delay in Iran’s nuclear program while holding together the type of coalition required for effective post-strike containment,” according to the report.
Like the RAND study, the CNAS report stresses that prevention rather than containment of an eventual nuclear-armed Iran should be the focus of Washington’s current policy, precisely because of its assessment that Iran would represent a greater threat to US and Israeli interests if it had nuclear weapons.
(Some retired top intelligence officials, notably Paul Pillar, the former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, have questioned this assumption.)
But it also asserts that a containment and deterrence policy toward a nuclear Iran was feasible. “[T]here is a high probability that nuclear deterrence between Israel and Iran would operate much as it did for the superpowers during the Cold War,” it says.
While it would be desirable for Iran to end all enrichment activity, according to the report, such a stance by the P5+1 “would reduce almost to zero the chances of a final agreement acceptable to Iranian leaders. [I]insisting on an optimal deal would likely result in no deal, making either a nuclear-armed Iran or a military confrontation with that country more likely.”
Jim Lobe‘s blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.