The Obama administration insists that the pending P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran, now in final negotiations, would not only prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, but avert regional proliferation too. That happy outcome is unlikely, however, because the deal would leave Iran several plausible paths to the bomb, compelling regional rivals to pursue their own nuclear options. Indeed, unless Iran’s program is stopped by military action or regime change, regional nuclear proliferation appears inevitable.
Press leaks indicate that the agreement’s restrictions on Iran would last only 10 years. During that time, Iran could spin up to 6,500 early-generation centrifuges, while developing better ones. A new nuclear reactor in Arak would be completed and start producing plutonium, suitable for a bomb after separation from nuclear waste.
Such a deal would leave Iran three paths to the bomb. First, in a “breakout,” Iran could boot out international inspectors and enrich uranium, or purify plutonium from Arak, to quickly assemble a weapon. The only effective response would be military action during the narrow window of less than a year between Iran kicking out inspectors and producing a nuclear weapon.
Alternatively, in a “sneakout,” Iran could develop better centrifuges in plain sight and then secretly deploy them to a small enrichment plant, sufficient to produce weapons- grade material within months.
The international community would face the daunting challenge of both detecting and halting the facility before Iran got the bomb.
Lastly, after expiration of the agreement, Iran could rapidly expand enrichment. Indeed, Tehran has announced plans to build more than a 100,000 centrifuges.
Such a capacity would enable Iran to enrich enough uranium for a bomb in mere days, faster than anyone could detect, let alone stop.
If the pending deal is finalized, Iran’s neighborhood rivals would thus feel compelled to pursue their own nuclear programs for deterrent purposes. They could not trust that, if Iran were detected attempting a breakout, Washington would use force to stop it, considering how the Obama administration has repeatedly belittled the military option.
They also realize that by permitting Iran to develop advanced centrifuges, the deal would make it ever harder to detect clandestine enrichment.
Finally, they know that after expiration of the deal, the only hope of preventing Iranian proliferation would be if Tehran itself chose not to acquire nuclear weapons – hardly a safe bet.
For these reasons, several of Iran’s neighbors are already accelerating nuclear-weapons options under the cover of civilian energy programs.
These include Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Algeria and Egypt. Three more Arab states – Morocco, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates – also have nuclear energy programs that eventually could provide the technology and expertise for proliferation. Jordan has ample uranium to fuel these programs.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty cannot prevent these neighboring countries from acquiring the bomb. Indeed, they could simply follow North Korea’s example: acquire the nuclear technology legally under the treaty, then quit it and build weapons. Or they could mimic the strategy of Iraq and Iran: reveal peaceful facilities to international inspectors, while hiding parallel military programs.
Washington could try to deter proliferation by offering a nuclear umbrella of extended deterrence to its allies in the Middle East, as it does for Europe and East Asia. But in a crisis, no one has faith that the United States would be willing to trade, for example, New York for Riyadh.
Iran’s neighbors therefore will insist on “primary deterrence” – their own nuclear arsenals. Such proliferation would greatly increase the chances of nuclear weapons actually being used in the Middle East – through miscalculation, accident, extremism, or terrorism.
To avert this perilous scenario, the optimal approach would be military coercion. Unless Iran agreed to shrink its nuclear program to a token, a bombing campaign could be repeated as many times as necessary to prevent Iranian production of sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Regrettably, neither Israel nor the US currently has the political will for such coercion.
The only other way to prevent regional nuclear proliferation would be to achieve regime change in Iran prior to its acquiring nuclear weapons.
In this respect, the P5+1 deal is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it could delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, thereby providing more time for regime change. But by removing sanctions, it would reward the existing regime, making it harder to change.
The P5+1 agreement is thus a fool’s bargain, unless complemented by substantially escalated international efforts to promote regime change in Tehran. We must be honest: the pending deal cannot, and will not, prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In light of the Obama administration’s commitment to finalizing the agreement, the only realistic hope is regime change, so that by the time Iran could produce nuclear weapons, its leaders will have decided not to.The author is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs of the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (www.NPPP.org). This article is adapted from his chapter in “Iran-The Day After Simulation: Geo Political Implications,” recently published by the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Inter-Disciplinary Center Herzliya.