In his speech to Congress on March 3 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented a straightforward, simple, and extreme position on Iran’s nuclear program: there is to be none, or else there should be war. He does not want that program kept limited to civilian purposes, or internationally supervised; he wants it eliminated totally, permanently, unconditionally.
Netanyahu claimed that Iran wants to destroy Israel and the Jewish people, and called on Congress to help him stop Iran’s “march of conquest, subjugation, and terror.” All those seeking an agreement with Tehran were naïve or foolish. Iran “will always be an enemy of America,” he said. “Don’t be fooled.” Netanyahu was scathing about the strategy pursued by the Obama Administration and other four members of the Security Council plus Germany: “That deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons; it will all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons.” He claimed that no agreement could be effectively monitored: “Iran has proved time and time again it cannot be trusted.”
Netanyahu said that the alternative to the current deal is not war but a “much better deal.” He is being disingenuous. The “deal” he promotes would entail Iran’s abject and humiliating surrender on each and every issue. It would have to accept that it will never enrich any uranium to any percentage or generate electricity from nuclear power; it would have to agree to dismantle all of its nuclear facilities, including the uranium enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordo and the heavy-water reactor at Arak; it would need to close all uranium ore mines and scientific laboratories. Of course that will not happen.
Netanyahu’s performance on Capitol Hill was breathtakingly audacious and his position is deemed controversial even in Israel. As nuclear program historian Avner Cohen and others have noted, the current deal-in-the-making is “reasonable.” It would leave Iran unable to break out to a nuclear weapon in less than a couple of years, giving the U.S. and others plenty of time to react. The number of centrifuges eventually will be greatly reduced, and the stockpile of enriched uranium shipped to Russia or kept lower than the minimum required for a single weapon. The development of an effective international inspection regime is a technical, not a political issue.
Netanyahu does not want any of that. He wants the United States to attack Iran, rather than allow even a limited nuclear program. That is the essence of his disagreement with the Administration. As a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (which Israel, India and Pakistan never signed) Iran insists that signatories have a “right to enrich,” and the Obama administration has implicitly accepted the validity of that claim. The key, according to Secretary of State John Kerry, was “intrusive inspections” ensuring “that the program is, in fact, peaceful.”
Sooner or later Iran will accept the supervision of its nuclear activities in return for the lifting of sanctions. It is of course possible that the Iranians would like to continue a clandestine high-grade enrichment program, but they would be unlikely to succeed with the attention of all key intelligence agencies in the world focused on their activities. In addition to the bomb, they would need to build a reliable delivery vehicle. Its development would be even more difficult to conceal, and the consequences would be equally severe. On the other hand, the prospect of having sanctions lifted is enticing. All regimes place self-preservation at the top of their priorities, and the stability of the government in Teheran may be severely undermined if the sanctions remain in place.
Fifteen months later, I stand by my November 2013 assessment that it is in the American interest to encourage the development of a regional balance-of-power system in the Middle East, whereby Persians and Arabs, Sunnis and Shi’ites, would keep each other in check: “That system requires Iran’s participation as an equal player. In the final settlement Iran’s demand that it should not be prevented from the legal use of nuclear technology for electricity generation and other peaceful purposes is likely to be accepted by the 5+1. Iran will remain only theoretically nuclear-capable, within an international supervision regime designed to prevent any sudden breakthrough.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu would like America to enter a risky, costly and bloody imbroglio for the sake of his peculiar perception of Israel’s strategic interests; at the same time he is loath to act unilaterally to alter that outcome. The Administration should remain steadfast in rejecting his preferred option.
Even if at some future date Iran does develop a nuclear weapon that would not be the end of the world. The United States, Russia (previously the USSR), China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan, and Israel have possessed nuclear weapons for decades. None of them has ever been able to change the status quo in its favor by threatening to use the bomb, let alone by using it. The possession of nuclear weapons by one of the parties did not impact the outcome in Korea in 1953, or Suez in 1956, or prevent the two superpowers’ defeats, in Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively. It makes no difference to China’s stalled efforts to bring Taiwan under its control. South Africa had developed its own nuclear arsenal in the 1980s—it has been dismantled since—but this did not enhance its government’s ability to resist the winds of change in the early 1990’s. Ever since 1945, the political effect of a country’s possession of nuclear weapons has been to force its potential adversaries to exercise caution and to freeze the existing frontiers. There is no reason to think that Iran would be an exception to the rule.
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