Small Wars Journal

Iran is Not the Problem, Wider Proliferation Is

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Iran is Not the Problem, Wider Proliferation Is

Brian C. Collins

Last month Iranian President Hasan Rouhani commenced an international charm offensive by writing in The Washington Post that "I urge [my counterparts] to make the most of the mandate for prudent engagement that my people have given me and to respond genuinely to my government's efforts to engage in constructive dialogue."  This occasion once again affords the opportunity to advance discourse in the West regarding what has largely been perceived as an intractable problem--Iran's steady march toward full nuclear capability.

In September of last year, US Senate Resolution 41 passed by a vote of 90-1.  Titled Expressing the sense of Congress regarding the nuclear program of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, this resolution articulates in part that the Senate “rejects any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran; and joins the President in ruling out any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.”  The implication is that Iran must be prevented from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability at nearly any cost.  Unfortunately, the manner this and similar language frames the discussion is potentially counterproductive. It is not Iran that is a threat to the interests of concerned states.  Nor, in the absence of intent, would Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons necessarily lead to catastrophe.  Rather, the threats associated with the Iranian nuclear program are the consequences further proliferation of nuclear weapons technology and capability would have regionally.  To mitigate these consequences a threefold adjustment in policy are worth consideration.  First, an Iranian nuclear program in some self-sustaining form should at least be tacitly accepted. Second, actions should be more appropriately focused on larger proliferation concerns and, third, there should be recognition that military intervention would be detrimental to achieving greater priorities.

Just as Iran began signalling its willingness to rejoin nuclear negotiations recently, 131 members of the US House of Representatives signed what is being called the Dent-Price letter. This letter to the Obama administration states that "it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rouhani's election represents a real opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement."  Unfortunately and as well-intentioned as this sentiment may be, the reality is that the prospect of Iran outright abandoning its nuclear program is poor.  In Tehran’s view, there is no motivation to halt the progress made to date and efforts to convince them otherwise simply have not, and probably will not, work.  Rouhani’s recent elevation is unlikely to change this calculus. 

Clearly the incentive structure--existing and foreseeable--is in Iran’s favor.  The sanctions regime so far enacted by the international community has been ineffective in motivating an immediate cessation of nuclear activities.  For understandable reasons both practical and political, crippling measures of the scope and scale necessary to coerce the Iranian regime have not been implemented.  And not only is the efficacy of sanctions in doubt, but recent history is on the side of the Iranians as well. 

History's lessons of poor accountability within current international inspection protocols  reinforce Tehran’s position.  International governance structures have thus far failed to frustrate North Korea's ability to use its own nuclear program as effective leverage, so why should Iran agree to pre-conditions and halt enrichment?  From the Tehran perspective, they absolutely shouldn’t.

This very perspective is one reason why talk of halting Iran's enrichment program, to include through the use of military force, runs the risk of becoming a debilitating distraction.  The international community should be brutally honest regarding the future.  This future likely includes an Iran that has a declared nuclear weapons program or, at a minimum, possesses the breakout capability to begin nuclear weapons production on short notice.  Preparations should begin in earnest now for the day Iran achieves this threshold.  A good start would be to address the issues associated with proliferation specifically, rather than getting mired in a will they/won’t they morass.

One danger of increased proliferation could well be the commencement of an accelerated race to go nuclear across the Middle East.  Iran is already perceived to be a threat to many other regional actors and it would be reasonable to assume that, should Tehran gain a nuclear capability, neighbors will want one as well.  The Saudis, Emiratis, and Jordanians will undoubtedly be first in line.  Diplomatically it would be prudent to begin honest discussions of security guarantees (or lack thereof).

Even with steadfast guarantees, the threatening image projected by Iran could also result in the hardening of alliances.  These alliances would likely become more openly hostile and confrontational.  Such shifts would only be compounded by the tremendous social and political upheavals the region is currently experiencing.  The states of the so-called Shia crescent could bandwagon with an ascendant Iran, forcing a stand-off between Iran, Iraq, and what's left of Syria on the one side, and the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan on the other.  With each bloc in greater competition with one another and willing to take increasingly provocative actions in defense of their interests, open conflict may ensue.  An aspect of positive engagement includes the provision of a meaningful presence, both physical and virtual, to moderate potential behavior and prepare for contingency.

Another aspect to maintaining regional stability remains the effective management of the competition between Israel and those states seeking to constrain its aspirations of survival and growth.  Here, Israel’s maintenance of a qualitative military edge has been vital to preserving even the slightest modicum of peace.  Israelis increasingly view themselves as being held hostage by the specter of annihilation, and a strong physical deterrent has done much practically and psychologically to ameliorate attendant fears. A third consequence of proliferation, therefore, is that the Israeli advantage would, if not in real terms but in perceived terms, be threatened should nuclear weapons technologies and capabilities spread throughout the greater Middle East.  Again, the building of assurances and trust to allay Israeli fears of abandonment should begin.

Perhaps the greatest fear, however, is a fourth potential consequence of an Iranian capability; the increased chance for proxy conflict.  The Iranian regime already possesses a capable network of surrogates ranging from those available through their own government resources within the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and Quds force, to vassals such as Hezbollah and Hamas.  Balanced against the Iranians would be the instruments of opposing states.  Proxies unleashed upon one another, even if limited, could be incredibly de-stabilizing.  Add to the mix the potential nightmare of uncontrolled transfer of advanced technology to other revisionist third parties--state, non-state, and quasi-state--and a potentially lethal mix of conditions results.  Under these circumstances, a regional issue could quickly escalate to one of global proportion.  Capabilities must be developed to detect, deter, disrupt, and defeat any organization seeking to engage in incredibly dangerous acts of nuclear terror.

Though these dangers are real, preventive military action targeting physical infrastructure associated with Iran’s nuclear program cannot be discussed without acknowledgement of some very serious considerations.  For one, limited action is likely only to delay Iran’s program, and the costs of total war with Iran would be massive, assuming an appetite for such a commitment were to exist.  Indeed, such actions would undoubtedly embolden Iranian efforts and alienate an indigenous population that by-and-large does not reflect the same aggressive attitudes of the political and theological minorities.  As well, in retaliation the Iranians can be expected to take unconstrained asymmetric actions worldwide against its enemies.  See the preceding paragraph for what that may mean.

Further, Iran remains undeterred by the fact that the threat of military action is more than a mere academic exercise.  It has witnessed the Israelis take the same offensive action being presently considered against Iraqi facilities at Osirak and a suspected Syrian site more recently.  Yet, the Iranian nuclear program continues unabated.  Iran knows action may be taken against it and that it is likely to be relatively restrained if precedence is any indication, but proceeds regardless.  Preventive military action would do little good at best, and at worst represent a colossal waste of effort and cache.

Preventive military action would also do little good, as it would alienate the large global consensus that views the current Iranian regime with contempt.  Without this consensus, erecting an effective counter-proliferation apparatus would prove exponentially more difficult.  No single state can adequately address the challenges presented alone.  It will take a willing team.

In sum and while an uncomfortable reality, the international community should recognize the limits of what is possible or supportable and move forward with greater urgency toward addressing over-the-horizon concerns.  So while calls to halt the Iranian program altogether through various means grow louder, it is prudent to actually turn attention toward disproving through action the assumption that nuclear technologies and capabilities will in fact proliferate with significant malign effects. 

If the international community were to accept the near-inevitability that Iran will acquire a nuclear weapons capability, the primary responsibility should be to begin the systematic establishment of a cross-functional, regional network for the purpose of significantly reducing the risk of wider proliferation.  This will require substantial commitment and concerted effort.  It means containing the activity of wider proliferation, not the country of Iran.  If the current discussion prevails, the time, resources, and energies required to successfully navigate proliferation's dangerous course may not materialize.

About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Brian C. Collins is a USMC Infantry and Middle East/North Africa Regional Affairs Officer currently assigned to Headquarters, Marine Corps.  The views reflected are his own.