Is Iran developing a nuclear weapons program? If so, should they be allowed to do so? If not, what is the best strategy to prevent them from doing so? The debate reaches from the capitals of Europe and the regional nations in the Middle East, to the halls of Congress and the Republican presidential primaries. If indeed Iran is pursuing such a policy and continues their defiance of international attempts to terminate it diplomatically, there is no “good” solution to the problem.
If history offers any lessons, North Korea's nuclear weapons program and the international response does not promise a positive outcome, and the mullahs in Iran are sure to have studied it.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into effect in 1970 in recognition of the catastrophic potential of nuclear weapons in the hands of multiple states. The danger was especially critical in authoritarian and radical governments. Essentially, the NPT divided the world into two classes of nations, existing nuclear weapons states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) and attempted to make this division permanent. Currently there are four nuclear armed states that are not signatories of the Treaty (Israel, India, Pakistan and N. Korea). North Korea was originally a signatory but withdrew.
The supervising authority of the NPT is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN affiliated agency. U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe that the Islamic Republic of Iran is in the process of enriching uranium for the purposes of developing a nuclear weapon in violation of their commitment, as a member of the NPT.
In 1985, North Korea joined the NPT but did not complete the required “Safeguards Agreement” with the IAEA which would have provided for reporting and inspections relevant to nuclear facilities. It would not do so until 1992. In 1986 North Korea started operation of a five megawatt nuclear reactor at Yongbyon which had been constructed with help from the Soviet Union. In February, 1993 the IAEA demanded special inspections based on intelligence that N. Korea had been violating the terms of the NPT. The demand was rejected and a month later N. Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT. Thus began a long strategy of delays built around concessions based on proposed “negotiations”, and back tracking, all designed to keep the international community at bay while nuclear fuel enrichment for weapons grade material proceeded.
Thus in July 1993, N. Korea changed its mind on NPT withdrawal and agreed to negotiate compliance with IAEA safeguards. In January, 1994 the CIA estimated that N. Korea may have already produced one or two nuclear weapons. In February, 1994 N. Korea completed an agreement with the IAEA to allow inspections but when the inspectors arrived in March, the were refused access to the Yongbyon reactor.
Weapons grade material and nuclear weapons having already been created, the international negotiations now turned towards the goal of “freezing” N. Korea's nuclear weapons program. North Korea in turn, used this new profile to extract promises of annual oil shipments and “light water” nuclear reactors for electricity generation which are not capable of weapons grade fuel enrichment.
From 1996 to 2003 the issue and negotiations again changed emphasis to N. Korea's strategic missile program which would provide a means for long range delivery of their nuclear weapons. During this period, the U.S. imposed numerous economic sanctions on N. Korea for violation of agreements regarding missile development and technology transfers including transfers to Iran in 2001.
In October, of 2002, N. Korea admitted that it had a secret program for the enrichment of uranium for nuclear weapons in violation of numerous agreements and the NPT and in January, 2003 N. Korea announced that it was withdrawing from the NPT.
Starting in August, 2003, “diplomacy” in the form of “Six Party Talks” (N. Korea, U.S., China, S. Korea, Japan and Russia) commenced in an effort to eliminate N. Korea's nuclear arms and missile programs. These talks continued through five rounds to November, 2005. In July, 2006 N. Korea test fired seven ballistic missiles and in October, 2006 conducted an underground nuclear test explosion.
Since then, the diplomatic process has been a long series of demands, agreements, UN Security Council resolutions, more Six Party negotiations, all leading essentially no where. North Korea has its nuclear weapons, its nuclear fuel enrichment facilities, and its long range ballistic missiles.
In 2003 Iran began talks with the IAEA and British, French and German foreign ministers on nuclear facility inspections. The Iranian government agreed to suspend work on uranium enrichment and allow follow-up inspections.
In 2004 Iran agreed to halt uranium enrichment but in August of 2005 resumed that process.
In December, 2006 the UN Security Council imposed the first of a series of escalating economic sanctions on Iran's trade in sensitive nuclear materials and technology.
In April, 2009, Iran opened its first nuclear fuel plant, and says it installed 7,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges at its Natanz facility and in September announced that it had a secret uranium enrichment plant.
Iran has consistently claimed that its nuclear development program is for the production of domestic electricity. If true, the entire crisis could be resolved by the admittance of IAEA inspectors to all nuclear facilities but this has been denied. Throughout the diplomatic process, Iran has rejected, stalled, then been “willing to “talk”, about such things as nuclear fuel exchanges and enriching its fuel outside of the country, all the while proceeding with its nuclear fuel program, including building a third enrichment plant. The international response, like that with towards North Korea, has been slow escalation of economic sanctions and the willingness to conduct endless “talks”, in pursuit of the so called “diplomatic approach”.
In the mean time Israel has made public its belief that because of Iran's process of “hardening” its nuclear sites by burying them in concrete bunkers, the “window of opportunity” to carry out a substantive strike against these facilities is rapidly closing. Israel, asserting an existential threat by a rogue nation whose leaders have expressed the wish to destroy them, is specifically unwilling to allow Iran to complete the North Korean model. Western governments have urged restraint on Israel's part based on their public belief that economic sanctions might still cause Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. This belief should be tested in the next few months. The European Union has declared a boycott of Iranian oil sales to begin this summer. A move to drastically restrict Iran's ability to conduct international financial transactions through the primary international payment order clearing house, the Society for Worldwide International Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), could be the most severe sanction yet. However, if these acts do not bring about significant and rapid progress in negotiations, the impetus for a military strike will be significantly strengthened.
Such a strike presents a number of problems. First, the ability of the Israeli air force to carry out a strike without U.S. support is questionable. Israel lacks heavy bombers and large “bunker buster” deep penetration munitions. The long distances flown would require mid-air refueling, of which Israel has limited capability. A large percentage of the entire Israeli air force would be required as an initial strike against Iranian air defenses would be required to insure that the bomb carrying aircraft could make it to their targets. Another fighter component would be required to protect the bomb laden aircraft from Iranian interceptors.
The international and domestic U.S. political component is huge. President Obama does not want to have to face the decision to support or deny support for an Israeli strike before the November, 2012 presidential election, or in reality, ever. Either a denial of support, contributing to a failure or only partial success, or strong support resulting in significant Iranian retaliation against U.S. allies, ships or installations, would both entail significant political costs. Iranian threats to close the vital oil transit point in the Straits oF Hormuz, if realized would cause a dramatic spike in world oil prices and further involve U.S. naval forces in another Middle Eastern conflict.
Failure to act, resulting in a nuclear test explosion on Iran's part some time in the future would also be seriously damaging but would likely occur well after the presidential election.
There are those who claim the best strategy is to allow Iran to acquire nuclear arms and then apply a Cold War type strategy of deterrence to insure that Iran's nuclear weapons are never used. This is a weak argument since it would only solves the problem of potential Iranian nuclear attacks on other nuclear armed states, or those under the protective nuclear umbrella of a nuclear state. Iran has regional ambitions and by becoming a NWS it would effectively be immune from a conventional response to any aggressive move in the region. Who would deter the threat of nuclear weapons by Iran against such states as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates or Kuwait. No U.S. president is likely to make a credible public claim of using nuclear weapons in defense of such countries.
Deterrence only works if there is rough equivalency. Thus in the Cold War stand off between the U.S. and USSR, perceived numerical advantages between one or the other resulted in a sustained nuclear arms race. A nuclear armed Iran would possibly, if not likely, stimulate such an arms race in the region, which would exacerbate the dangers of both nuclear exchanges through miscalculation and access to nuclear weapons by terrorists.
Such an outcome makes the risks of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities seem more plausible, but the unknowns with respect to outcomes, and Iran's response, affirm the belief that there is no “good” solution to this problem and the “North Korean model” is likely to be followed.