For all of their sharp disagreements over the particulars of foreign policy, everyone in Washington seems to agree on one thing — that the overarching objective of American policy toward Iran should be, as President Barack Obama frequently intones, to "prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon."
They've got it wrong. The primary objective of American policy must be a sweeping degradation of Iran's nuclear industrial infrastructure, preferably by diplomatic means, even if the resolute pursuit of this goal provokes Iran into rashly attempting the construction of a bomb — indeed, especially if it does so.
Bear in mind that Iran hasn't been rushing to build a bomb. Rather, it has been working steadily to increase its breakout capacity — the ability to successfully produce a nuclear weapon on short notice, if it made a mad dash to do so. According to the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has accumulated 7,154 kg of under-5% low-enriched uranium (LEU) and 196 kg of near-20% medium enriched uranium (MEU), altogether enough to build six or seven bombs if enriched further to weapons grade (i.e., about 90%). With over 18,000 centrifuges installed at the Natanz and Fordow facilities, Iran's breakout time is currently four to six weeks — which is to say, that is how long it would take to produce a sufficient quantity of weapons grade uranium (WGU) for its first bomb, according to an October 24 report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), plus whatever extra time is needed to construct a serviceable explosive device.
Iran's paramount goal is to inch as close as possible to the finish line without triggering a military response, then reach a permanent settlement with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) that preserves as much of its breakout capacity as possible in exchange for an end to sanctions that have hobbled its economy.
Achieving an internationally-legitimized nuclear threshold status has immense strategic advantages for the Islamic Republic, above and beyond the ability to rapidly weaponize at a few months' notice: Fear of provoking Tehran to cross this final threshold likely will discourage the international community from slapping on future sanctions for sponsoring terrorism, bloody proxy interventions in the region (including Syria), human rights violations, and Iran's various other rogue-state activities. And Iranian threshold status is just as bad as a bomb in instigating a regional nuclear arms race.
Phase one of this strategy had largely run its course by the time Iran began secretly negotiating with Obama administration officials in 2013, and Iran's enrichment efforts had slowed considerably. Moving substantially closer to the nuclear goal line (e.g., by accumulating sufficient MEU to build a bomb without having to enrich LEU all the way up to weapons grade) would have resulted in even more damaging sanctions and risked provoking a war. The Iranians now are ready to stop pushing the envelope because they already are in the position they want.
The Joint Plan of Action (JPA) — the name of the November, 2013 accord that would temporarily freeze Iran's nuclear program — effectively rewards Iran for doing something that was already in its interests. Slightly reducing enriched uranium stockpiles and accepting modestly expanded inspections to verify its "voluntary measures" (as Iranian obligations are described in the text) enable Tehran to park its nuclear progress, eliminate the perceived threat of an imminent breakout, and thereby immunize itself from the threat of Israeli attack while negotiation of a final status agreement drags on, all while enjoying limited sanctions relief and an upfront P5+1 promise to allow a "mutually defined enrichment program."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his fellow P5+1 foreign ministers, as well as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, center, listen as EU High Representative Catherine Ashton speaks at UN Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, after negotiations about Iran's nuclear capabilities on Nov. 24, 2013. (Image source: U.S. State Department)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's frequent admonitions that, absent the JPA, Iran would "rush towards a nuclear weapon" are absurd. Iran won't seriously consider a breakout unless or until its leaders are prepared to absorb Israeli, and possibly American, air strikes and live with a far more debilitating sanctions regime — or until one or both of these threats fade away. Thankfully, we're not there yet.
But if a firm and unyielding international commitment to reduce Iran's breakout capacity happens to increase the possibility of a breakout attempt in the short-term, so be it. We should all be so lucky if Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is foolhardy enough to launch a breakout prematurely and unite the world against his regime. Even if he manages to squeeze a weapon's worth of fissile material out of what's left of Iran's smoldering enrichment facilities, I like the international community's chances of ensuring that it is destroyed or relinquished once the ayatollahs have shown their true colors.
But five years from now, if the JPA forms the basis of a permanent accord, all bets are off. The nightmare scenario isn't that the Iranians rush to weaponize; it is that they are allowed to perch on or near the precipice of doing so until a day when the sanctions are lifted and Western desire for Iranian co-operation in Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories is at a premium.
So enough talk about preventing Iran from building a bomb, a phrase that too easily conjures to mind hypothetical scenarios in which Tehran accepts an enrichment freeze and omniscient inspections regime, while keeping most of its present nuclear infrastructure intact. Averting the construction of a nuke, at the expense of doing little to roll back the threat of a nuclear Iran, virtually guarantees that the mullahs will eventually cross the finish line in force.
Gary Gambill is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.