"Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch," says Joe Biden often and unconvincingly. He said it to Israeli prime ministers Bennett in 2021 and Lapid in 2022. He has even threatened to use military force "as a last resort." A cynic would suggest that Biden's attempt to forge another Obama-like "nuclear deal" is designed to ensure that Iran gets a nuclear weapon on the next president's watch. A pessimist believes it's too late.
As a pessimist by nature, I'm afraid that the window of opportunity to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb has closed. Iran is already a nuclear power, and decades of dithering, cajoling, and appeasing by past U.S. administrations from Clinton to Biden (especially Obama) have given it the time and political cover to build several nuclear bombs. Even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) now estimates that Iran is only several weeks away from having "the approximate amount of nuclear material for . . . manufacturing a nuclear explosive device," which, given the IAEA's spotty record, probably means that threshold was crossed months if not years ago.
The debate over Iran's secretive and illegal nuclear program has always pitted optimists against pessimists.
Optimists emphasize the obstacles Iran has faced conducting secret research and assembling the equipment necessary to produce weapons-grade uranium all under the watchful eye of the "International Community™" and under perpetual threat from Israel's Mossad. They also often point out the difficulty of developing an ICBM capable of delivering nuclear payloads.
Pessimists emphasize uncertainty, insisting that the International Community's eye isn't all that watchful. They counter that there are more ways to deploy a nuclear bomb than by ICBM, and they remind optimists that inspectors were surprised in 1991 at discovering how far along Saddam's nuclear program had progressed, and again in 2003 when Moammar Qaddafi surprised the world by giving up his chemical and nuclear-weapons programs, which had gone largely undetected.
When it came to Iran, the late Bernard Lewis was a pessimist. In the documentary The Third Jihad (2008), Lewis said, "We don't know whether Iran has nuclear weapons, but they're certainly making every effort to acquire them, and my guess is that they already have some already or will have them in a very short time." Lewis emphasized that a nuclear Iran could not be contained as the Soviet Union was. In 2011, he told Bari Weiss that the "apocalyptic mindset" of Khomeinism changes the equation because, to Iran, "mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent — it's an inducement." Lewis was referring to what Daniel Pipes calls the "mystical menace" of Mahdaviat — the efforts "to lay the foundation for the return of the Mahdi," the "rightly guided one" who will rule before the end of time, according to the millenarian beliefs of Shia Islam.
Optimists assure pessimists that Mossad won't let Iran build a nuclear bomb, that Israel prevented both Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 from becoming nuclear powers. They point to successful sabotage of Iran's nuclear infrastructure and to assassinations of its scientists. In turn, pessimists point out that Iran's multifaceted nuclear program is dug in and spread out across the nation. One can acknowledge that Mossad is the best at what it does but still worry about the Fordows we don't know about.
The debate brings up an interesting question: How will we know when Iran has become the tenth member of the "nuclear club"?
After decades of Iran's denying that it was interested in making nuclear weapons — it even produced a phony fatwa allegedly outlawing them — an actual detonation of a nuclear bomb in Iran, deep within a mountain or out in the open, would mark a strategic shift from Tehran's usual pretense that it is always innocent, even of the violence carried out by its proxies. It would also bring the possibility of an immediate Israeli strike.
The most feared "test" would involve a hand-off to Hezbollah, the IRGC, or even Iran's sometime ally al-Qaeda. A small bomb either smuggled through the southern U.S. border or detonated one mile into international waters off the U.S. coast would allow Iran to deny responsibility.
The canniest option would be a test in North Korea, Iran's nuclear partner. The watchdog group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) has documented in detail the connections and cooperation between the two programs.
Iran seems to be emulating North Korea's path to the nuclear bomb by stalling agreements through protracted negotiations and then reneging on its obligations. After agreeing to close its plutonium-production program under the 1994 Agreed Framework, North Korea continued clandestine production of uranium and surprised the world by detonating its first nuclear bomb in 2006. After four more successful tests, Barack Obama impotently declared in 2016, "To be clear, the United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state."
Getting an Iranian nuclear bomb to North Korea poses problems but not insurmountable ones. China imports Iranian oil through a series of "teapot" petrochemical refiners, any one of which could receive and then hand off a device to North Korea as it delivers refined products. And since North Korea does not abide by sanctions against Iranian oil, Tehran's nuclear device could even be put aboard an oil tanker and shipped directly to North Korea.
If North Korea is willing to sell munitions to Russia to use in Ukraine, there's little reason to believe that it would balk at hosting an Iranian nuclear test. In fact, a former head of Iran's nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Mahabadi, was photographed with other Iranian scientists in North Korea at a nuclear test in 2013. Perhaps they were there to test the Iranian bomb.
As John Bolton wrote in 2017, "If Tehran's long collusion with Pyongyang on ballistic missiles is even partly mirrored in the nuclear field, the Iranian threat is nearly as imminent as North Korea's." That threat becomes more imminent every day the Biden administration obsequiously courts Tehran, desperately trying to reach an agreement.
It's tempting to liken a Biden "Iranian nuclear deal" to closing the barn door after the horses have already escaped, but Biden isn't even trying to close the barn door. If he gets his way, JCPOA.2 will compensate the Islamic Republic with cash, lift sanctions, and, like Obama's "Iranian nuclear deal," launder an illegal nuclear program into a legal one. It will also tie the next president's hands by ensuring that the mullahs' nuclear horses are never put back in the barn.
If we pessimists are correct, it's too late to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, but it might not be too late to do something about it. As long as Iran has not demonstrated its capabilities, efforts to destabilize its nuclear capabilities are not futile, but a successful Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is probably the world's only hope as long as Joe Biden is president.
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsberg-Milstein fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.