How to live with the Iranian bomb

America must prepare for a nuclear Iran. It might even benefit from it
June 30, 2010
The Bushehr nuclear power plant: Iran could now upgrade enough uranium for at least two nuclear weapons

On 9th June the UN imposed tough new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme, pushed through after a seeming change of heart from President Obama. The president has, until now, followed the most dovish approach to Iran since Jimmy Carter. His change in attitude is a reaction to the failures of diplomacy. Yet behind the scenes, as Iranian nuclear progress continues, diplomats’ thoughts are turning to a new era of containment. And a provocative question must now be asked: will a nuclear Iran be such a bad thing for America?

Back in May, Brazil and Turkey brokered a deal with Iran in which it agreed to export roughly half of its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium—potential raw material for a nuclear bomb—in return for an equivalent amount of nuclear fuel. This was the biggest diplomatic “breakthrough” in six years. Yet the following month, the international community imposed sanctions that represent the most robust attack on Iran’s nuclear ambitions to date. So what happened?

Growing exasperation is partly to blame. Just two months after his inauguration, in March 2009, Obama broke with his predecessor’s sledgehammer diplomacy, offering dialogue to Iran’s people via a video message. But Iran’s response was to continue enrichment. Any hope that the uproar following the country’s 2009 presidential elections would make the regime more flexible also proved wrong.

In July 2009, perhaps sensing that diplomacy was slowing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised a US nuclear umbrella to its middle east allies if the Islamic Republic got the bomb. Still nothing. Iran’s announcement in September of a previously secret enrichment plant swelled international fears; its stonewalling at the G20 summit later the same month did little to alleviate them. Frustration only intensified as Iran seemingly backtracked on a promise, made at a major October 2009 meeting in Geneva, to send its uranium abroad for enrichment. In the end, Washington simply got fed up.

At the heart of the dispute is Iran’s fuel plant at Natanz. Its stated purpose is to enrich uranium to “civilian levels” of around 5 per cent to fuel nuclear reactors for generating electricity. But Iran has no such reactors. One is under construction, but this is being built and supplied by Russia. Iran claims fuel from Natanz is for a future reactor, but this would take ten years to build. Most countries build reactors, then produce the fuel. Others just buy it. So for eight years Iran has been producing fuel for a reactor that doesn’t exist. Iran’s programme is, in the words of one analyst I spoke with recently, “backasswards.”

There is, of course, another reason for an enrichment programme: building a nuclear bomb. For this Iran must enrich uranium to levels of above 80 per cent. According to a May report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), it has already produced 2,427kg of low-enriched uranium—enough for at least two nuclear weapons, if suitably upgraded. It now produces 120kg more every month—so while Iran’s deal with Brazil and Turkey committed it to sending 1,200kg abroad, that could be replenished in ten months.

Such figures mattered less before Iran’s decision, announced in February, to begin enriching uranium to 20 per cent. The move alarmed not just the US but also Iran’s traditional allies, China and Russia. Iran claims this will fuel a research reactor in Tehran, producing radioisotopes for medical purposes. The Turkey deal allowed Iran to have 20 per cent enriched nuclear fuel: no need to continue enriching beyond 20 per cent, then. But immediately after the deal was signed, Iran announced it would press on. It was the last straw. Sanctions followed.

Iran’s response has been predictably histrionic, with its president’s demagoguery in full flow. One of those preposterous leaders that history produces from time to time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad physically embodies the narrative of a rogue Iran. But he is not stupid; at least not politically. Until last year’s elections unleashed mass unrest, he had cleverly turned international concern over the nuclear programme into a matter of national pride. He has dismissed the latest sanctions as a “used handkerchief” fit for the dustbin. And well he might, because they do not attack Iran’s primary source of revenue: oil. China and Russia would not permit it. As long as this is the case, Tehran is confident it can withstand the pressure.

Obama says the door remains open for dialogue, but he is aware that in the background are the Israelis. Publicly, Tel Aviv supports diplomacy. Privately, Israelis tell me it won’t work. Israel has the option of military action. But Iran’s nuclear facilities are spread across the country, deep underground and heavily protected, making air strikes difficult. Last year, Israel sent submarines through the Suez Canal, in what was interpreted as a warning that it could rise from the depths and launch missiles against nuclear sites. But the risk of such operations remains high—with US troops and Iraq liable to suffer retaliation—and the chance of hitting the targets low. Unless sanctions are extended to oil, or there is regime change, Iran will continue enriching. The government, and Ahmadinejad himself, has invested too much political capital to stop.

So as détente is seen to be failing, and military attacks appear unworkable, senior diplomats are starting to talk about a changing game. It may be time to think about the hitherto unthinkable: how to deal with a nuclear Iran. While Washington may be horrified at the prospect, it may not be as bad an option as it first appears.

Consider an altered middle east, with a nuclear Iran. We can immediately disabuse ourselves of the notion that the mullahs would nuke Tel Aviv. The regime is programmed to do one thing above all else—survive—and attacking Israel would be suicide. Meanwhile Israel would have lost its own nuclear monopoly, causing its reliance on the US to grow: it would need protection against an enemy that now equalled it militarily, and far outstripped it in size and population. The quid pro quo for such support could allow Obama to exercise more control over a country that has increasingly posed problems for US middle eastern policy, perhaps even opening a window for a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, a nuclear Iran might be a boon for US influence. The Gulf monarchies in particular, always terrified of Iranian ambitions, would scurry further beneath America’s skirts.

Perhaps most importantly, it is even conceivable that US-Iranian relations could improve. It is hard, after all, to see how they could get worse. A nuclear Iran would be no physical threat to Washington, given it does not have inter-continental missile systems. Instead, the change would be political. Iran, like an adolescent male, is driven by insecurity. Its combination of a sense of victimhood and perceived regional superiority creates great instability in its international relations. But by acquiring nuclear capability, Iran would gain what it perceives as its rightful place at the top table. If the US played it correctly—entering into talks with Iran, giving it a say on regional matters, in essence giving it its “due”—it might even find a more amenable Iran; one that felt it could look Washington in the eye. It would expect to be left alone to pursue its regional ambitions (not a pleasant thought for its neighbours) and Washington would be more inclined to let it.

Make no mistake: a nuclear Iran would be highly undesirable. It would irretrievably alter the geostrategic landscape of the middle east—for the worse. But in the cold light of old-fashioned US realism, there might be a few wry smiles from some old warhorses in the state department. As they say: the future is not what it used to be.