President Obama has repeatedly declared that his policy is preventing Iran from producing a nuclear weapon. A new report by a former Obama Pentagon official, to be released Monday by the Center for New American Security, argues prevention should be the US policy, but that the United States needs to develop a containment strategy if prevention fails.
Among the key points the report makes is that resort to force in the event diplomacy is deemed to fail could itself trigger Iran’s determination to produce a nuclear weapon—a decision that the US intelligence community this year assessed Iran’s leadership had not yet made.
“Even an operationally effective strike would not, in and of itself, permanently end Iran’s program,” the report’s lead author, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl, told Al-Monitor in an interview Saturday. “A strike might substantially degrade Iran’s near-term capability to produce nuclear weapons, but it would almost certainly increase Tehran’s motivation to eventually acquire nuclear weapons to deter future attacks.”
Iran might respond to an attack by leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and substantially decreasing cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. “Such a move would complicate the international community’s ability to detect Iran’s efforts to rebuild its program,” Kahl said.
For these reasons, Kahl argues, force should only be used if other options for halting Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions fail, if there is clear evidence that Iran is moving toward a bomb, and if every effort has been made to build international support for military action by seeking a diplomatic solution.
Outlining a Plan B containment strategy in the event prevention fails is not without political risks, however, Kahl acknowledged, while emphasizing he is no longer a member of the Obama administration. (Kahl, who served as DASD for the Middle East from 2009 until 2011, is now a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at CNAS. He co-authored the new report If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear Armed Iran, with Georgetown graduate student Raj Pattani and CNAS researcher Jacob Stokes.) But the strategic risks of failing to prepare contingency plans would be more dangerous, Kahl said.
“If the administration were seen to be exploring a Plan B in the event that prevention fails, it might create the false impression that they were secretly planning to ‘accept’ a nuclear-armed Iran,” Kahl said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
“At the same time, there are also substantial risks associated with sticking our collective heads in the sand,” he continued. “The failure to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would be bad, but the failure to be prepared for that possibility would be even worse.”
“One of the most important roles a think tank can play is to ask the questions that cannot be asked inside the government,” Kahl said. “I believe, in general, that it is important to plan for the things we don’t want to happen, not just the outcomes we desire.”
Asked to explain why the new report is not in essence arguing the US can live with a nuclear Iran, Kahl responded: “‘Live with’ makes it sound like it would be ‘no big deal’ to simply accommodate a nuclear-armed Iran. That is not the right way to think about it, and it is definitely not what the report argues.”
“The emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran would further destabilize an already turbulent and conflict-prone Middle East, and it would raise the specter of a regional nuclear war–a risk that does not exist today,” Kahl said. “The report concludes that a robust containment strategy might be able to manage and mitigate many of these dangers. But we also conclude that it would be extraordinarily complex, costly, and far from foolproof–and the consequences associated with even a small risk that containment fails would be grave.”
Moreover, Kahl said, pursuing containment would force the United States to indefinitely double down on its security commitments to the Middle East, making it more difficult to “re-balance” U.S. foreign policy toward Asia and, by reinforcing ties with some of the least democratic governments in the region, could complicate the American response to the Arab Spring. Containment would also increase the role of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence in U.S. national security strategy at the very moment when the Obama administration hopes to go in the opposite direction, he said.
“For all these reasons, a commitment to using all instruments of national power, including the possible use of military force, to prevent–rather than contain–a nuclear-armed Iran is the right policy,” Kahl said. “We need to plan for containment if prevention fails, but no one should confuse this with an argument for pursuing containment if we can avoid it.”