Will Iran Get a Bomb—or Be Bombed Itself—This Year?

7. Why then is it hard to reach an agreement?

Failure has been more a function of confusion and division within the parties than between them. In my course at Harvard, I try to help students understand that making one agreement in international relations requires three deals: first a deal within party A; then a deal within party B; and then sufficient overlap between each party's minimum requirements that diplomacy can reach agreement. When Iran was motivated to offer terms that the U.S. should have found acceptable in 2003-2004, the U.S. was unwilling to accept them. When the U.S. was prepared to make a deal in 2009, Iran was too divided to accept it.

The outcome of Iran's June election presents a new window of opportunity. Even in the constrained, semi-democratic Iranian political system, the population's decisive preference for a new approach was clear. President-elect Rouhani has stated clearly that, while "extremists on both sides are determined to maintain the state of hostility and hatred between the two states, logic says that there should be a change of direction in order to turn a new page in this unstable relationship and minimize the state of hostility and mistrust between the two countries." While the sharp partisan divide in Washington means that any compromise by the U.S. will be loudly opposed, President Obama, having won a second term, has considerable room to maneuver.

8. When will we come to the crossroad at which a president will be forced to choose between attacking and acquiescing?

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will continue to press for an early decision, arguing that sanctions are ineffective and only give Iran more time to expand its nuclear program. Expect President Obama, key members of the Israeli national security establishment, and others to continue arguing that sanctions and covert actions must be allowed more time to work, and that new sanctions and covert actions will be even more effective.

At the UN last September, Netanyahu drew a clear red line, near to but short of a nuclear bomb, and threatened that crossing it would trigger an attack on Iran. But his speech revealed his own frustration about the predicament in which he finds himself. He knows that Israel and the U.S. have been complicit in a drama in which they have repeatedly drawn red lines, asserted that Iran would never be allowed to cross them but, after watching Iran cross the line, retreated to the next operational obstacle on the path to a bomb, and declared it to be the real red line (see Table 8).


Netanyahu himself was sounding the alarm as long ago as 1992, when he suggested Iran was "3 to 5 years" from a bomb; in 1996, he warned Congress that the "deadline for preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb is getting extremely close." Since then, Israeli politicians and officials have announced numerous "last chances" and "points of no return." In 2003, the head of Israeli military intelligence forecast that Iran would soon cross the "point of no return" at which "it would require no further outside aid to bring the program to fruition." A year later, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that Iran would cross this point if it were allowed to develop a "technical capability" for operating an enrichment facility. As Iran approached that capability, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz described the tipping point not as the capability, but as the "enrichment of uranium" itself. Simultaneously, the head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, warned that Iran would reach this technological point of no return by the end of 2005. After Iran began enriching uranium, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert drew a new line in 2006 as enrichment "beyond a limited number of cascades."

As Iran has crossed successive red lines, Israel has retreated to the next and, in effect, hit the repeat button. From conversion of uranium; to production of LEU; to a stockpile of LEU sufficient (after further enrichment) to make one nuclear bomb; to a stockpile sufficient for a half dozen bombs; to enrichment beyond LEU to MEU; to the operation of centrifuges enriching MEU at the deep underground, formerly covert facility at Fordow, that created a "zone of immunity"; to achievement of an undefined "nuclear weapons capability," Israel's warnings have grown louder -- but no more effective. That these "points of no return" have been passed is a brute fact and hard to ignore.

This does not mean that these Israeli warnings were, or are, unfounded. The children's story about the boy who cried wolf is often cited to counsel against exaggeration of threat. We should remember how the story ends: The wolf actually arrives, and eats the boy.

Iran's long-delayed reactor at Arak may become operational in late 2014, providing Iran a plutonium path to a bomb. Once it is loaded with fuel, which on the announced schedule will be in early 2014, an attack on the reactor would spread radioactive materials. Iran's accumulated stockpile of MEU and deployment of advanced centrifuges will also continue shortening the timeline for a dash to a bomb. Nonetheless, neither is likely to have material consequences in 2013 for the calculus of risk described earlier.

This fall, if and when negotiations fail to produce a breakthrough, expect Netanyahu to reject the Obama administration's (and much of his own security establishment's) arguments and press vigorously for a U.S. attack, threatening to act unilaterally otherwise. At that point, unless a major diplomatic initiative shows promise, I predict that there will be a more intense exploration of options short of attack for slowing or stopping Iran's nuclear progress. I have identified at least three such options, and there are no doubt others. Watch this space.

Presented by

Graham Allison is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

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