The Case for Letting Iran (Almost) Build a Bomb

Allowing Tehran to achieve a "latent" nuclear capability might be the best way to avert war.

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Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who sits next to portraits of killed Iranian scientists, attends a meeting with Iranian nuclear scientists and managers / Reuters

It's said that an animal is most dangerous when it's cornered. So why do some American officials seem intent on backing Iran into a situation where it, the U.S. -- and everyone else -- would lose?

Washington has spent much of the last month debating what to do about Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program. On one side are administration officials who insist Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon. On the other side are critics who believe time is running out for an attack on Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities.

As if the uncertainty weren't raising tensions fast enough, a group of lawmakers earlier this month led by Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman unveiled a resolution that effectively lowers the bar for a preventive strike by the United States against possible Iranian nuclear sites. The text of the resolution doesn't explicitly recommend military action -- though an earlier draft did -- but it rejects moderate measures like containment in hopes that stepped-up pressure will compel Iran's "complete cooperation" with international watchdogs. The message to the White House is clear: act, sooner rather than later, and you'll have the support of Congress behind you.

Lieberman, in explaining his support for the resolution, redefined what it would mean for Iran to achieve nuclear "capability," or the baseline at which we should consider Iran as a nuclear-armed state. "To me, nuclear weapons capability means that they are capable of breaking out and producing a nuclear weapon -- in other words, that they have all the components necessary to do that," Lieberman told reporters. "It's a standard that is higher than saying, 'The red line is when they actually have nuclear weapons.'"

Lieberman's stance on what experts call latent or breakout capability errs on the side of caution, likely in an attempt to give President Obama greater latitude in his dealings with Iran. But for all of Lieberman's good intentions, his argument that the U.S. should use strikes to prevent Iran not just from going nuclear, but from even getting close, is a bad idea. Moving up the U.S.'s red-line in this way would keep Iran one step further from a warhead, sure, but it would also close a potentially useful release valve for U.S.-Iran and Israel-Iran tension.

Broadly speaking, Iran's leadership has three options: give up its nuclear enrichment program now, as Western leaders hope they will; race to the finish in pursuit of an actual nuclear weapon, which would bring the greatest benefits along with the most severe consequences; or compromising for something in between that would minimize the negative consequences while providing some benefits. So far, discussions in the West have concentrated on either extreme, largely ignoring the third choice. But suppose Iran chooses to stop just short of building a bomb. Is that a plausible outcome the United States could accept?

In this hypothetical scenario, Iran would develop the technology and capability for a nuclear weapon without actually building one. They would be close enough to a bomb to feel secure in their deterrent -- if they fear an imminent foreign invasion, as Tehran sometimes does, they could always "break out" and put together a bomb -- but far enough away that the U.S. and Israel wouldn't have to worry about a surprise attack.

Still, it's hard or maybe impossible to say exactly where this middle path -- allowing Iran to move closer to a bomb without actually getting one -- would lead us. How might Israel respond to a latent Iran, for example? Dr. Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the Federation of American Scientists, believes breakout capability would meet Israel's conditions for a military strike, but estimates the likelihood of an Israeli attack to be relatively low, at around 20 percent.

"From a cost-benefit point of view," he told me by email, an Israeli strike on a latent Iranian nuclear program "would not achieve much. It will delay the program for a couple of years, but would galvanize Iran to dash toward the ultimate deterrent."

Vaez says he's confident that Israel's own nuclear deterrent would keep Iran from launching a premeditated strike on Israel.

"[Iran] is not suicidal and will never commit the strategic mistake of engaging in an unequal nuclear confrontation with Israel," he wrote.

Vaez adds that other Middle Eastern states, though rivals of Iran, could likely live with a nuclear-capable Tehran. Countries such as Saudi Arabia wouldn't seek their own nuclear weapons, he argues, saying it would take "years" for them to amass the resources needed to develop their own warheads. In any case, Arab states already have far more conventional arms than does Iran.

But the bigger question, according to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, is one of trust. It's difficult to know how Israel, Saudi Arabia and others would respond to an Iran that had announced its intention to stop at nuclear latency, mainly because a lot depends on how that claim gets verified.

"If they stop now and allow the [International Atomic Energy Agency] to monitor in perpetuity, then Iran would not be believed to have a nuclear weapon," Zenko told me over the phone last week. But if world leaders aren't convinced by the IAEA's reports, the current crisis would likely continue. Even if Iran complies with the inspection process as requested, suspicions about secret nuclear activity might still endure.

Speculation aside, there are good reasons to think Iran might be tempted to stop at nuclear latency. It balances the danger of retribution by U.S., Arab or Israeli forces against the domestic political successes Iran has sought with its nuclear research since the program began in the late 1980s. Iran would accrue some measure of international leverage and prestige as a nuclear-capable power, and it would enjoy a commensurate boost to its domestic legitimacy, without becoming an actual nuclear pariah. It could also claim to have succeeded in its goal of nuclear independence in spite of the West.

Western hawks such as Lieberman usually frame a nuclear-capable Iran as a policy failure, but it could benefit the U.S. and Israel as well. The United States could credibly claim a diplomatic coup -- after all, it would have convinced Iran not to build a nuclear weapon. Washington would be able to avoid committing troops to a destructive conflict it would rather not wage (and Iran would rather not suffer). Regionally, Israel would retain its current first-strike nuclear advantage as well as an overwhelming conventional superiority, and other Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, would have less of an incentive to equip themselves with nuclear weapons, given the cost of developing the know-how and infrastructure to achieve parity with Iran.

Some top administration officials have suggested that Iran might have the right disposition to select a middle-ground policy such as latency. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN's Fareed Zakaria this month that he sees Iran as a rational actor operating with regard to costs and benefits, just like any other state. American intelligence estimates appear to support that view. In January, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress that Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon, a belief he repeated this month.

While Iran appears to have far more to gain from nuclear possession than nuclear latency, actually acquiring a bomb would be extremely costly in the long run, and would almost guarantee an attack by Israel, if not the United States. An Israeli attack on Iran at points up to and including nuclear latency would require more than a little deliberation in Jerusalem. That Israel doesn't yet seem committed to bombing Iran is a telling indicator of how far Iran still has to go before crossing any red lines. In short: they're close, but perhaps not that close -- and if Vaez is right, it might not even matter.

At best, closing off the latency option for Iran is a poor idea. It cuts down on the range of possible solutions to the nuclear dilemma and raises the baseline likelihood of violence. Limiting Iran's breathing room is one thing. It's quite another to back it into a place where the only options are complete surrender or war.