Assessment of U.S. Policy Options in the Face of Iran’s Nuclear Efforts

by Brad Rowe

The New York Times reported on Saturday that the U.S. and Iran have agreed to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.   According to Obama administration officials, this is “setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.”

This is encouraging as we are approaching a U.S. Presidential election that pits two candidates against each other who have vastly differing opinions on foreign policy.  These negotiations fit in nicely with the policy suggestions put forth below.  This article is meant to offer an objective dissection of the issues that face the United States and the world with regards to the issue of a nuclear Iran.

The ideas are based upon a policy memo created in June 2012 by UCLA Master in Public Policy candidates Chloe Cornuejols, Nobuko Goto, Masaaki Kishi, Celeste Miller, Brad Rowe and Isla Yao for their Methods in Policy course.  In addition to conducting thorough research that went into the creation of the memo, these students conducted interviews with high-level policy and security experts who elaborated upon some of the concepts and findings.

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Iran may be enriching uranium to levels that would be useful for developing a nuclear weapon.  If they acquire a weapon of this type, it presents several potential concerns.  There are a multitude of possible even probable dangers from this scenario. One is that Iran would use the weapon on the U.S. or elsewhere. Others come simply from their possession of the bomb: it could set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, it could provoke a military response from Israel, or an Iranian nuclear WMD could end up in the hands of terrorists.

It would serve the negotiating parties to embrace the fact that, at this point, we cannot prove they are not enriching uranium to weapons grade levels, but we most certainly cannot prove that they are either.  Dealing with the argument that ‘you cannot prove the absence’ of something is akin to me saying that you cannot prove that I don’t have a nuclear device somewhere in my house.  Indeed you would have to tear apart every square inch of my house to prove this.

The current U.S. course of sanctions, diplomatic negotiation, military threats, and cyber attacks seems like a prudent path for the time being.  For now, the IAEA has been accommodated by Iran for unfettered access to existing nuclear power development facilities.  If reliable information emerges signaling a shift to weapons enrichment efforts, we should consider alternate options.

In light of the unlikely but hugely consequential possibility that Iran is working toward acquiring ‘doomsday’ technology, it is critical to keep the full menu of strategy options available as actionable scenarios and as tools of negotiation.

Before Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon, the options are: do nothing; diplomatic intervention (which seems currently viable); economic sanctions and incentives; cyber attacks; military threat; and finally land, air, and sea attacks.  These are not exclusive options and can be used in combination.

After Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon, the options would be: do nothing; diplomatic intervention; reduce US dependency on oil from the Middle East; regional defense system; secure Iran’s nuclear weapons system; regime destabilization; cyber attacks; military threat; and finally land, air, and sea attacks.  Again, these are not exclusive options either and can be used in combination.

 Policy Options

Let’s look at the policy options in two ways.

First, BEFORE acquisition: Should the United States dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons and if so, how?  The top options in this scenario would be:

  1. Cyber attacks to slow or prevent any nuclear weapon development
  2. Diplomatic Intervention
  3. Economic intervention: sanctions and incentives

Second, AFTER acquisition: If Iran did acquire nuclear weapons, how could the United States best minimize bad outcomes?  The top options in this scenario would be:

  1. Regional Defense System
  2. Reduce US dependency on Middle East oil
  3. Secure Iran’s nuclear weapons system

U.S. Priorities and Concerns

 For the UNITED STATES: The major priorities and concerns relating to Iranian nuclear weapons acquiring activity are the international distrust and disbelief that Iran is developing its nuclear capabilities for peaceful uses only.  Furthermore there is concern that Israel will act unilaterally against Iran via military efforts if Iran continues to grow its nuclear capacity overall and/or if Iran specifically develops nuclear weapons.  This could have dire circumstances if Israeli leadership is less than rational.

We also need to give weight to the potential growth in and power of threats to U.S. interests posed by Iran’s support for militant groups in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan.  As Colin H. Kahl stated in September’s Foreign Affairs article ‘Iran and the Bomb’: “Iran’s government currently sponsors terrorist groups and supports militants throughout the Middle East, in part to demonstrate a capability to retaliate against the United States, Israel, and other states should they attack Iran or undermine its interests.”

This threat is leveraged by Iran’s ability to destabilize world economy and oil markets through controlling their own oil exports and threats to free passage of Middle East oil through the Straits of Hormuz.

What no one wants is further proliferation resulting in a nuclear arms race in the Middle East especially among Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

There are homegrown concerns as well. U.S. leadership, such as House Speaker John Boehner, is very mercurial and has displayed hawkish tendencies recently.

And relating directly to the November elections, there is U.S. executive unpredictability.  Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has surrounded himself with several neo-con military advisors from the George W. Bush era.  Among them are a group born from the post 9-11 neo-con think tank Project for a New American Century (PNAC), now renamed the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI).  One of the most prominent hawkish foreign policy advisors to Romney is John Bolton who has publicly equated diplomacy with weakness and indecisiveness.  This could spell for contentious or non-existent future negotiations with Iran.

 Iran’s Key Drivers


Key among Iran’s drivers and positions concerning its potential status as a nuclear power with weapons capability are the current regime survival and increased nationalism/support of the population for the government.  They are looking out for their national security and protection, including from external threats, such as the U.S. and other members of the international community.  They are also not without ambition and are looking at expansion of Iranian regional influence as well as of the country’s global stature – overall and as a trading partner.

The current status of Iran’s nuclear efforts and situation includes sustained vows by Iran that their nuclear activities remain for peaceful civilian purposes only.  Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s (and other clerics’) repeated condemnation of nuclear weapons as being contrary to Islamic Law (he has expressed support for the development and use of nuclear resources for peaceful use but issued a fatwa in 2010 – and later reaffirmed it – on banning production and use of weapons of mass destruction).

As an international cooperator, Iran continues as a signatory to The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).  It should be noted that Iran is currently in compliance.  Most importantly: there is no evidence – either from the limited International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) observations, under General Director Yukiya Amano, or other monitoring or intelligence sources – that Iran has diverted any nuclear resources from civilian to military uses.  To bolster Iran’s case here, there was an announcement on May 22, 2012 by the director general of IAEA, that he has reached an agreement with Iran granting nuclear inspectors wider access to Iranian atomic facilities.

To be noted however: Iran’s current ability to produce low enrichment uranium means that 90% of the necessary resources and effort to generate highly enriched uranium already have been brought together by Iran.  This means simple nuclear weapons could at that time be delivered to a target in a small vehicle or boat; however it would still take several years of work and testing, for any weapon to be delivered by missile.  Such undertakings – especially testing – would be hard to keep under wraps.

To understand the progress they have made, consider that having enriched to 20% means they are 90% they way to enriching to 90% weapons grade Uranium.  This is on account of front loaded program building and the similarly front loaded Separative Work Units, or SWUs, needed to separate the Uranium isotope 235 from zero to 5% energy-producing levels.

A few points to highlight for further research are:

  • Recently uranium enriched above the 20% used for power was found, though the 27% enrichment number could have been attributed to equipment error.
  • In a 2005 speech, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad commented that he wished the State of Israel would collapse. (The translation of his “Wiped off the Map” comment has been widely disputed)  Whether or not his statement was a declaration of military intent or simply a lament, it has resulted in an agitated condition for nuclear-armed Israel.

Based on review of existing research, analysis, and information on this situation as well as our own expert interviews[1], we also acknowledge that the highest objective of the Iranian government is to remain in power.  Within the Iranian national dynamic, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei wants power over Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and vises versus.

Let us not underestimate the power of the masses however.  Iran could become a fully representative democratic republic.  Per our U.S. security and international diplomacy source, people of Iran currently appear favor or to have neutral feelings about America now, but would likely be swayed the other way by overly aggressive U.S. intervention.  Extreme external pressure or military aggression will only increase Iranian nationalism and support of its citizens for the existing government there.

Regionally?  Iran has scarce close regional allies on account that it feels ethnically and religiously isolated and has a sense of cultural and historical “exceptionalism.”  While U.S. and international economic sanctions may have no direct effect on the progress of Iran’s nuclear efforts, they are causing enough pain to the government and country overall to potentially allow for more openness in discussions on the part of Iran as an example, both sides (Iran and US/P5+1) have dropped some prior intractable conditions for negotiation and Iran has agreed to grant wider access to IAEA inspectors.

Any military intervention would raise Iranian incentive for expansion of nuclear capabilities into weapons of mass destruction, while at the same time ensuring Iran’s expulsion of any IAEA observers and possible Iranian withdrawal from the NPT.  Along these lines, we feel the Iranian government will act rationally.  Iran is aware of and we all should be as well that U.S. future standing with the Middle East, Russia and Iran itself are critical considerations when weighing these policy options.

There is an important note regarding horizon type strategy relevance here.  This long-term strategy is a valid exercise as Iran acquiring a nuclear device is still possible, even though they would have to violate the non-proliferation treaty and jump through several logistical and technical hurdles to get there.  We also want to consider the possibility that Iran getting the bomb could potentially be a stable scenario *(i.e. Pakistan).

Finally, there is a special worst-case situation that needs sober consideration.  While military intervention was not one of the more robust strategies when all criteria were considered, there is one situation in which experts believe it should be fully considered as a top option.  That is when it is absolutely obvious that a missile attack by Israel on Iran is imminent and the U.S. and/or UN are unable to dissuade them.  Under such circumstances, according to some security experts, the U.S. should then undertake any bombing attacks.

The reason for this is two-fold. First, Israel does not have the military capability and weaponry to launch an effective attack, which would ensure the elimination of the nuclear targets.  The U.S. has the needed firepower and expertise to do so.  Second, even if Israel acted unilaterally, both Iran and most of the international community would assume the U.S. was complicit.  Therefore, if the U.S. will be facing the ramifications of such global opinion post-Israeli strike, then it would be prudent for the U.S. to ensure a surgical and fully efficient missile strike.

This is, of course very tricky as Israel cannot know that US will intervene on their behalf. This could cause them to act recklessly. Israel would be burning the ally bridge with US in either case.  This is a difficult hand to play for sure.

It will be of great importance and interesting to see how the Iran negotiations play out.  Hopefully cooler minds will prevail and the safety of the next generations will be more secure than they were before hand.

Brad Rowe is a second year Masters In Public Policy candidate at UCLA focusing in Education, Crime and International Affairs.  Rowe is also a Rosenfield Fellow working on Educational Policy and Programs for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

[1]Research/Analysis: RAND Corporation, Congressional Research Service, American Enterprise Institute Iran Tracker. Media reports: New York Times, The Economist, Los Angeles Times, Financial Times.

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