For years U.S. presidents have threatened Iran with war, often mouthing the anodyne “all options are on the table.” Joe Biden is the latest to believe that he can scare Tehran away from developing nuclear weapons.
On his recent Mideast trip, characterized by putting Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s interests first, Biden was slightly more honest. On Israeli TV he declared that he would use force to prevent an Iranian bomb “as a last resort.” He still claimed that he wanted to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or nuclear deal, yet he has badly bungled negotiations over restoring Iranian compliance with the agreement.
Indeed, the slow-motion transformation of the Biden administration's Iran policy into that of the Trump administration highlights the manifold weaknesses of the former. One of the worst, most dramatic failures of the Trump administration was its Iran policy. With great fanfare President Donald Trump killed the JCPOA, imposed a plethora of sanctions, and made a dozen demands which amounted to Tehran’s abandonment of an independent foreign policy. Then Trump waited for the mullahs to come crawling to Washington and surrender.
Rare is the president who makes so grievous a geopolitical mistake. Instead, the Iranians sped up nuclear developments, interfered with Gulf oil traffic, attacked Saudi oil facilities, supplied oil to Venezuela, maintained aggressive regional activities, and encouraged Iraqi allies to strike at U.S. troops and even target the U.S. embassy. Pompeo responded with a whiny statement that he might have to close the latter facility, while a desperate Trump offered to give the Iranians a better deal if they provided him an election boost by settling before the vote. Even Israeli security officials—though not the hard-right politicians who now dominate Israeli politics—acknowledged that the Trump administration made a catastrophic mistake and moved Iran closer to nuclear weapons.
Then Joe Biden was inaugurated. Instead of offering to bring Washington back into the agreement if Tehran returned to compliance, the administration put off negotiations, apparently fearing criticism from the very people who had so mangled Iran policy. When the administration finally entered talks it attempted to use the Trump breach to win more Iranian concessions. Then Biden succumbed to his predecessor’s poison pill sanctions unrelated to the nuclear program, which were intended to kill the deal. Having displayed political timidity and diplomatic incompetence, the president is now breathing threats of fire and brimstone against Iran.
There’s good reason to want Tehran to remain nuclear-free. That doesn’t mean Washington is entitled to attack Iran. Under constant threat from the U.S. and facing a hostile neighbor which already has the bomb, Tehran understandably might want to develop nukes.
The Iranian nuclear program is not an “Islamic bomb.” Tehran’s effort began under the Shah, Washington’s friendly dictator who benefited from the U.S.-backed coup in 1953. The real “Islamic bomb” was produced by Pakistan. Bedeviled by turbulent politics and jihadist forces, today Islamabad is the least stable nuclear power on earth.
Threats are unlikely to prevent Tehran from moving ahead if it is determined to do so. Coercive nonproliferation has proved to be of minimal effectiveness. Observed the Saltzman Institute’s Kenneth N. Waltz: “the historical record indicates that a country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons can rarely be dissuaded from doing so.”
U.S. diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, and military threats did not dissuade India, North Korea, or Pakistan from going nuclear. And similar measures have not stopped Iran from its various nuclear activities, which could give Tehran a “turnkey” capability to rapidly weaponize in the future.
Indeed, the two most celebrated cases in which states gave up either inherited nuclear weapons (Ukraine) or a nascent nuclear weapons program (Libya) ended badly for the government involved. Kiev found itself attacked by one of the powers that guaranteed its security, while Tripoli was riven with civil war, in which the ousted leader was gutted and murdered by a mob. The threat of foreign attack absent disarmament loses much of its power if political leaders fear military or other violent action if they do disarm.
In Iran’s case such concerns are reasonable. The U.S. was involved in the 1953 military coup against the democratically elected government. For a quarter century America stood by the infamous Shah diplomatically and militarily. As the regime tottered, Iranians viewed the U.S. as responsible for the ensuing violence. Wrote the University of Pittsburgh’s Richard Cottam: “Ultimately, the United States was blamed for the thousands killed during the last year by the Iranian army, which was trained, equipped, and seemingly controlled by Washington.”
A New York Times analysis of the papers of the late David Rockefeller, who was intimately involved in bringing the Shah to America after his ouster, revealed “that the president’s special envoy to Iran had actually urged the country’s generals to use as much deadly force as needed to suppress the revolt.” Indeed, the Carter administration’s special envoy, Gen. Robert E. Huyser, admitted “that he had urged Iran’s top military leaders to kill as many demonstrators as necessary to keep the shah in power.”
A year after the Shah’s ouster Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran. The Reagan administration provided intelligence and reflagged oil tankers from Kuwait, which was helping fund Iraq’s efforts. The latter operation led to the U.S. Navy’s erroneous 1988 shootdown of an Iranian airliner, killing 290 people. The U.S. also covered up Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iran. At least a half million people, the majority of them Iranian, died in the conflict.
Iraq and Iran made an uneasy peace in 1988. Out of that war came Baghdad’s invasion of Kuwait, triggered at least in part by Hussein’s belief that Washington had his back. Later he resisted proving that he had abandoned his nuclear weapons program out of fear of a potentially revenge-minded Tehran. Then came the Bush administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, which greatly enhanced Iran’s regional influence—a consequence apparently not considered by Bush’s war-hungry neoconservative advisors.
Rather than respond to Tehran’s offer to negotiate all issues, Bush’s not-so-merry band of ivory tower warriors tossed around slogans like “real men go to Tehran.” The administration’s toxic mix of incompetence and arrogance triggered a sectarian war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. By the end of Dubya’s tragic reign, no one was talking about forced regime change in Iran.
Still, the celebrated neocon dream of another, grander war never died, and unremitting U.S. threats—those infamous “options” always sitting atop the proverbial “table”—continued by presidents of all political persuasions. Considering the record, and Washington’s record as the world’s most aggressive, militaristic power over the last quarter century, the Iranians would seem irrational not to want nuclear weapons.
Of course, no one else wants Tehran to have them. But that is not the proper criterion for the U.S. going to war. After all, most nations on earth have at least one enemy that they want the great superpower to smite. Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously said that Saudi Arabia would “fight the Iranians to the last American.”
In fact, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is another argument for Iranian nuclear weapons. Backed by the U.S. and filled with just about every weapon peddled by America’s merchants of death, on almost every measure Riyadh, ruled by pampered and cosseted royals with a grand sense of entitlement, is a more malign, disruptive actor than Iran. Saudi money and people made 9/11. The royal regime launched a murderous war against neighboring Yemen, sustained tyrannical rule in Bahrain and Egypt, underwrote jihadist insurgents in Libya and Syria, kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister, and blockaded and nearly invaded neighbor Qatar.
At home the Kingdom is brutally repressive, rated lower by the group Freedom House than Iran, as well as China and Russia. On human rights, Saudi Arabia is a bottom dweller alongside North Korea and Eritrea. The ostentatious murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was only Riyadh’s best-publicized domestic atrocity.
Of course, it would still be better if Tehran did not possess the bomb. As Waltz pointed out, however, a nuclear Iran would pose little threat to America. The last country Tehran would attack is the U.S.: “Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, Iranian policy is made not by ‘mad mullahs’ but by perfectly sane ayatollahs who want to survive just like any other leaders. Although Iran's leaders indulge in inflammatory and hateful rhetoric, they show no propensity for self-destruction. It would be a grave error for policymakers in the United States and Israel to assume otherwise.”
The second to the last country a nuclear Iran would attack is Israel, since the latter already possesses a significant nuclear arsenal. Indeed, as Waltz pointed out, it is Israel’s current nuclear monopoly which has destabilized the Mideast: “Israel's proven ability to strike potential nuclear rivals with impunity has inevitably made its enemies anxious to develop the means to prevent Israel from doing so again. In this way, the current tensions are best viewed not as the early stages of a relatively recent Iranian nuclear crisis but rather as the final stages of a decades-long Middle East nuclear crisis that will end only when a balance of military power is restored.”
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Perhaps the most problematic consequence of an Iranian nuclear weapon would be regional proliferation, with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and perhaps even Egypt potentially seeking to develop their own deterrents. Past predictions of mass proliferation, however, have not come true. The possibility warrants the U.S. and other states using diplomacy backed by economic incentives to encourage Tehran to stop short of developing a bomb. Still, this is not a good reason for Washington to wreak death and devastation on a people not threatening America.
Indeed, a preventive strike most likely would merely delay any program, while intensifying Tehran’s desire to develop one. A wider war with Iran would be horrid. If Americans enjoyed invading Iraq, imagine attempting to conquer and occupy populous and substantial Iran.
Biden holds the key to dissuading Tehran from continuing nuclear developments and relaunching a weapons program. Restoring the JCPOA is critical. Then Washington should suggest restoration of diplomatic relations and wider discussions—alongside Tehran’s recent talks with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The ultimate objective should be a regional modus vivendi ending today’s Sunni-Shiite confrontation. The starting point for U.S. policy, however, is to stop threatening war and empowering Iran’s extremists.