Michael KreponOptions On and Off the Table

All options are on the table. How many times have we heard this? The administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush directed such declarations to Saddam Hussein. North Korea is no stranger to this formulation. Then there’s Iran. Here’s what President Barack Obama had to say at the 2012 AIPAC Policy Conference on March 4, 2012:

I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power: A political effort aimed at isolating Iran; a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored; an economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions; and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.

President Obama then went on to say,

Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who would virtually outsource U.S. policy toward Iran to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, heartily agrees. So, all options are on the table – except one.

I understand why President Obama has resorted to this strange formulation. The need of the hour is to dissuade the Iranian authorities from upping their percentage and quantity of enriched uranium, and to dissuade Prime Minister Netanyahu from initiating a bombing campaign whose success, at best, would be partial and of limited duration. Consequently, the choice of bombing Iran would, in effect, be a choice of repeatedly bombing Iran, with each successive wave of sorties enjoying less support and further enraging large swaths of the Islamic world, with a few notable exceptions.

Why, then, are all options on the table? Because in the worst-case scenario, Iran’s Mullahs and Revolutionary Guards – unlike Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong who, in effect, signed far more death warrants than the entire population of the State of Israel – would actually use nuclear weapons to destroy Israel, thereby abruptly ending their own centuries-long civilization, as well.

U.S. leaders set aside the option of preventive war and preemptive strikes in their dealings with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Instead, they played a long game, accepting nuclear deterrence until the former collapsed and the latter’s revolutionary fervor waned. Eventually, the fires now consuming Iran will also burn themselves out. Nuclear deterrence is, however, an extremely hard concept for Israelis to accept, for understandable reasons.

Air strikes by Israel or the United States could lead to a wide variety of bad outcomes: more economic shocks; more hardship tours for U.S. forces that have been in theaters of war for over a decade; the departure of IAEA inspectors from Iran, resulting in our inability to monitor the status of a reconstituted and accelerated nuclear program; heavy strains on the Nonproliferation Treaty; greatly diminished U.S. influence and further destabilization in the Islamic world; the targeting of U.S. citizens and significant Israeli casualties from retaliatory actions by Tehran and its proxies. Some scenarios are more manageable than others, but all are likely to grow in severity over time with repeated bombing campaigns.

The option of bombing Iran has more utility than its realization, especially when the leverage derived from this threat loses credibility from oft-repeated warnings. Nonetheless, absent a diplomatic settlement, those who have put the option of bombing Iran on the table cannot take it off. While bombing is optional, a policy of containment is mandatory. Containment of Iran’s influence, mischief-making, diplomatic space, and power projection is and will be U.S. policy regardless of the state of Iran’s nuclear program. Stringent economic sanctions will remain in this mix as long as Tehran and Washington remain at odds over the nuclear issue. All of these containment measures will become even more important – and harder to maintain – if the bombs fall.

Rob Litwak, the Director of International Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, has completed a trilogy of books on the dilemmas of dealing with outlier states. His newest, Outlier States: American Strategies to Change, Contain, or Engage Regimes (Johns Hopkins Press, 2012), offers the following sensible conclusions:

The case for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program rests on an assessment of the theocratic regime as underterrable and apocalyptic. But that depiction of Iran as an irrational state runs contrary to National intelligence Estimates that have characterized the clerical regime’s decision-making as being ‘guided by a cost-benefit approach.’…

The crux of the problem with the outliers [is that] the very process of integration, which the Obama administration depicts as a tangible reward for coming into compliance with international norms, is perceived by Tehran… as a threat to regime survival.

Rob recommends “a retooled, updated version of Kennan’s strategy of containment that would decouple the nuclear issue from the question of regime change and rely on internal forces as the agent of societal change.”


  1. JohnLopresti (History)

    At the September 20, 2012 meeting of the United Nations security council,

    minutes: http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2012/sc10770.doc.htm

    US Permanent Representative S. Rice described a policy which is somewhat more diplomatic.

    The linked minutes appear to do some measure of justice to Ms. Rice’s remarks, but it’s difficult to compare those UN September comments to a May Aipac transcript. Noevertheless, Ms. Rice clearly is offering an olive branch while reporting several stern observations.

  2. Nick (History)

    …and the US and Israel attacks will be free of any Iranian casualties, because those bombs are so accurate?!!

  3. Rpbert Tyrka, Sr. (History)

    For someone who views himself as a wonk on arms control, it looks as if this author’s ignorance of the effects of an EMP bomb wipes out all of his arguments.

  4. hass (History)

    There’s no “need to dissuade the Iranian authorities from upping their percentage” of uranium enrichment — in fact the Iranians have repeatedly offered to cease 20% enrichment already. Indeed, Iran would not have had to resort to 20% enrichment in the first place if Iran was not banned by US sanctions from simply buying the reactor fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor as usual. Considering the fact that this reactor not only makes isotopes for cancer patients, but is far too small to pose a weapons proliferation threat (aside from the fact that it is constantly monitored anyway) then preventing Iran from re-fueling this reactor served no non-proliferation purpose. Instead, it encouraged Iran to increase its enrichment. Wow, what a great “success” THAT policy turned out to be, huh?
    In fact there is a long history of Iran making compromise offers and the US rejecting or ignoring them — preferring instead to move goalposts and raise demands. So, who is the real problem here — the US or IRan?

  5. Dan Joyner (History)

    Excellent, sensible post, Michael. I wish more people with influence on the USG would share your wisdom and levelheadedness on this issue.

  6. Jonah Speaks (History)

    After admitting that a worst-case scenario involves a nuclear Iran bombing Israel and getting bombed in return, you seem to advocate instead that we adopt a policy of containing a nuclear Iran. Is a Middle Eastern nuclear war so unlikely that we cannot possibly consider a conventional war to avert it?

    Right now, the Iranian government seems not to have decided yet whether to acquire nuclear weapons. A conventional war right now is unwise, because it increases the odds that Iran would weaponize and only delays the timing. It would be a high cost choice with negative benefit — foolish in all respects.

    If Iran does make the decision to weaponize (or appears to have done so), the choice of conventional war is not so foolish. A conventional war would both delay and reduce the odds of a nuclear Iran. A high cost would be balanced by what could be a significant benefit.

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      “Conquring the Russians is one thing. What to do with them afterwards is a whole other question.”

      —-Something I read in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, from the 1950s.

  7. George William Herbert (History)

    Salient question if you favor allowing Iran the bomb vs military intervention…

    Do those with this preference disbelieve, accept, or believe we can otherwise dissuade or deter SaudiBomb and EgyptBomb if IranBomb comes to be?

    Are those eventualities ultimately more or less destabilizing than a nearterm preventive war?

    • Johnboy (History)

      “dissuade or deter SaudiBomb and EgyptBomb”

      Where do the Saudis get the industrial infrastructure?
      Where do the Egyptians get the m.o.n.e.y.?

      One has all the money in the world, but that ain’t much good if you can’t buy nukes on the open market. And you can’t buy nukes on the open market.

      The other has no money whatsoever, so its chances of making a bomb is… zero.

    • hass (History)

      You’re starting off with a false choice: that Iran either gets bombed, or it gets the bomb. Plenty of countries have nuclear programs, and are quite capable of making bombs on quick basis too (40, by some estimates) — so do we have to go to “preventive war” with them too? In fact, since the NPT is based on the idea of sharing nuclear technology “to the fullest extent possible” and “without discrimination”, more and more nations will inevitably obtain the know-how. Will we be preventatively bombing everyone?

    • George William Herbert (History)


      Your assertions about the limitations there are uniformly not true, at least considered across a stretch of time beyond the instant current time.

      People have bought the infrastructure on the open market, and bomb designs have been on the open market.

      Intellectual property and an offer to buy the infrastructure were exchanged between Khan’s network and a yet-unknown buyer who wanted something like a whole Iranian program worth of centrifuges, if the leaked info is accurate. The scope of the factory and equipment needed to start building centrifuges, given a design and tech support, is only a moderately sized project.

      As I have said elsewhere, the potential buyers list is somewhat limited, though that does not provide proof for any country on that potential buyers list being an active proliferator now.

      Egypt is not that poor. Egypt has just had a regime change; the military and military-industrial infrastructure have not been overturned though. My sense of the Egyptian overtures was that it was an explicitly military program, so those people are presumably still in place. Egypt’s military currently spends about $5.8 billion per year, $1.3 billion of which is US aid. Centrifuges aren’t a million dollars apiece. 5,000 of them would not be $5 billion, more like $1-2 billion including 2-3 deep bunkers to hide them in. That’s the “big” part of the program. Over a decade it would be no big deal for them to make that investment in “black programs”. It would make a dent over a year or three.

      Morsi and his intentions, and what the Egyptian Military feels about that situation, are all currently somewhat in flux. The prior geopolitical imperative may have shifted. But that’s not guaranteed.


      It’s not 40 countries that have “nuclear programs” – the list realistically is limited to those who can produce fissile materials (either HEU production or chemical plutonium extraction from reactor output). I forget the current total, but it’s not forty.

      The issue with Iran, that is different with the other however many are on the materials production lists, is a combination of serious gap in trust over whether all material production is safeguarded and serious evidence of a 30-year nuclear weapons program with about 15 years of serious weapon research culminating in a 2003-2004 cold test program of a bomb design. None of the other countries with fissile material other than nuclear weapons states have had a modern active weapons program. All the safeguarded ones are open and serious about their NPT duties. The only other serious risks, where things were going on that were fishy over the last 20-odd years, were North Korea (weaponized) and Brazil (clearly not weaponizing, though they on-again-off-again scare people into taking very close looks). Pakistan and India were well known to have extensive weapons prior to their early-90s tests.

    • John Bragg (History)

      In the Saudi case, very simple. They buy it from Pakistan, either finished warheads, fissile material or nuclear production complexes. Where do you think Pakistan got the money for their nuclear programs in the first place?

  8. Irshad (History)


    What makes you think that Egypt and Saudi Arabia will go for a bomb if Iran builds one? So far, based on empirical evidence, neither Egypt nor Saudi Arabia have built anything after 30+years of Isreal having the nuclear bomb. Isreal is a bigger threat to Egypt then Iran – they managed to put up with it. I expect them to do so with Iran. Look at how Egypt under Pres. Morsi is re-alligning Egypt’s FP and visited Iran for the NAM summit.

    Why should one group of Muslim nations feel threathened by another Muslim nation, that has openly said it will not got for nukes? The people of all 3 countries view Isreals nuclear weapons as a bigger threat to them then anything emanating from each other – go look at international polls about this.

    Another thing – Egypt and Saudi do not have the scientific, technicall and industrial basis to build a nuclear bomb – the Egyptians may be dablling with nuclear materials but its just that dabbling. The Saudis dont even have a single enrichment plant on their territory or associated industry. I believe they dont even have the scientific know-how or the people to do it. They may try to buy one from Pakistan, but I expect this will be thwarted by US/Iran/Russia/India etc. Saudis are more likely to negotiate with the US to be under its nuclear umbrella. As Gaddafy was told in the early 1970’s by Nasser, no one will just sell you a nuke bomb, if you want it, you got to develop the relevant scientific-industrial infrastucture to make one yourself.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The geopolitics – including Shia/Sunni fears and the Arab vs Persian split – are well and widely documented. The specific proliferation risks named are well documented in nonproliferation literature.

      I’m not sure how much “program” you think is necessary. Neither has a civilian nuclear program of note. Both have scientific / university programs.

      Nuclear weapons can be as simple as a few thousand purchased centrifuges in a tunnel somewhere, a few tens of tons of Uranium ore, and a design. All of these have been on the open market (as it is) recently. The expensive part is the centrifuge site, and some yet-unidentified-in-public program wanted to buy such from Khan, who was offering to sell it.

      Iran has a large diverse program with mixed use features. They insist this is fundamentally peaceful / electric power and technology related. Skeptical interpretations would be a diverse weapons technology base and enough spent on civilian applications (some legitimate, to be fair) to provide cover and disguise for the weapons program.

      Saudi Arabia governmentally does not see Israel as a threat, much less existential threat. Iran, however…

      Egypt is not threatened by either Israel or Iran in any significant direct way, but the two issues above (Sunni/Shia, Arab/Persian) are both in play. Egypt’s former government did little to discourage the nonproliferatin fears, though there is little evidence of an active program running. The current government is unsettled. The current government’s geopolitical imperitives do not appear much different.

    • Johnboy (History)

      GWH: “The geopolitics – including Shia/Sunni fears and the Arab vs Persian split – are well and widely documented.”….and HUGELY overstated.

      Just ask Morsi, who scoffs at the very idea of there being any emnity between Iran and Egypt because of those two “fears”.

      A must-read for those who think either “fear” is the mind-killer:

  9. Juuso (History)

    AQ Khan did offer Gaddafi Chinese designed “CHIC-4” weapon, at least that is what’s told to public.

    • Denis (History)

      Gaddafi and Saddam are both excellent examples of why Tehran has to develop a nuclear deterrence-capability in the very short term. There is a pattern here, a neocon script, and anyone with a single working eyeball can see it. According to the script, Obama will announce that Iran is a “no-fly” zone fairly soon. In a weak attempt to maintain a moral-actor myth, the US prefers this incremental approach of slow strangulation followed by righteous reprisal to justify wiping out regimes that don’t bend to US demands. Israel could care less, they just pull the trigger on anyone they deem a threat, world opinion be damned.

      The reality for Tehran is that if Saddam or Gaddafi had had a nuke and a means of delivery, both would be alive today. Gaddafi is particularly instructive as a lesson to oil producing countries. Once Bush hit Iraq in 2003, both Gaddafi and Khamenei pooped their pants and made a public show of genuflection and disavowing nukes. Obviously, it didn’t work for Gaddafi. The West played him like a fish until they had their assets in position for a regime change. The same tactic would have worked in 2009 in Iran but for the viciousness of the Revolutionary Guard putting down the Green Revolution.

      Khamenei would be brain-ded not to see that the only way to avert the same fate as Saddam/Gaddafi is to acquire a deterrence-capability, a term I prefer over nuclear-capability b/c a deterrence-capability only requires the opponent to think that you MAY have a nuke. A buzzing rattle on a rattlesnake with no fangs is just as effective as a buzzing rattle on one with fangs.

      Because Iran is, perhaps, more direct when stating its opinion of Israel, we all seem to forget that Israel — particularly influential rabbis — have threatened to eliminate Iran, too. IOW, this whole existential thing is going both ways, but only one side has hundreds of nukes. I do not see how Iran can possibly allow Israel’s nuclear-backed hegemony to continue. Iran [in its present embodiment] and Israel [in its present embodiment] can co-exist in one of only two scenarios: MAD or a nuke-free ME. Iran cannot continue in a defenseless mode relying on the “rationality” of Israel or the “morality” of the US, particularly in a world of diminishing oil reserves and rabid neocons.

      And so the future holds one of four possibilities:
      1. Unilateral elimination of Israel’s nuclear hegemony by force, diplomacy, sanctions, etc. [USSR model]
      2. A forced regime change in Iran. [Iraq model]
      3. A nuke test or other assertion by Iran of a state of nuclear-deterrence leading to MAD. [India-Pakistan model]
      4. Elimination of all nukes from the ME by means of diplomacy or force asserted by outside actors. [New Zealand model]

      Sorry, there’s a 5th: A total military blow-out in the ME leading to regional/world war leading to either #1, #2, or #3, above. Obama is currently moving toward #2 according to the neocon script, perhaps dragging his feet hoping for #3 as an intermediary step to #4.

      I believe that Saudi’s threats to go nuclear if Iran does is a straw-man threat designed to force the issue of a nuclear free Middle East — i.e., ending the intolerable situation where Israel holds all the cards. They are right: Operation Samson has to come to an end for the sake of everyone. Enough already.

      With respect to the issue of Iran’s rationality vel non, which seems to by the lynchpin in most analyses, Israel’s rationality is equally suspect and hundreds of times more problematic given the size of their nuclear pantry. I think it was that one-eyed, wacko Zionist Moshe Dayan who concluded that Israel has to look and act like a “mad dog.” Well, “mad-dog” is just “god-dam” spelled backwards, as in “god-dam idiots,” which is what those relying on mad-dog diplomacy in a nuclear world are, if you’ll pardon my idiom.

    • Seb (History)

      Denis, it strikes me that the west would not have invested remotely as much attention and rather embarrassing political capital in fairly personal relations with the Gadaffis if it intended to volte face and depose him.

      It’s worth noting that the more invested a national oil company was in Libya, the less likely that country was to support intervention.

      The simple reality is that once Gadaffi renounced his weapons programme, all of Libya’s oil and gas was getting to market, much of it through western oil companies.

      The intervention against Gadaffi was simply a consequence of Gadaffi making it impossible to overlook his barbarity. Someone who stands in the glare of global media and threaten to go house to house killing the rats, that’s not someone you can do business with.

      And then that raises huge wider questions. Without western backing, or at least tacit consent, could Gadaffi conceivably win? Or would Libya start to look more like Chechnya in the 90’s or Somalia? Would it suck in Jihadi’s? Being so close to Europe and the Mediterranean shipping lines, what were the security implications?

      It’s ludicrous. The West didn’t conspire to oust Gadaffi in some decades long seduction to lure him into a false sense of security, the West tried to rehabilitate him, the Libyans who despised him rose against him, and his history and behaviour was such that there was no way anyone would stick their neck out for him or his regime.

      Had he had a nuke, he would still be gone today in much the same way that Assad is still deeply threatened despite having an arsenal of biochemical weapons. The only difference is that NATO might not have intervened, though possibly NATO might have intervened earlier and faster at the prospect of militants getting their hands on a nuke (which is more portable and usable for terrorism than battlefield biochemical weapons).

      Iran, meanwhile, has plenty of deterrence without a nuke, though I take your point. Equally, if Iran were not developing a bomb, there is very little rational calculus in anyone picking a conventional fight with them, particularly in the current global climate, bar their support for militant groups more widely.

    • anon2 (History)


      “The reality for Tehran is that if Saddam or Gaddafi had had a nuke and a means of delivery, both would be alive today.”

      And that is a good thing? This is a reason that Iraq needed a nuclear weapon? This is a reason that Libya needed a nuclear weapon?

      There is a fundamental difference between a dictator needing a nuclear weapon to support his “business” of using torture or military coercion to plundering his country for his inner circle’s own personal benefit (and in Iraq’s case his neighboring countries as well), and a state needing nuclear weapons.

      So I will grant you that both Saddam and Gadaffi would both be in dictatorial power forever with nukes. But it is still poses risks, particularly in the case of Iran, and needs to be prevented if at all possible without too great loss of innocent lives.

      If Iran uses the population of their entire country, included the well educated, politically disconnected from the Mullahs, and for the most part moderate Greens as human shields, the decision is more difficult. I feel for the university students, the Neda’s of Iran, and I fear for them.

      I do not have a good answer other than to hope that the current power holders in Iran take a more reasonable course; and for the Western powers to have a “Plan B” if they do not, i.e. forcing the issues.

      For the record, I believe that Saddam was unmitigated evil for killing his own people in the North; as was Gadaffi for ordering his loyal army units to slaughter his own people during the Libyan rebellion.

      Whomever ordered the Basiji out to shoot Neda was also Evil, but I am not convinced that order came from the top, although all evidence that I see shows that the current political leadership stole the election of Mousavi and encouraged the counter-protests that led to arrests, torture, and a few killings of the intellectually aware people supporting the Green revolution.

    • Mohammad (History)


      I just wanted to note that
      1. It’s far from certain that Neda Aghasoltan was actually killed by Bassij. No one has claimed seeing the shooting itself and there’s strong evidence that the Basiji who was accused of the killing (Abbas Kargar Javid) may not actually been involved in the murder, as he was apparently unarmed when at the scene.
      2. There’s almost overwhelming evidence (e.g. independent opinion polls) that the result of the 2009 election was genuine.
      3. As an Iranian (perhaps one of those “well-educated” ones who is BTW not Green) who lives in Iran, I ask you to be more careful about believing what you hear in mainstream media about the domestic situation in Iran. (Of course the same goes about believing things broadcast on PressTV, etc.) I myself have many Green friends, and I don’t deny that some of them still believe an election fraud happened, but to a neutral observer, the situation is clearly not as black-and-white as you depicted.

  10. Irshad (History)


    Thank you for your reply.

    1. Jack Straw, a former British Foreign Secretary, recounts a senior Saudi’s reply when asked about Saudi nuclear intentions:

    “We say that we will have to keep step with Iran. But in reality our people would never forgive us for tolerating Israeli nuclear weapons for so many years and developing nuclear weapons to balance their acquisition by Islamic Iran.”

    2. The Saudis are busy spending tens of billions of $$$ purchasing US weapons – they have been doing this for years, they need the US for all their security needs and the world for their economic needs. If there is even a hint that the Saudis are going nuke, I expect the Americans to pull the rug from under their feet. Unlike Iran, where the Islamic system came about due to a popular peoples revolution and still commands support amongst 70%+ of the population, the Saudi royal family lacks similar legitimacy from the people. They will rise up aginst them. There are many problems that is simmering away under the surface and if US also piles on the pressure, expect the Arab Spring in Riyadh.

    3. You are counting too much on the Sunni/Shiah, Arab/Persian split. This too me, looks like the old colonial game of divide and rule. The Sunni/Shiah stick is banded about by the Saudis, as the Wahabi branch of Islam they follow is based on secterianism. From rising up against the Ottomans, to Nasser, and now Iran. There is so far you can take this argument before it hits a wall – as playing on the secterian guard is not just dangerous for the Saudis (where millions of Shiah live) but other countries, such as Pakistan, Turkey, India, Lebanon, Iraq, etc. The secterian card threathens the national unity and social cohesion and stability of those states. Notice how Egypt and Turkey dont fall for this.

    3. The Arab/Persian split is a red herring. One of the most closest companion of the Prophet, was a Persian, Salman al-Farsi. You will not hear/read about anybody denigerating him in Saudi or Egypt or anywhere in the Muslim world. FYI, Iran is a country not based on Persia, but is based on the concept of “Irahn sahr”.

    4.Egypt does not have the financial resources to go for a nuke anytime soon – look at how bad their economy is doing at the moment. Their priority will be the economic and social stability. One reason why the AK Party is/was popular was, they concentrated on rasing the standard of living for ordiniary people. This is a model Mr Morsi will be following.

    5. Whilst Iran may have the technical ability to build a nuclear weapon, due to the “Islamic” nature of governance there will be no slide towards dashing for a bomb. Khamenie or whoever authroises it will have to go through a lot of legal (Shariah), moral and philosophical loops before they can simply say, lets build a bomb. You must understand Islamic law/ethics/philosophy to know that currently as things stand, Iran will not build a bomb. However, if Isreal attacks Iran, then expect everything to change, however I am extremely certain the clerical establishment will not push for a bomb. Similar to what happened when Saddam used chemical weapons against Iran and Khomeini forbade the Iranian military from retaliating with chemical weapons as it was considered “un-Islamic”.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Your arguments are reasoned, but have been considered and rejected by nonproliferation experts.

      You are suggesting a Saudi-Iranian detente that is in fact a cold war; Iran has supported Saudi militants and Saudi Arabia supported Iranian militants and protesters. Saudi Arabia has for some years reasonably openly bought not just defensive weapons but strike aircraft and cruis missiles – not because they fear or think they will need to strike Israel, but in fact looking northeast.

      Their participation in an international bombing campaign against Iran, if it comes to that, is possible to likely. They have hinted to people that they might proliferate and withdraw from the NPT if Iran breaks out.

      You can argue “oh, they would never do that” from reasonable first principles, but they act – in a not well concealed manner – as if Iran is a potential existential threat and they do not entirely trust the US shield.

      Af for a military cutoff if they proliferate…. Pakistan did and is now receiving support, tempered only by their own islamist elements. SA might see that as an acceptable risk.

    • Ed Marshall (History)

      For what it is worth the frm. Egyptian Ambassador and the frm. Turkish Foreign minister said in no uncertain terms that an Iranian bomb would trigger immediate action in their countries at the Global Zero summit in 2011. You can say “Well, diplomats are just paid liars anyway”, but that didn’t feel like lying. It was apologetic. The Saudis weren’t there, but I think the response would likely be the same.

    • ian stewart (History)

      “Rejected by nonproliferation experts” – George, that’s not a smart put-down. I know of no proliferation expert that is capable of accurately predicting responses to the possible outcomes of scenarios on which multiple actors have influence, and its foolish to pretend there is some common wisdom about how things will play out. More than that, failure to question such wisdom could contribute to it becoming self fulfilling, the reason I’m not a fan of rhetoric which assumes that if Iran goes nuclear then others will too.

      The causal logic required to get from today to a world in which Egypt acquires a weapon is filled with assumptions in at least four areas: Iranian breakout, Saudi/Egypt threat perception & calculus, non-intervention by the west, and capability acquisition. Hell, if we could work through these assumptions and get to credible answers then we’d also be able to predict with certainty how the Iran issue would come to a head.

    • Johnboy (History)

      GWH: “Your arguments are reasoned, but have been considered and rejected by nonproliferation experts.”

      Not meaning to be rude, George, but have you considered that “nonproliferation experts” AREN’T actually experts on the religious and/or ethnic tensions between Arabs and Persians, Shias and Sunnis?

      And not being experts in those fields then maybe, juuuuuust maybe, they should not presume to base their predictions on Things They Can’t Really Claim That They Understand?

    • George William Herbert (History)

      ian –

      Iran’s coming down to two questions –

      1) How close to the line can Iran push without triggering intervention (Israeli or US/larger coalition)?

      2) Has Iran made or will Iran make the political decision to go from capability / threshold status (now) to actual weapons in inventory?

      We know those are active questions; we can’t answer them yet, but we can predict outcomes because the possible answer set is limited. Among other things, there’s a high likelyhood that an attack triggers a weaponization, though not a guarantee. So probabilities of outcomes can be discussed rationally. Along with the potential that there are factors in play that introduce other salient questions, or something out in left field. But the conventional wisdom reduces to a fairly simple questions set.

      Regarding Saudi, Egyptian, and Turkish intentions…

      Countries do not go around casually mentioning interest in nuclear weapons programs that they do not have a national security interest in doing. The assertion “Oh, we do not know what they intend” or mentioning self-fulfilling predictions ignores that they all have at times (or, at least the prior Egyptian government did) telegraphed these issues and moves. The question is how close are they to seeing them at decision points for doing something (or deciding not to).

      Yes, I don’t want to construct a model which drives them to do it; but it’s also folly to disregard clear signs and indicators. They are only being moderately subtle. This has been noted by all sorts of serious nonproliferation people. That’s not a solid prediction, but it’s a clear indicator that this is on the table, being talked about, being considered seriously. Under those circumstances we need to take the question seriously.

      Iran might go nuclear and yet we find a way to dissuade or prevent SaudiBomb and EgyptBomb and TurkBomb; or one or all of those could chose not to on their own, despite telegraphing that they’re already thinking about it. But – again – they’re interlinked problems. We need to put that on the table, considering Iran. If A is likely to cause B, even if it’s not a certainty, then B should be considered as part of assessing A.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      GWH: “Your arguments are reasoned, but have been considered and rejected by nonproliferation experts.” Not meaning to be rude, George, but have you considered that “nonproliferation experts” AREN’T actually experts on the religious and/or ethnic tensions between Arabs and Persians, Shias and Sunnis? And not being experts in those fields then maybe, juuuuuust maybe, they should not presume to base their predictions on Things They Can’t Really Claim That They Understand?

      There is an ever-present danger of anyone here not knowing something they think they know.

      In this particular regard, we are talking about countries that have – publicly but not flashily – telegraphed that they are having these debates, concerns, and are at least considering weapons programs seriously enough to talk openly about it. As a rule, it is generally geopolitically assumed that one does not lightly do such things.

      This could be misinformation, diplomats off the reservation, misreporting, misinterpretation, bluffing, etc. But it’s not just one or two reports or one country.

      I and others tend to ascribe our own potentially flawed or mistaken interpretations into the presumed actual internal debates behind these. They could also be wrong. But the alternatives you and others are putting forwards are inconsistent with the quietly tipped statements. If those other interpretations were entirely true the governments involved would seemingly be overwhelmingly likely to disavow the statements immediately. They have not to my knowledge done so. What they continue to do is maintain ambiguity if directly asked.

      I will not pretend we’re not guessin. But we have good consistent reasons. Taking people talking about proliferating at their word seems reasonable.

    • kme (History)

      The inclusion of Turkey leads credence to the idea that these nuclearization hints are at least partly bluff. Turkey’s a NATO member with a major NATO airbase – it has no need to fear an Iranian bomb any more than a Russian one. Article 5 is a better deterrent than any “TurkBomb”.

  11. MK (History)

    President Obama, in a powerful address at the UN on September 25th, doubled down:

    “So let me be clear. America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited. We respect the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power, but one of the purposes of the United Nations is to see that we harness that power for peace. And make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That’s why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that’s why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

    • hass (History)

      The key phrase here is “a nuclear-armed Iran” and not a “nuclear-capable Iran”. Since Iran is not going for nuclear weapons, as conceeded by the consensus of 16 American intelligence agencies, then the rest of this is just speechifying, trying to sound tough for the benefit of pro-Israeli voters.

    • Miles Pomper (History)

      I’m afraid that much of this conversation implies that the increased costs of containment once Iran gets a nuclear weapon–ie the increase vs the cost of containing Iran now without one–are minimal.
      I don’t think that’s the case and at the very least the costs of containing Iran/extending deterrence to the region (which would be required) after Iran has n-weapons should be weighed carefully against the costs of a U.S. attack once Iran has clearly moved toward a weapon (ie not an Israeli attack before then). Simply drawing analogies with the Soviet or Chinese case is not sufficient.
      For more on my thinking, see my presentation http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fL8scVLKgXE

      Indeed, I think the administration has calculated that the costs will be greater to act before a weapon than after and there is at least a reasonable case for that.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Miles Pomper writes:
      Indeed, I think the administration has calculated that the costs will be greater to act before a weapon than after and there is at least a reasonable case for that.

      I believe that the international costs will be somewhat lower, as getting unanimity behind acting will be lower. But its existence, even without waving it around recklessly, will likely constrain how we engage.

      Also complicating significantly is the risk that we don’t recognize when they step over the threshold. Not knowing where they are relative to actual weaponization is already somewhat of a deterrent, and will only increase.

  12. Rob Goldston (History)

    Repeated bombing of Iran to limit its nuclear program would be a nightmare. On the other hand, are we going to allow Iran to enrich to 90% now in order to fuel a future nuclear-powered submarine? Or suppose Iran expels the IAEA because its inspectors are spies? Iran has prepared the ground for both possibilities. If we allow Iran to go forward with its program in either of these scenarios, what becomes of the NPT? Furthermore, as Miles asks, what does a “deterred” Iran look like, given Iran’s propensity for brinkmanship? How does it look when a nuclear-armed Iran closes the Gulf of Hormuz? Does Iran hold Israel hostage? They have prepared the ground for that as well. One bomb will destroy Israel, they say, without too much consequent damage to the Muslim world. Suppose China backs Iran because its oil is allowed through. Do we start a conventional war that risks another holocaust, and/or igniting a nuclear 1914, to borrow a phrase? Or do we give in to whatever Iran demands? How does this nightmare compare with the first?

    • Rob Goldston (History)

      1) *Strait* of Hormuz”, sorry about that.
      2) Did we just hear Netanyahu a) announce he was going to wait at least until Spring 2013 and b) set a red line at > 20% enrichment, per Emily Landau’s recommendation? His grammar was a bit complex, but to cross the red line he drew requires enrichment over 20%.

    • Rob Goldston (History)

      There will little time to form a broad coalition for military action when/if Iran starts a sprint towards HEU. But such a coalition will be needed for a degree of international legitimacy. See the recent report “Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran” by The Iran Project. Should the U.S. start building a coalition now, including majority Muslim states? Or perhaps this is going on already, beneath the visible surface of events.

  13. anon2 (History)


    “Since Iran is not going for nuclear weapons, as conceeded by the consensus of 16 American intelligence agencies”

    I am glad you have so much faith in the 2007 unclassified NIE. I have no faith in this estimate, particularly as Iran has publicly stated that they misled the western intelligence agencies at this time, and current evidence points to a reactivation of the nuclear weapons program in Iran. I can provide as necessary footnoted article references. Not that my references are canonical, but neither is the 2007 NIE. They are all estimates based upon the available information, and they are subject to error risk.

    Therefore, I believe it is not possible to conclude that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, and that in my estimation the probability that they do have an active weaponization program is at least 70%. Does this mean that they intend to go all the way towards a bomb, i.e. sprint/breakout. Maybe, maybe not. But I think sitting back on old public intelligence statements is a weak argument for doing nothing. I am not sure what something is, but basing whatever the decision on hoping the 2007 NIE conclusion remains correct is very risky and may have a large negative expected value.

  14. Irshad (History)


    1. “Your arguments are reasoned, but have been considered and rejected by nonproliferation experts.” – who are these “experts”? for whom do they work – US Intel community, IAEA? Has their views been challenged by their peers? Please don’t hide behind such un-verifiable blanket statement. Are these the same “experts” who were telling the world that Iraq was going to go nuke and is developing chemical/biological weapons in mobile labs? Has nothing been learned after the Iraq debacle, that cost the lives of over 100,000 Iraqis and over 4000 US personnel?

    2. Iran’s religious and political leadership have said publicly and privately Iran will not build a nuke – they have spent too much of their prestige and trust, now to suddenly decide that they will need to build a nuke. The fatwa of Ayatollah Khamenie’s against building and possessing nukes is the final say on this matter. He is both head of state and a religious leader who has to answer not just to his followers but Islamic scholars/jurists all over the world – if suddenly the Iranian state built a nuke. He will certainly lose his legitimacy, prestige and trustworthiness and will politically weaken the Islamic Republic. Too many promises have been made to back peddle now.

    3. You also must understand that this fatwa also enshrines the views that Ayatollah Khomemi declared when he was alive – opposing nukes. Google what he had to say about it. This position is based on the notion that nukes represented the objectification of the principles of death by man on earth. This is backed up by reference to the Quran, where you have the story of Nimrod, who claimed to be the giver of life and death and therefore is a god (this is heresy in Islam). By possessing nukes, it does not make those nations, gods, although they have the power to cause mass death and destruction, God rejects that as any real power. In the same way He rejected Nimrod’s claim to divinity (incidentally Abraham challenged Nimrod – and he is the common father of Jews, Christians and Muslims).

    4. If there is a attack on Iran by either Isreal or USA, then not only will this kill the NPT, but how many people are going to be killed? According to the Times ( http://world.time.com/2012/09/27/how-many-civilians-would-be-killed-in-an-attack-on-irans-nuclear-sites/ ) , 70,000 people would be killed and injured and another 300,000 exposed to radioactive material. Is this price worth the hypothetical nuke, Iran is building? Maybe you will want to speak with Dr Ciamak Moresadagh, who runs the Dr Sapir Hospital and Charity, a Jewish hospital in Tehran, who may have to deal with the dead and wounded after such an attack, what he thinks. Or what will you say to Jewish people when they read that the tomb of the Prophet Daniel in the city of Shoush or the tombs of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan have been destroyed and is part of the overall “collateral damage”? President Ahmednejad, recently in NY, gave an interview to David Ignatius where he offered that Iran will agree to suspending 20% uranium enrichment – has anyone taking him up on the offer? No! And why not? Or is the goal here not nuclear proliferation but regime change at an opportune time and all this is just an smoke screen? If there is an attack, then expect points 2 and 3 to change.

    5. I will present to you the findings of the Arab Opinnion Index which found that:

    “73 percent of respondents believe that Israel and the US are the two countries presenting the largest threat to the security of the Arab world, with 51 percent believing that Israel is the most threatening, 22 percent believe the US is the most threatening, and 5 percent reporting a belief that Iran is the single country most threatening to the security of their countries. The results on this question vary from one Arab country to another”


    So much for your Sunni/Shiah, Arab versus Persian dichotomy!

    6. Your logic is based on the premise of, if they can do it, they will do it – I believe you are wrong. Egypt simply cannot afford to build a bomb, even though it may can. Saudi will not buy a bomb, even though they can. I will not run over my neighbor’s dog, even though I can!

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Irshad wrote in part:
      4. If there is a attack on Iran by either Isreal or USA, then not only will this kill the NPT, but how many people are going to be killed? According to the Times ( http://world.time.com/2012/09/27/how-many-civilians-would-be-killed-in-an-attack-on-irans-nuclear-sites/ ) , 70,000 people would be killed and injured and another 300,000 exposed to radioactive material. Is this price worth the hypothetical nuke, Iran is building? Maybe you will want to speak with Dr Ciamak Moresadagh, who runs the Dr Sapir Hospital and Charity, a Jewish hospital in Tehran, who may have to deal with the dead and wounded after such an attack, what he thinks. Or what will you say to Jewish people when they read that the tomb of the Prophet Daniel in the city of Shoush or the tombs of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan have been destroyed and is part of the overall “collateral damage”? President Ahmednejad, recently in NY, gave an interview to David Ignatius where he offered that Iran will agree to suspending 20% uranium enrichment – has anyone taking him up on the offer? No! And why not? Or is the goal here not nuclear proliferation but regime change at an opportune time and all this is just an smoke screen? If there is an attack, then expect points 2 and 3 to change.

      I’m a little confused about that report. The IAEA inventory and declared quantity of LEU in Iran is 6,800 kg. That report cites a quantity of 371 tons, 50 times larger.

      Those numbers do not add up. If the 300 plus tons is accurate it would have to include depleted or unenriched uranium. Please clarify.