American presidents insisted for two decades that they would never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, but they let Iran make so much progress that its bomb program is now effectively unstoppable. The US leadership’s mistake was to forgo all military action except as a last resort, which gave Iran the green light for incremental but irreversible nuclear advances. Admitting this error will not stop Iran but may block future proliferators.
Atomic bombs require highly enriched plutonium or uranium. Countries seeking such weapons must be able to enrich uranium or a nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant to obtain plutonium. This is why US nonproliferation policy has focused on preventing the spread of enrichment and reprocessing. Weaponry also requires additional technology – a metal core, implosion set, and delivery system – but these cannot be easily controlled as the research is small scale or can be derived from legitimate civilian technologies.
Iran has gone the uranium route, and it took about 25 years to master rudimentary centrifuges that get rich slowly. But a decade ago, Iran began researching more efficient centrifuges that could quickly or clandestinely produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear arsenal before anyone could react.
The only way the United States could have derailed Iran’s bomb program was to block its mastery of efficient centrifuges. Presidents Obama and Trump have failed to do so. Mr. Obama adopted the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which explicitly allowed Iran to develop and test advanced “IR-4, IR-5, IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges” and then to deploy 30 IR-8 centrifuges, the most sophisticated model, in 2024. After 2030, the agreement had no limits on centrifuges.
Mr Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions, after which Iran breached the deal’s enrichment restrictions and gained substantial experience with centrifuges up to IR -6, storing weapons-grade uranium for the first time in 2021. Both presidents acquiesced to Iran’s mastery of advanced centrifuges, but Mr. Trump shortened the deadline.
Surgical military strikes can no longer block Iran’s path to the bomb. A declared large facility equipped with advanced centrifuges could enrich uranium for many bombs in a matter of weeks, before the international community could determine what was going on inside, let alone react. Smaller, undetected enrichment facilities could secretly produce the same amount within months. Iran has already conducted research on the metallic uranium core, the implosion package and the delivery system for a nuclear weapon.
Years ago, military force could have blocked Iran’s nuclear program through bombings or raids on enrichment facilities to hamper the experiment with advanced centrifuges. Even a credible US threat could have forced a better deal to ban Iran from deploying these technologies.
But the Obama and Trump administrations refused to consider decisive military action, leaving Israel’s much smaller military and intelligence services to resort to cyberattacks and bombings, which only set Iran back. of a few months.
The fundamental flaw in American policy was the shibboleth that military action was a last resort. This doctrine grew out of military fiascos in Vietnam and Lebanon and was famously enunciated in 1984 by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and in 1992 by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. Subsequent American losses in Somalia and Iraq strengthened the doctrine.
The policy of last resort is fatally flawed. Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz argued that force should be employed when it is the best option to maximize national security, not the last option. By delaying the threat or the use of force, MM. Obama and Trump acquiesced to Iran’s nuclear progress and left the United States with no good option today.
Even if negotiations restore the 2015 deal in some form, Iran’s expertise in centrifugation cannot be ignored. A military solution would now require a full invasion, which would be reckless and politically untenable. The last remaining hope, a long shot, is to pursue regime change in other ways.
The United States should always consider all options, including military action, to achieve its security objectives. Armed force will not always be the best choice, and I publicly opposed a war on Iraq in 2003. But the next time a president insists that force is a last resort Americans should ask themselves why and never forget how this misguided policy gave Iran a clear path to the bomb.
Mr. Kuperman is an associate professor at the University of Texas at the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin and coordinator of its Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project.
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