World must consider how to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran
Who believes the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna will land a deal? Who thinks that a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action 2.0 will emerge?
At some stage, non-regional powers will have to grapple with Iran joining the nuclear club, becoming the 10th nuclear-armed power in the world. With enough highly enriched uranium to fashion a nuclear weapon, it now has to work on a warhead and enhance its ballistic missile capabilities. Time is running out. Meaningful monitoring is all but over.
Few in the West appear to be debating what this will mean. Where are the political debates and parliamentary discussions?
The EU has sent a delegation to Iran, but with all the hallmarks of a five-minutes-to-midnight effort, the last throw of the European dice, even a zombie policy. This effort has led to an announcement of the imminent resumption of US-Iranian talks. A last-minute deal is always possible but not inevitable.
The fear for Iran hawks is that the US and the EU are more likely to cave in right now than the Iranian leadership. Every day Iran gets closer to the bomb, it gains leverage. The longer the Russia-Ukraine conflict keeps the oil and gas prices high, Iran’s top brass will feel emboldened.
Iran has sanctions-proofing deals with China and Venezuela. Much of the world wants Iranian hydrocarbons on the market. Iran has benefited from higher oil and gas prices. In May, it was exporting about 461,000 barrels per day, but this rose to 961,000 barrels per day in the first half of this month, largely destined for China.
An agreement looks unlikely. Iran sees few advantages in returning to the 2015 nuclear deal. It is wary that a commitment from the current US administration may last just a couple of years before being shredded once again. It may just run the clock down on the deal.
Russia and the US are barely cooperating as a result of Ukraine, a situation hardly likely to improve. Washington is distracted with midterm elections and Ukraine. If the US and its allies escalate actions against Iran, then Tehran responds by accelerating its nuclear file.
The European focus has been on achieving a deal. Josep Borell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, stated: “Reaching an agreement on the JCPOA is more important than ever. For nonproliferation, global security and regional stability.”
Yet, does the EU or the US have even the scratchiest of strategies to handle a nuclear-armed Iran? Why is the world not discussing and preparing for this eventuality? In a crisis, few want to imagine the worst-case scenario. What happens when Iran tests a weapon?
War looks unlikely. A full-frontal assault on Iran attracts few takers. Israel has hinted at it but without American involvement, which seems foolhardy. The Russia-Ukraine war has escalated a massive cost of living crisis, ensured energy price hikes and left many countries facing famine-like conditions. US gas prices are currently averaging over $5 per gallon at the pump.
Throw in a major war in the heart of the global hydrocarbon industry and just start guessing how high energy prices will rise. Even a threat to blockade the Strait of Hormuz would shatter the confidence of jittery markets.
The Iranian leadership knows this. It does not mean going nuclear would be pain-free. Additional sanctions would ensue. Delicate relations with neighbors would be in turmoil.
Israel and Iran have been in semi-confrontation mode for months. Israel this month bombed Damascus airport, one of more than 400 airstrikes against Iran and its allies in Syria since 2017. It also accused Iran of planning to attack Israeli tourists in Turkey.
Clearly, Israel is being less coy about its actions against Iran as part of its “Octopus Doctrine” of going for the head, not the arms. Israel tended to hit Iranian-linked targets outside the country but is also clearly prepared to carry out actions inside Iran itself.
Regional diplomacy has at least been active and broken relations between a host of states are under a process of renewal. Qatar is out of isolation. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have renewed ties. Many states are talking to the Iranians. This helps to an extent and, vitally, gives opportunities to move away from a dangerous regional cold war or worse. Diminishing tensions in the region could improve the climate for talks and what can be achieved on the non-nuclear issues. This would include building on the ceasefire talks in Yemen.
Those powers wanting to prevent Iran from going nuclear may have missed their chance. They have missed many chances over the years and valuable time and effort has been wasted.
What are the options? No doubt American and European diplomats will exhaust every last conceivable opening with the talks. Who knows? Miracles happen, we are told. Others argue for a return to a maximum pressure campaign on Iran. This could work but is risky. Those delicate openings with Iran and talks would perish. Iran is better able to cope today thanks to Chinese assistance. Some also argue the maximum pressure policy of President Donald Trump did not work.
The fear for Iran hawks is that the US and the EU are more likely to cave in right now than the Iranian leadership.
An unpleasant but alarming option is that the region and the world will have to accept and live with a nuclear-armed Iran. The Middle East would have its second nuclear weapons state — hardly a way to calm tensions. Nuclear proliferation will escalate and the US may have to offer a nuclear umbrella to its allies.
Maybe Iran will not build such a weapon at this juncture, but just declare that it is nuclear capable, having reached the breakout point. The Iranian leadership has concluded that nuclear-armed states tend not to get invaded, citing Iraq in 2003 and the way Libya gave up its weapons of mass destruction program, only to be attacked in 2011. Despite all the hostile rhetoric from the US, North Korea has developed both its nuclear and ballistic capabilities. Russia occupies huge chunks of Ukraine, which was once a nuclear power.
A nuclear-armed Iran could provoke other countries to go down this path. Many will be concerned about the safety of any weapons program. The more fearful may wonder if Iran would permit a nonstate actor to get its hands on a weapon — but this is very unlikely as Iran would want to be in total control.
Still, it is time to debate this. We cannot live in this make-believe world, crossing our fingers and hoping. A political deal will not happen or will be just to buy time. A military option is off the table. Iran will, therefore, probably get a nuclear bomb. How do we live with that? That is a question nobody is answering.
- Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding in London. Twitter: @Doylech