During the decades preceding Trump’s election, both Israeli and U.S. leaders swore that their greatest wish was to ensure Iran did not obtain nuclear weapons. There was an argument between the two countries about the best way to do this, with U.S. presidents Bush and Obama refusing to use military force; while Israel argued incessantly that the only way to stop Iran from doing so was through a military strike.
I predicted here the same day that Soleimani was killed that JCPOA was dead. And indeed today the Iranians confirmed that they’ve abandoned it and will enrich uranium at its own pace, uninfluenced by outside interests. After reading former senior Obama Defense Department official, Frank Kendall’s analysis of this question, it’s clear that there are even bigger stakes. After Trump took the gloves off in murdering the most significant military leader in the Middle East, one of the most decisive steps Iran could take to respond is by renewing its nuclear weapons program, which it suspended in 2003.
Since 1984, Israeli media have been predicting Iran is six, twelve or eighteen months from getting “The Bomb.” Now, those pipe dreams could very easily turn true.
Until now, Iran has not only adhered to the JCPOA agreement, it has foresworn developing nuclear weapons. Whether or not Republicans believed them or not was immaterial. Everything Iran did indicated it was sincere in taking nuclear weapons off the table (at least for the length of JCPOA, if not longer).
But what incentive does Iran have now? It sees that Trump views virtually every country that refuses to bend to his will as a two-bit state; like the “shitty African countries” he railed against earlier in his presidency. If the president was willing to assassinate someone of Soleimanin’s stature, Iran now must believe Trump is capable of going much farther: up to and including war.
Other than continuing to build its military defenses in order to make the U.S. and its allies pay dearly for such an attack, what other options does Iran have? Yes, it can launch cyber-attacks, drone assaults on Saudi oil fields, and terror attacks against U.S. (or Israeli targets). But these are incremental methods, not decisive ones. They can do damage and inflict pain. But they are not game-changers.
Announcing that Iran has renewed its nuclear program and intends to build nuclear weapons would be that type of decisive step. As analysts have noted before, there are two options Iran sees regarding nations pursuing nuclear status: Libya and North Korea. Ghaddafi gave up his nuclear program in return for benefits offered him by those states who wanted his facilities dismantled. But when he faced internal enemies, he did so naked with no means of threatening the world. If he had such weapons, he could have demanded foreign help to prevent the weapons from falling into the hands of his enemies. Further, a leader with nuclear weapons is a much more formidable one even to his domestic enemies.
Then there is North Korea: Kim Jong Un and his father understood that nuclear weapons give him multiple options in extorting/influencing both his friends, the Chinese, and his enemies, the Americans. Trump would not dream of assassinating Kim or Kim’s military chief as he did Soleimani. He knows that the Korean dictator is fully capable of launching a nuclear missile at Tokyo or perhaps even the U.S. There are many insane measures Trump would contemplate. But even that he would not. There is apparently some deterrence the president understands.
The other benefit of developing an Iranian nuclear arsenal is that it does not involve recruiting proxy armies, fighting prolonged insurgencies in Syria or Yemen, or the death of 1-million of its soldiers as happened during the Iran-Iraq War. As David Ben Gurion discovered, having nuclear weapons is a relatively inexpensive and powerful deterrent against one’s regional enemies. It also enabled Israel to stand up to its allies (or even defy them) when you don’t like what they’re saying to you.
As Jewish tradition says, “since Moses, prophecy has departed from Israel.” I do not claim prophecy or clairvoyance. But I can look at the options Iran has, and see what appears to be the most pragmatic ones available. Getting nukes would appear to be one.
If Iran does so, it probably would not announce this aim. It would pursue the research as quietly and covertly as possible. This is precisely what Israel did in developing its own arsenal. After all, Iran doesn’t want to alienate the few nations in the world who do not want to see it attacked. At some point, when there is an existential threat Iran can always tell the world what it has done.
This, of course, contradicts the North Korean model of boasting about having nukes and threatening to use them. But there is a key difference between Iran and the North: the latter has one of the world’s superpowers as its ally. For whatever reason, China appears to need Kim as much as he needs China. So he can get away with much more. Iran has no such champion. So it must tread softly and conceal that “big stick” Teddy Roosevelt carried with him in his dealings with the world.
So returning to where we started, Trump may have done precisely what both Israel and two previous presidents desperately sought to avoid. It may have guaranteed Iran will be hellbent on getting nukes.
There is one major danger to renewing the nuclear program: it will embolden the war hawks advocating regime change in Washington and Tel Aviv. It would make such a full-scale military assault more likely. But the question the Iranians are asking themselves is likely: whatever danger we face by developing nuclear weapons, do we have a choice not to, considering the psychopath we face in the White House?