Opinion

A Countdown to War

Iran has so far decided not to develop a nuclear bomb, but the American threats could now convince it that it has no choice

Iranians burn a U.S. flag during a protest in Tehran, Iran, May 11, 2018
\ TASNIM NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS

For more than four decades, Iran has had an ongoing romance with the bomb, but it has not obtained a nuclear weapon. It should be made clear that Iran has not managed to develop a nuclear bomb not because it wasn’t up to the technology. On the contrary, Iran, like North Korea, could have handily dealt with the technological challenge. It was just a few months away from its first nuclear bomb on the eve of signing the nuclear agreement with the world powers in 2015.

It wasn’t Israel that stood between Iran and the bomb. True, Israel did make it harder on the Iranians, through sabotage, hinderance and intimidation, but that’s not what prevented Iran from developing a bomb. The sanctions that the world imposed on the country also made it more difficult, but they were not what stopped it either.

Iran doesn’t have the bomb because it never decided that it is a national necessity. The widespread Israeli belief that Iran is determined to go nuclear reflects the politics of fear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has developed into an art form, but is not based on reality. In fact, Iran’s ongoing battle with a number of countries on the nuclear issue hasn’t been a battle over the atom bomb itself but rather over how close it would be able to come to the “option” to develop a bomb. Iran itself has never publicly addressed the right to develop a nuclear weapon, instead making reference to its right to enrich uranium as a non-nuclear country and signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Many have viewed the fact that Iran surreptitiously developed a “weapons group” – flagrantly violating the treaty in the process – as evidence of its determination to develop nuclear weapons, but if Iran really had such a commitment, it would have maintained the group as a single entity, and like North Korea, would have withdrawn from the non-proliferation treaty long ago. Iran refrained from either step, which in my view reflects the fact that its nuclear weapon aspirations were tempered rather than steadfast.

The importance of the 2015 nuclear deal is that it solidified Iran’s non-nuclear status. Tehran committed itself not to develop nuclear weapons as long as the agreement was in force. If the non-proliferation treaty was vague on the dividing line between what is and what isn’t permitted, the nuclear agreement clearly defined it, which brings us to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the agreement.

Trump’s decision is more damaging to the agreement than meets the eye. The U.S. president has the ability to establish a sanctions regime – including sanctions against entities that trade with Iran – to such an extent that it could bring about the collapse of the deal even absent the withdrawal of the other world powers. Trump is even prepared to do damage to the foundations of the transatlantic alliance, which has been the basis of the world order since the end of World War II, just to prevail over his European allies and force them to also abandon the agreement. He is easily prepared to destroy what exists without proposing a positive alternative, other than a vague aggressive assurance that he has the capacity to bring Iran to its knees and to achieve a better deal.

If the U.S. withdrawal brings about the agreement’s collapse, it can be assumed with nearly total certainty that Iran would reject Trump’s demand to renegotiate it. Not only would Iran refuse to renegotiate it, but it is reasonable to assume that the American threats would cause Tehran to come to a decision that it had refrained from in the past: a national commitment to develop a nuclear weapon.

The conclusion to be drawn from the American threats is that only a country with nuclear weapons capabilities would be able to stand up to American-Israeli bullying aimed at cutting Iran down to size and bringing about regime change in Tehran. Trump’s decision is the beginning of a countdown to war.

In Israel, Trump’s decision is seen by the public as a major achievement on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s part. Trump is viewed as a president who has fully embraced Netanyahu’s views on Iran. And like the prime minister, the U.S. president sees the Islamic Republic as the root of evil and is prepared to act to damage its standing even at the cost of war. Ostensibly, what could be better?

But it’s important for Israelis to understand that the alliance with Trump and his administration is likely to be shown as unreliable in short order. It should be remembered that there has not been a single president in the history of the United States whose public standing has been so fragile. Trump could find himself in a battle for his own survival within months in the face of attempts to remove him from office.

If in the next U.S. election, Israel and its prime minister are seen as having led Trump and the United States into a calculated policy of self-destruction, that – to put it mildly – would not be to Israel’s benefit.

Avner Cohen is a professor of non-proliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.