image Iran’s Vienna Challenge: Cashing In On The Nukes It Will Never Have. Photo: Reuters

Power, Prestige And A Persian Paradox

  • When The Optional Is The Optimal

By Amir Oren

Iran will never have Nuclear weapons. This is not a solemn vow a-la Mossad Chief David Barnea, just a reflection of reality. The rulers of Tehran know it. They are sober and rational, fiery rhetoric aside. A successful political investor with a fabrastic exit under his belt, Naftali Bennett, recently admitted as much. They may dream of Nuclear warheads on parade in the Iranian capital, but know enough to realize that waking up will be cold and cruel. This is the Persian Paradox – the closer they seem to the destination, the worse off they are, because the friction will make further movement unbearable and the Holy Grail (or its Islamic equivalent) will be snatched from their grasp.

So why is the JCPOA resurrection saga, now on stage in Vienna (and most probably with some back channel conducted on the American side by CIA Director Bill Burns, a veteran of such contacts under President Obama), being dragged through the motions?

In the Iranian Nuclear story, the Happy End is less inportant than the plot leading towards it. While the Iranians are certain to emerge without Nukes, the exercise is not futile. It resembles a world-class Miler who races four times inside a stadium, only to reach the starting point. Did he thus make any progress? Of course, he has a medal to prove it.

When the Iranian road towards a Nuclear arsenal is commented on, a baseball game is imagined. The entire world (less North Korea and Syria) is pitching to the Iranian batters, who try to hit runs, either of the home-run variety or by running bases, or both. In popular lore, the Iranians have failed to hit the ball out of the park, but are trying to steal bases. The global team is trying to have the batters strike out and to tag those who make a run for it – by enriching Uranium to military-quality level.

Sounds ominous, what if those clever Iranians sneak home, but in fact it is just an exhibition game, with the batters swinging rubber clubs and the ground between bases mined. The runners are stuck in limbo, neither here nor there, or in this case in limbomb.

The issue is not whether Iran has a legitimate case for acquiring Nuclear weapons. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraq posed an existential threat to the Islamic Republic, it was only natural for Khomeini’s to counter Atoms with Atoms. In that confrontation, Israel was only a supporting actor, with Iran the lesser evil. While the Israel Air Force was secretly training for the Osiraq mission, the Ill-maintained F-4’s of the (formerly Imperial) Iranian Air Force tried to strike it, barely making a dent. With Saddam determined to reconstitute his Nuclear project in the 1980’s, the Iranians re-joined the race originally started by the Shah for a mixture of reasons – fear of Soviet invasion, the contest with Iraq over the Persian Gulf and his general quest for stature.

In the world order established by both the bang which ended Japan’s resistance and the mechanism created to implement the lessons of the failed League of Nations, there emerged two ultimate status symbols – a permanent, veto-powered seat in the United Nations Security Council and posession of Nuclear weapons.  From the 1970’s on, when China replaced Taiwan, it so happens that the P-5 are also the major Atomic powers.

The Americans, sole proprietors of the weapon in 1945, were joined by the Soviets and shared with the British. If the Soviets had it, the Chinese – who fell out with them – would not stay passive. When China went Nuclear, India had to, too, with Pakistan following suit by the same logic. France, meanwhile, insisted on having its own independent Nuclear force, which now looks like an expensive relic, with no real enemies to fight or deter.

Several nations with economic and technological resources preferred crowding under the American umbrella to investing on their own with enormous political costs. Germany, Japan, Sweden, Canada, Italy could have all done it, but thought better of it. South Korea and Taiwan initiated programs but stopped them. And the Latin American heavyweights, Brazil and Argentina, agreed that neither should undertake the burden only to cancel each other out.

In the Middle East there were two couples which have transformed into one. Israel was first paired with Egypt, hashtags #Dimona and #Germanscientists. Cairo later decided to forgo its own effort and concentrate on diplomatic moves against Israel’s perceived Nuclear monopoly. For Israel, the most profitable Nuclear industry turned out to be the promise to hide it from view and neither test it nor declare its availability. In return for this discount in deterrence – not a big one, as it was assumed to exist, anyway – Israel was given access to weapon systems it badly needed for Conventional warfare, primarily the coveted F-4 Phantom. It was a very good deal for Israel, and what the Iranians are aiming at now is a variation on it.

The Iranian military Nuclear project was frozen in 2003 for two complementary reasons. The American invasion of Iraq showed that Washington would rather err on the side of caution, if it assessed  that a hostile regime is on the verge of acquiring of Nuclear weapons and could then use them. The CIA’s intelligence turned out to be unsubstantiated, but the lesson learned in Tehran was that a U.S. President may decide to go to war when told that a Saddam – or a Khamineii – is projected to have Nukes not soon, but in four to six years. To that strategic calculus was added a geographical one, the proximity of American forces, now, next door.

So much for the United States, which under several leadership teams repated its commitment to stop Iran in its Nuclear tracks. Then there is Israel, with its proven record of putting its military where its mouth is against reactors in the neighborhood – after Iraq 1981, Syria 2007.

Prudent Persian planners would have to assume, based on these patterns, that the United States and Israel, independently of each other or in conjunction, will (a) find out that a decision to go Nuclear was made in Tehran and is being acted upon, and (b) take preventive action by whatever means. The upshot will be that no Iranian Nuclear arsenal could be operating beyond its grand (Ayatollah) opening. Betting on challenging the American-Israeli military threat and proving it a paper tiger is too much of a risk. And even if the dream comes true and Iran is the proud owner of Nuclear weapons, its momentary advantage will be met with competition by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and UAE. If almost everybody has it, and the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime collapses, Iran will not have a premier place.

But that does not mean that Iran should be expected to publicly recognise the futility of its Nuclear enterprise and follow the example of South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, all of whom got rid of the Nukes which they possessed either by design or by accident of history. In these cases, faced either by an upheaval in the system of government or by the prospect of living alongside a Nuclear power, leaders rejected the view of these weapons as assets. Rather, they have become a pain in the asset.

In their inner councils, the Iranians surely relate these experiences to their own. They, too, have been faced by a combination of warnings and incentives. It makes eminent sense for them to trade their Nuclear potential for tangible benefits. But the operative word is “trade”. No freebies, no uncoditional surrender. Get something of value, of more value, in exchange for a verifiable promise not to use the option. Make a deal. It’s a bazaar, isn’t it.

And it has to be couched in dignified language. An agreement between equals. National prestige preserved and enhanced, for domestic and regional reasons. The horizon will still be there, a decade or so from now, though the constraints and considerations are not going to change fundamentally – Iran would probably be even more vulnerable to Cyber.

For the Iranian regime, it is best to have both a deal and the ability to tell its audience that somewhere, over the rainbow and after the sunset, there lies total Atomic independence. It is also useful for those Israeli politicians who need a Great Satan of their own as a constant diversion from the pervasive problem of peace. Plus, the common threat of Iran has already upgraded Israel’s relations with Gulf regimes. For too many actors, status is more important than substance.