Is an Iran With Nuclear Weapons a Red Line for America?

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader (AFP photo)

US leaders have many options before them on how to respond to the Iranian nuclear crisis.  The policies differ in the severity of their responses and each has its pros and cons. In the end, the Obama administration will need to ask itself whether or not Iran’s attempt to acquire nuclear weapons is a “red line” for America. President Obama’s answer to this question will largely determine which action he will take against Iran.

Similar to a line drawn in the sand that separates two foes and the moment that line is crossed combat commences, in foreign affairs a “red line” refers to an action taken by one state (or an international actor) that another state is unwilling to accept under any circumstances -and is willing to fight over it. The Soviet attempt to install nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, for instance, was a red line issue for the US.

In a more recent example, the ABM (anti-ballistic missile) system that President Bush wanted to build in Poland and the Czech Republic was a red line for Russia. The official US view on the ground-based interceptors was that they were to defend Europe from a possible Iranian or North Korean missile launch. However, to Russia, the presence of a US-owned ABM system on its western border was believed to threaten its nuclear arsenal. Russia made it clear that the ABM system was a red line and that, if installed, Russia would destroy it. President Obama canceled the program in September 2009.

As Russia determined that the ABM program was a red line so Obama needs to determine if Iran’s ownership of nuclear weapons is a red line for the US. If it is not, then a softer policy vis-à-vis Iran is possible. If it is a red line, then even a radical measure such as airstrikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities is an option.

However, if Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons will ONLY embolden it to sharply increase its subversive activities in the Sunni-dominated Arab states and against US foreign policy in the Middle East, through Iran’s well-established support and links to militant and terrorist organizations, then Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons should NOT be considered a red line.

While an aggressive Iran would be troublesome and would require additional resources to counter, Iran has its own foreign policy interests -as does the US- and will naturally seek to achieve them. The world of foreign affairs and national security is not for the faint of heart. It is a game of “hard ball”.

Moreover, so long as the US and Iran are enemies, or have radically opposing interests, no one should expect Iran to passively go along with the US-Sunni status quo in the Middle East. On the contrary, with the removal of Saddam Hussein from Iraq, who was Iran’s number one enemy, the US-Sunni status quo has already inched some towards Iran. With the Taliban’s expulsion from power in Afghanistan, another Iranian enemy, that shift continued further. Put simply, Iran has the will and some degree of power to carry out its anti-West and anti-Sunni agenda and it will try its best to do so.

If Iran gets nuclear weapons, the conventional thinking is that Iran would gain even more regional influence to conduct its subversive activities since it could do so with impunity because it would think itself impervious to retaliation. After all, who would attack Iran if it had nuclear weapons?

However, nuclear weapons might not give the Iranian government the boost in regional influence that it is hoping for since the US continues to install a large number of Patriot missile interceptors throughout the Gulf. The Patriots would seem to cancel out Iran’s missile strike capability, thus negating any additional leverage that Iran might hope to gain through nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, if the US determines that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is unacceptable under any circumstances then US options in the Iranian nuclear crisis are at once narrowed. For instance, if Obama concludes that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons will result in all out nuclear proliferation without accountability, which would be the likely scenario since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would be null and void by default, then Iran’s pursuit of the bomb is a red line for the US -and for the world.

(Incidentally, countries like China and Russia should rethink their protection of the Iranian government in the UN Security Council. They should remember that they both have significant Muslim minorities, who are perceived by Muslims all over the world to be persecuted by the Chinese and Russian governments. If Iran gets the bomb, you could have a situation where militant or terrorist groups acquire a nuclear weapon through Iran (through elements in the Revolutionary Guard Corps?) and use it to blackmail the Chinese and Russian governments to grant independence to Xinjiang Province and Chechnya.)

If Obama decides that Iran’s nuke quest is a red line then at the least, the US will need to seek additional sanctions, which it is doing today. At the most, the US must consider airstrikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Sanctions need to be internationally implemented and “airtight” for them to be successful. Unfortunately, both of these requirements are unlikely to be met because Iran has substantial international support (from China, Russia, Brazil, and others) and the US has been unable to keep even American companies from doing business in Iran.

While current sanctions are hurting the Iranian economy, clearly they are not stopping Iran from getting the bomb. A March 6 New York Times article demonstrates how poorly implemented sanctions on Iran really are, both in the US and around the world (See also a CRS Report for Congress, “The Iran Sanctions Act (ISA)”, PDF download link).

The NYT article illustrates how conflict in domestic and foreign business interests has prevented presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama from imposing any penalties relating to the 1996 Iran Sanctions Act (the “Iran and Libya Sanctions Act” prior to September 30, 2006).

Over the last decade more than 107 billion dollars in US government contract payments have gone to US and foreign companies that are doing business with Iran, particularly in Iran’s energy industry. The NYT bluntly states, “…Both the Obama and Bush administrations have sent mixed messages to the corporate world when it comes to doing business in Iran, rewarding companies whose commercial interests conflict with American security goals.

It should be noted that while some US and European Union companies have moved to cut their business deals with Iran recently, Asian businesses have rushed to gobble up the new business opportunities.

Clearly, if Obama believes that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is a red line then there is no doubt that sanctions alone will NOT prevent it from getting nuclear weapons. Despite years of sanctions, and a containment policy, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure today is so impressive that now it appears the US is confident only with stating that Iran will not make its first nuclear bomb this year. The US government used to be able to confidently predict Iran’s ability to make its first nuclear weapon as being something that might happen a number of years into the future.

Make no mistake: if sanctions plus a containment policy are the only obstacles for preventing Iran from getting the bomb then Iran will get the bomb. Put another way, a sanctions and a containment-only policy is by default a statement that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is NOT a red line.

Unfortunately, airstrikes against Iran could be disastrous. One of the biggest fallouts would be the negative impact that airstrikes on Iran might have on US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan since Iran has profound links to those countries. Iraq’s Shiite community, which is the dominant political force in that country today, has intimate ties to Iran. Iran also has extensive economic, social, cultural, and religious ties to Afghanistan.

US airstrikes on Iran are certain to create unwanted political shockwaves in Iraq that might jeopardize the stability of that country. While the US has seen dramatic success in Iraq since the 2007 Surge, by the end of August there will still be fifty thousand US soldiers in Iraq. US involvement in Iraq remains considerable.

In Afghanistan, the non-Pashtun ethnic groups, such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and others, make up 58% of the Afghan population and are almost exclusively anti-Taliban. These groups also happen to be the primary supporters of the US and NATO-led reconstruction efforts in the country and ironically are the very Afghan ethnic groups that have social, religious, and historical ties to Iran. If the US bombed Iran’s nuclear facilities, a situation could develop where Afghans of all ethnic backgrounds turn on US forces.

US policy choices in the Iranian nuclear crisis are grim, particularly if one believes that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is a red line. If President Obama concludes that it is a red line then he must choose courageously between the worst options, something that previous presidents have done.

The US does not want to see the Middle East destabilized by airstrikes in Iran, but neither does it want to live in a world where rogue states and terror groups possess nuclear weapons. One of these realities will occur depending on what President Obama decides.