If you have followed the covert and diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon over the past five years, you know that new or noteworthy movements from Tehran, Tel Aviv, or Washington are few and far between. Iran makes fantastic claims about advances in its civilian nuclear program, many of which are subsequently confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); Israel threatens to attack Iran in a thinly veiled effort to impel the P5+1 negotiating group (China, Russia, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany) to increase economic and diplomatic sanctions; and American officials repeatedly pledge to prevent a nuclear Iran, while the U.S. military gradually strengthens its capabilities in theater and deepens its cooperation with Gulf states in order to contain Iran.
Underpinning this rhetorical bluster is the recognition that negotiations to compel Iran to cooperate with the IAEA -- to demonstrate that the Iranian civilian nuclear program does not have possible military dimensions, forbidden by the NPT Safeguards Agreement signed by Iran in 1974 -- are not sustainable. Experts predict that the nuclear dispute between the P5+1 (predominantly the United States) and Iran will ultimately be resolved -- either through negotiations or the use of force. Some (including yours truly) have speculated this resolution will come this year, or the following year, or the year after that. During a press conference on Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged this enduring forecasting problem: "I think that it will happen during 2013, but I thought that it will happen during 2012, and saw what happened -- and 2011."
Last week, however, the United States made a significant shift in its strategy. This move, if it plays out, could finally result in the long-rumored and much-debated military attack on Iran's known nuclear sites. In a prepared statement to the agency's Board of Governors, Robert A. Wood, chargé d'affaires to the IAEA, said:
Iran cannot be allowed to indefinitely ignore its obligations by attempting to make negotiation of a structured approach on PMD [possible military dimensions] an endless process. Iran must act now, in substance.... If by March Iran has not begun substantive cooperation with the IAEA, the United States will work with other Board members to pursue appropriate Board action, and would urge the Board to consider reporting this lack of progress to the UN Security Council.
Later that day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked about Wood's mention of a March deadline. Her reply contained several interesting points:
What was meant about the March reference was either about the IAEA and its continuing work or the fact that we finished our election and now would be a good time to test the proposition that there can be some good-faith serious negotiations before the Iranians get into their elections, which are going to heat up probably around the March period, heading toward a June election.
It's a difficult matter to predict, because it really depends upon how serious the Iranians are about making a decision that removes the possibility of their being able to acquire a nuclear weapon or the components of one that can be in effect on a shelf somewhere and still serve as a basis for intimidation...We'll see in the next few months whether there's a chance for any kind of a serious negotiation.
Here, Clinton implies that the reason to "test" Iran now is not because of progress toward alleged weaponization, but because there is a window for negotiations, after the U.S. election and before the Iranian election. It is interesting that the Obama administration deemed it wrong to "test" Iran during the heat of the U.S. presidential elections but thinks it plausible that, during similar electoral uncertainty, Iranian leaders will reach a broad strategic agreement limiting the country's uranium-enrichment program.
Then, Clinton introduces a vague new goal for negotiations. Until now, Obama administration officials have repeated three claims about U.S. intelligence on Iran's nuclear program.
First, Iran has not decided to pursue a nuclear weapon. In February 2011, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified, "We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons." But, he added, "We do not know...if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons." The following February, Clapper stated, "We don't believe they've actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon."
Second, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will make the final decision. As Clapper phrased it: "The decision would be made by the Supreme Leader himself, and he would base that on a cost-benefit analysis in terms of -- I don't think you want a nuclear weapon at any price."
Third, because Iran's nuclear program is an intelligence collection priority, U.S. officials would know when the Supreme Leader made this decision and what sort of evidence would reveal his intentions. Clapper: "[A] clear indicator would be enrichment of uranium to a 90 percent level." The declared nuclear sites where such enrichment occurs are subject to IAEA physical inventory verifications, which track progress in Iran's low-enriched uranium stockpiles and are published in quarterly reports.
Why did the Obama administration decide to set this new March deadline? Perhaps, like the Bush administration, it has simply become tired of confronting Iran. Here, the Bush administration's approach to Iraq is worth recalling. In a recent Foreign Policy piece reviewing U.S. policy options toward Iran, Steven Hadley, deputy national security adviser during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, wrote:
The U.S. military action [in Iraq] was not, as many suggest, either a war of choice or a war of preemption. It was, rather, a war of last resort. After 12 years of diplomacy, 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions, increasingly targeted economic sanctions, multiple international inspection efforts, no-fly zones over both northern and southern Iraq, the selective use of U.S. military force in 1998, and Saddam Hussein's rejection of a final opportunity to leave Iraq and avoid war, the United States and the international community were out of options.
It is difficult to understand why the Bush administration decided to abandon a successful containment strategy of Iraq that cost $14.5 billion a year and no loss of life, for another that will ultimately cost over $3 trillion and the lives of 4,422 U.S. troops. Undertaking a war of choice without definitive evidence of an active chemical or biological weapons program -- let alone a nuclear program -- or threats to the U.S. homeland was an enormous strategic miscalculation with dire consequences.
The confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program dates back to August 2002, when it was first revealed that Iran had begun a covert uranium-enrichment program in the late 1980s. Since then, the IAEA has repeatedly stated what its Director General Yukio Amano declared last week: "Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation to enable us to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities."
At some point in February or early March of 2013, there will be two significant events relating to a potential countdown to an attack on Iran. Clapper will testify before the House and Senate as part of his annual threat briefings, and the IAEA will release its next quarterly report. Unless there is new intelligence, it is likely that Clapper will maintain his assessment that the Supreme Leader has not made the decision to pursue a bomb -- meaning to enrich enough uranium to bomb-grade level that can be formed into sphere that could be compressed into a critical mass. Meanwhile, absent breakthrough in the P5+1 negotiations or a decision by Tehran that unprecedented transparency with the IAEA will make things better, Amano will again report that there is inadequate cooperation.
In that case, the IAEA Board of Governors could refer Iran to the UN Security Council, which might pass a more robust version of Resolution 1929, which imposed sanctions. But then what? If the Supreme Leader does not make a decision to pursue a bomb (which the United States claims it would detect), and if Iran does not produce sufficient highly-enriched uranium for a bomb at a declared site (which the IAEA would detect), then what would trigger an attack by the United States and/or Israel? What would the "redline" be?
The answer depends greatly on whether the timeline to attack Iran is based on Israel's national interest and its military capabilities, or those of the United States. Israeli officials have stated at various times that redlines should be "clear" (without providing clarity) and that they "should be made, but not publicly." One also said, "I don't want to set redlines or deadlines for myself." Since November 2011, Israeli officials have also warned about a "zone of immunity," which Barak has described as "not where the Iranians decide to break out of the non-proliferation treaty and move toward a nuclear device or weapon, but at the place where the dispersal, protection and survivability efforts will cross a point that would make a physical strike impractical."
It is unclear how dispersed, protected, or survivable Iran's nuclear program would have to be, but Secretary Clinton's warning of "components...on a shelf somewhere" could indicate that the Obama administration is moving toward the zone of immunity logic. But what are these components, how many would be required to assume "weaponization," and how would this new intelligence be presented as a justification for war? In addition, it is tough to make the case for going to war with Iran because it refused to concentrate its nuclear sites (that are under IAEA safeguards) in above-ground facilities that can be easily bombed.
Previously, U.S. officials have been less eager than the Israelis to define a specific redline, largely because the two countries have different perceptions of the Iranian threat and vastly different military capabilities. Setting a March deadline provides some certainty and perhaps coercive leverage to compel Iran to cooperate with the IAEA. But declaring deadlines also places U.S. "credibility" on the line, generating momentum to use force even if there is no new actionable intelligence that Iran has decided to pursue a nuclear weapon. Based on what we know right now, that would be a strategic miscalculation.