The lack of progress in negotiations with Iran, together with the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran's announcement that it would develop new enrichment facilities, all point toward an inconvenient truth: Iran is not only not serious about negotiating in good faith. It is also very likely that it has, for more than a decade now, concealed a significant part of what appears to be a major nuclear military effort. This week's revelations about Iran's recent work on warhead design underscore the point. No country has ever gone so far along the road toward the acquisition of a nuclear military capability without actually developing one.
Iran could well stop at the threshold of such capability, letting it be known to all specialists that it has a military capability without openly deploying it. This would still leave it uncertain, in the eyes of the public, whether it really has an effective nuclear arsenal. But this would not change much in practical terms. Western decision makers are now at a defining moment.
Politically, no Israeli prime minister could survive the fact that Iran became a nuclear-armed state, officially or unofficially, on his watch. The pressure on the Israeli government to do something to counter Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be so strong that it could well be tempted to play a desperate gamble, regardless of any security guaranties that the U.S. might offer.
Similarly, no U.S. president (especially one endowed with a Nobel Prize) could escape blame for having let Iran become a nuclear-weapon state by consistently underestimating its ability to conceal its preparations. The intelligence community's credibility would be devastated, and the indecision by successive administrations (Clinton, Bush and now Obama) to quash a program that has been suspected for 15 years and openly known for seven would be seen as a failure of major proportions.
What's more, the message sent to all U.S. and Western allies in the Gulf region would be dire. For all the promises made to these allies, the West has been unable to prevent a rogue state—one intent on destabilizing their societies, the strategic balance in the Middle East and beyond, and the oil market—from acquiring nuclear weapons that will make it much more difficult to compel it to behave prudently.
Last but not least, the nuclear non-proliferation regime, which has been significantly weakened by the North Korean antics and the Iranian finessing, would be close to collapse: If Iran has nukes, the temptation for countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, among others, to equip themselves with such weapons would be almost irresistible. The 2010 review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would be rendered a feckless pantomime, with almost as little effect as those aimed, between the two world wars, at preventing armed conflict.
It is now necessary, therefore, to plan for the worst—some form of military constraint upon Iran. It is urgent that the U.S., Great Britain and France, together with Israel if possible (in a discreet and deniable way, of course), gather and try to reach agreement on how to terminate the Iranian nuclear program militarily. Those three permanent members of the U.N. Security Council should not be cowed by the argument—which has already been deployed repeatedly by Iranian advocates and idiots utiles—that such an endeavor would be akin to pitching "the West against the rest." They would actually be exercising an implicit mandate on behalf of all the states that have renounced nuclear weapons and do not accept being threatened and bullied by rogues.
How could this be done? The experience of the 1962 Cuban crisis provides an interesting precedent. Applying pressure on the Iranians by interdicting any imports or exports to and from Iran by sea and by air would send a message that would undoubtedly be perceived as demonstrative by Tehran. Additionally, reinforcing the Western naval presence inside or immediately outside the Gulf would make it clear to the Iranians, without infringing on their territorial waters, that they (and all states dealing with them) are entering a danger zone. In parallel to this slow strangulation, measures should be taken to deter Gulf states (such as Dubai) from engaging in any trade or financial transactions with Iran and to encourage them to freeze Iranian assets in their banks. This should not be too difficult, as the threat of disconnecting any renegade from the Swift system would be sufficiently persuasive in the current circumstances, in which Dubai sorely needs international financial assistance.
It might be necessary to go beyond that and actually resort to force to prevent the Iranians from achieving nuclear military capabilities. Planning for a massive air and missile attack on Iran's nuclear facilities (known and suspected) should be considered seriously, and this planning made public (at least partially) to convince Iran that the West can not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk. Such planning should also, to the extent possible, involve NATO, against the territory of which there is little doubt that the majority of Iranian missiles and nuclear weapons would be targeted (if only because they cannot yet reach the U.S.). The U.S., U.K., French and Israeli intelligence services should better co-ordinate what they know, and contributions from others should also be welcome, as well as any information that could be provided by internal opposition movements in Iran.
The idea here is simple, and has been expressed many times by theoreticians of deterrence: When one plans for war, when one deploys forces and rehearses military options, one actually conveys a message. Deterrence is about dialogue. Whether the Iranian government would listen to it is uncertain. But at least it would have been properly warned.
The time for diplomacy has passed. Iran must cave in, and quickly. If the West is not prepared to force it to comply with its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, this in effect means that the treaty is dead and that the Gulf countries are being abandoned—stealthily, but nonetheless very definitely. It also means that the non-proliferation regime is, for all practical purposes, dead. Is this really what we want?
Mr. Debouzy is a lawyer and a former specialist in nuclear military affairs and intelligence for the French government. He writes here in a strictly personal capacity.
(from WSJ, December 16, 2009)