M a y 2 0 0 9
The Emerging US Strategy on Iran's Nuclear Program Containment
Dr. Oded Brosh, Senior Research Fellow, IPS
Shortly after President Barack Obama took office, as was evidenced in the above mentioned of the Arak heavy water reactor, and the recent
in the first weeks of 2009, the international Prague address - he has not, however, stated Iranian official launch of the fuel production facility.
agenda on Iran seems to have changed that Iran must refrain from acquiring enrichment One plausible avenue is the recognition of Iran's
dramatically. Despite White House spokesman capability, or, that it should abandon the right to enrich uranium in exchange for
denials, the new US administration appears to construction of the Arak heavy water reactor, as suspension of its plutonium-related activities. The
have abandoned the requirement that Iran required by the five unanimously adopted other is to apply the concept of accepting Iran's
comply immediately and unconditionally with the Security Council resolutions of 2006 to 2008 right to run a heavy water reactor, subject to a
United Nations Security Council (UNSC) (1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, and 1835). Decision- rigid safeguards regime to prevent abuse and
resolutions requiring it to suspend all sensitive makers in Washington may have been swayed by diversion of materials or reprocessing to weapons
nuclear activities, namely with respect to uranium Iran's unshaken and determined resolve in the grade materials.
enrichment and plutonium. President Obama effort to attain an independent enrichment Some issues mentioned by speakers at the Ninth
himself has not made any reference to capability for Lightly Enriched Uranium (LEU), Herzliya Conference in February 2009 remain
suspension, nor has he invoked Security Council and now may be willing to accept it subject to unresolved. One is that of Iran's acquisition of
resolutions, which were the product of more than international safeguards and an effective fissile materials by channels other than the
six and a half years of toil by the Bush inspection regime to guarantee that there is no Natanz enrichment facility and the Arak reactor,
administration, gained at snail's pace and with the diversion of fissile materials to produce weapons at unknown secret sites or by possible illicit
grudging cooperation of other UNSC partners grade Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU). acquisition of fissile materials in the black market,
who had stalled the US-sponsored initiatives on Acceptance of Iran's LEU program would be a though in both cases there abounds uncertainty
resolutions and incremental sanctions. First the major shift in the US view of the Iranian threat: about the sources of the information.
EU, and since 2005 mainly Russia and China, set aside is the view that Iran would inevitably
stonewalled the Bush administration's initiatives, Some have likened the envisaged status of Iran
divert LEU, or may use covert facilities, for the to that of Japan, as a nuclear threshold state, that
objecting to the confrontational and escalatory ultimate purpose of clandestinely producing
approach, putatively on the grounds that it was maintains the capability to produce nuclear
weapons-grade materials. Teheran has always weapons but refrains from doing so. But that
counterproductive. To wit, in his Prague speech accepted the principle of safeguards, and it may
on proliferation issues on April 5th, 2009, analogy is not entirely valid: as described by Dr.
be hoped that in the framework of a more Bruno Tertrais at the Ninth Herzliya Conference,
President Obama made no mention of either comprehensive reconciliation, Iran might comply
suspension or of the heretofore salient Security Japan never had a covert clandestine program, or
more strictly with these, as well as ratify the secretly conducted design work on a nuclear
Council resolutions. Additional Protocol. Iran's past record of duplicity bomb, or a nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile,
Moreover, some observers have indicated that and gross violation of its NPT and safeguards as has Iran. Tertrais also commented that no
the new US administration has concluded that the commitments may now be replaced with an country has ever come as close to the nuclear
requirement for suspension is unrealistic and assumption of trust, in the hope that this will threshold as Iran without crossing it; the
unattainable. Although President Obama has encourage bona fide full compliance and temptation is just too great, he says, after the
repeatedly alluded to the need to make sure that transparency. massive investment of time and resources.
Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons, that a It is still unclear how the new US administration
nuclear armed Iran is "unacceptable", and that intends to address Iran's plutonium program,
Iran must not be allowed "to become a threat" - given the significant progress in the construction
Back to Future: the Revival of Containment?
Since the beginning of 2009, the Obama cooperation in all three of these – particularly the withdrawal of US forces in an orderly fashion,
administration has removed Iran from the top of first two – would be welcomed by the according to the prescribed timetable; instability in
the administration's agenda in favor of the three administration in the attempt to guarantee success Iraq could undermine the success of the
areas in which the new administration has decided in the complicated, risky, and volatile moves that envisaged policy. Regarding efforts to resuscitate
to invest the greatest part of its effort, including a the administration is planning in the months and the US economy, regional instability in the Middle
large measure of the President's personal resolve: year or two to come. Particularly in Iraq, Iran's East could potentially induce a resurgence of
Iraq, Afghanistan, and the economy. Iranian contribution to stability is crucial to facilitating the energy costs. This would impact negatively on the
envisioned economic recovery measures or, in an is now believed to be "containment", a term that to "contain" the threat of collapse of regional
extreme scenario, even entirely undermine them. has gained tremendous credit over the past year non-proliferation firebreaks, i.e. to ensure that
In fact, it may be argued that the President has as the issue has been at the forefront of public Iran's acquisition of nuclear capabilities within
invested most of his energies and his reputation in debate. In this sense, "rollback" is perceived as the designated limitations does not fuel the
the success of these three, having been elected out of the question; and a revival of the Cold War nuclear ambitions of other regional parties
primarily due to the perceived failures of the concept of "containment" is in order. (particularly with respect to Saudi Arabia, Egypt,
Republican handling of Iraq and the economy. According to this approach, it would now seem to and Turkey, as well as other potential nuclear
The strategy adopted by the Bush administration, be best: breakouts like Libya and Algeria, which already
which deliberately sought escalation, believing possess a record in this regard).
to "contain" Iran's LEU program so that it does
that this was the only way to convince Teheran to not exceed designated boundaries, and that no Backing up containment, is a complementary
abandon enrichment, as well as to justify HEU, or weapons grade material of any other belief in deterrence. If in the end worst comes to
incrementally severe measures should Iran not kind either, is produced clandestinely; worst, deterrence may serve as a further incentive
comply with international demands, is now openly for Iran to desist from actually acquiring nuclear
abandoned. The appointees in the centers of to "contain" Iran's other offensive activities in the weapons, and in extremis from actually using
power in Washington may well believe that the region, such as support for actions that them if they are acquired nevertheless.
previous strategy was hopelessly undermine the status-quo with respect to Iraq,
counterproductive. Therefore, the correct strategy Lebanon, the Gulf States and perhaps Gaza and
the West Bank;
On the Relevance of Deterrence
Nuclear deterrence is seen by prominent US risk has moved to within acceptable boundaries, sufficient impact to convince the Islamic Republic
personalities associated with the new in a remarkable shift from prior perceptions. Even leadership to reverse its nuclear course. Certainly
administration as having an unshakably proven Iran's widely admitted eccentric leadership is it is believed that sanctions require time to work,
record of inducing stability in international conflict believed to conform to assumptions about the and that the time necessary is no longer available.
over the past six decades. The success of rationality of interest-driven decision-making in The record of sanctions in previous cases of
deterrence in the Cold War is often invoked to nuclear affairs, and the dangers of miscalculation nuclear proliferation is mixed and unpromising.
demonstrate that a nuclear-armed Iran is perhaps are assessed, by implication, to be remote and Some states may have stopped short of
undesirable, but not intolerable. The heated marginal. The persistent view still held by a tiny producing nuclear weapons because of
skepticism previously directed towards minority that the current leadership group in Iran international pressure. But virtually all of the de
deterrence in the post-Cold War era ("the Second may be driven by messianic prophecies, facto nuclear weapons states in the past moved
Nuclear Age"), expressed by conservative critics apocalyptically inclined or willfully suicidal – is ahead with their programs while facing various
who were closely associated with the period of now entirely dismissed, often as an absurd international sanctions and embargo regimes,
the neo-conservative revival and regency, is attempt at manipulation. and in spite of economic hardship (it is patently
generally dismissed by most Democratic and It is recognized that the ongoing Iranian Shiite wrong to claim that South Africa was restrained
middle-of-the-road observers, including leading Islamic Revolution is religiously and therefore from acquiring nuclear weapons by sanctions: in
former and current decision-makers. The ideologically commanded to struggle against the fact, South Africa produced nuclear weapons
conservative critics' central theme was that West and to undermine the status-quo, even at while under severe sanctions, and it was only
deterrence may be unreliable, unless optimized great sacrifice, and that this is "in its DNA". In this when regime change occurred that the white
through additional efforts and measures. The sense, a nuclear-armed Iran would be de- minority government decided to refrain from
argument was that adversary decision-makers stabilizing even if deterrence is effective, and this transferring nuclear capabilities to the black
are inevitably prone to err or miscalculate for a is another reason that every effort should be majority that it did not trust with them). India and
multiplicity of reasons rooted in their cultural made to prevent Teheran from acquiring the Pakistan both expanded their nuclear capabilities
surroundings and human shortcomings. Most capability. Still, it is believed that even given its significantly while under sanctions, and the most
scholars of deterrence anyhow never accepted radical agenda, the Islamic Republic is, clear-cut current case is North Korea.
the validity of the critique. It has now once again nonetheless, driven by interests, and these can
been thoroughly sidelined in favor of the rational- Therefore, sanctions may be an accepted
and should be focused upon in order for normative form of increasing pressure, but they
actor model that always depicted decision- "containment" and deterrence to be effective.
makers as ultimately cautious and calculating in may also be a cognitive dissonance escape route
nuclear affairs. The Obama administration has indicated that if from the need to confront harsher choices:
the currently envisaged process of engaging Iran military prevention, on the one hand, or, on the
Nuclear deterrence in extremis is once again fails, it will resort to increasing sanctions pressure. other, acquiescence in the object state's
believed to be very near to carrying an iron-clad This scenario is unlikely to develop quickly, acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the need to
degree of success, and the margin of potential because Teheran has space to maneuver and move to containment and deterrence,
error is regarded as almost insignificant for policy- draw out the negotiations, as it has done very controversial and volatile as these may be.
making. What this means is that the probability of effectively in the past, during negotiations with
deterrence succeeding when directed at states Another element that has gained greater attention
European and other parties. Moreover, most in Washington is the potential threat of nuclear
(terrorist networks aside), is now viewed in a observers doubt that sanctions could have
much higher percentage bracket, and thus the terrorism. In this connection, a heightened sense
of alarm appears to be directed at the safety of terrorist organizations are assessed to have no also a general discomfort with the state of the
the Pakistani nuclear arsenal and infrastructure. tangible assets to hold hostage in the service of long-term prospects for the cohesion and viability
This was perhaps predictable, because of the deterrence; so it is only natural for nuclear of the Pakistani state as we have known it up to
confidence with which leading US Democratic terrorism to gain in relative overall concern. The now. In the background lurk academic studies
party personalities, including both former and new administration has expressed concern in this that indicate a 50 percent probability of a major
current office holders, tend to rely on the connection, the radical Islamic penetration of the nuclear terrorist attack against a major Western
effectiveness of deterrence when directed at Pakistani security community in the immediate city occurring sometime in the next 20 years.
states, such as Iran, or North Korea, while timeframe being obviously disturbing, and there is
Towards a Grand Bargain?
The Obama administration appears to be creating implementation of Article VI of the NPT calling for
deliberate linkage between the chances of general nuclear disarmament by all. The About the Author
success of its policies on Iran, and Israel's actions conclusion was that in the near term there will be Dr. Oded Brosh is a Senior Research Fellow at the
on several issues. Some have gone so far as to no breakthrough on these in a way that it might Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary
state unequivocally that the Bush administration's resonate sufficiently to solve the problem of Center in Herzliya, Israel. His expertise is in the field of
nuclear politics, strategy, deterrence, proliferation, and
blanket support of Israel damaged US interests further nuclear proliferation in the years ahead, related WMD issues. He is also involved in the Institute's
on Iran, as well as other Moslem theaters, or such as by nuclear aspirants Iran and North other International Affairs studies and activities.
even undermined the prospects for success. Korea. Russia, China and India were noted to all Dr. Brosh teaches at the Lauder School of Government,
Since February, leading observers harboring be expanding and modernizing their arsenals, Diplomacy and Strategy of the IDC, Herzliya, and
deep misgivings about the results of the Bush and it was assessed that the chances of all the previously taught at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem,
and Ben-Gurion University, Beersheva. He has also
administration policies toward the Iran crisis have nuclear states going to zero soon – were nil. served as a senior analyst with the Prime Minister's
vociferously contributed to the debate. The More optimism was generated by the prospect of Office.
testimonies given to the Senate Foreign Relations further reductions of US and Russian stockpiles, Dr. Brosh holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Political Science
Committee by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent and by the Obama administration's commitment from the Hebrew University. As an undergraduate he
studied at Johns Hopkins University, and is a graduate of
Scowcroft demonstrated the bipartisan to reduce tensions with Russia and preparedness UCLA. He was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the
consensus prevailing about the need for a fresh to go to lower strategic levels, albeit this would be, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at
US-led international approach towards Iran, so it is believed, conditional on the resolution of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
through avoiding inflammatory and escalatory outstanding issues that still require addressing,
remarks or threats. Brzezinski went so far as to such as Georgia, BMD deployment in Poland and
warn that "we should not become susceptible to
advice by interested parties", meaning Israel,
the Czech Republic, and tactical nuclear
The Institute for Policy
which might influence, or impede, this fresh US Time will be the judge of whether or not the new and Strategy
approach. They hold that Iran should be co-opted approach on Iran will turn out to have been the The Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) was
into understanding the advantages of responding right, or "smart" one, or, a naïve blunder into founded in 2000 by Professor Uzi Arad. The Institute
favorably to the Obama administration's approach. escalation and disaster driven by misjudgment of operates as part of the IDC Herzliya's Lauder School
of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy. Its primary
It should be noted that remarks made by the forces at work on the issues at hand. objective is to engage in research activities which
Secretary of Defense Gates regarding the Undoubtedly, the new approach will be optimized contribute to Israel’s national policy and to the
preference for sanctions to back up engagement by Iran, regardless of the results of the upgrading of its strategic decision-making process.
The range of IPS projects encompasses a variety of
would appear to contradict the administration’s forthcoming elections in June, to gain time to issues crucial to Israel including national security and
approach, and that Vice President Biden has expedite and upgrade its sensitive nuclear strategy; foreign policy; intelligence; the Jewish
emphasized that a nuclear-armed Iran is people; economics; science and technology; welfare;
activities to new levels, and to thus increase the social policy and education.
intolerable. unlikelihood and difficulty of reversing them. An IPS conducts research on a broad analytical scope,
Comments by the UK's Foreign Secretary David extensive LEU program expanded with concentrating on identifying emerging issues and
Miliband highlighted the fact that leading international approval and under strict safeguards trends. It also invests in improving analysis and in
innovative methodologies. IPS is characterized by its
members of the international community have would be an achievement for Iran, as would the variety of disciplines and inputs, and its
understood the Obama administration's message operation of the large heavy water reactor at Arak interdisciplinary, integrative, comprehensive and
on Iran: there should be no talk of increased subject to safeguards to prevent reprocessing. In future-oriented approach.
sanctions pressure on Iran, plausibly because the both, this would put Iran a hat-drop away from IPS cultivates close working relations
with governments, public institutions, think tanks and
approach now is conciliatory rather than acquiring a significant nuclear weapons arsenal research institutes around the world. It convenes
escalatory or inflammatory, those now branded at very short notice. meetings with experts and holds seminars and
counterproductive. debates. The annual Herzliya Conference on the
Balance of Israel’s National Security is the flagship of
At the Ninth Herzliya Conference, a substantial IPS activities.
portion of the debate was devoted to other Institute for Policy and Strategy
international arms control issues, including the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy
prospects for the “zero option” recently revived by Interdisciplinary Center Herlziya, IDC Herzliya Analytical Note, May 2009
P.O.Box 167, Herzliya 46150, Israel
the initiative of the "Gang of Four" (Shultz, Perry, Tel: 09-9527389, Fax: 09-9527310
Author: Dr. Oded Brosh
Editors: Mr. Tommy Steiner
Kissinger and Nunn), and the prospects for E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Site: www.ips.idc.ac.il Ms. Lea Landman
Designer: Ms. Nirit Gil