Where must the line be drawn regarding Iran’s dangerous and illegal nuclear weapons program? At what point should the very strongest measures, including the possibility of military strikes, be implemented in order to derail it?
This is the question at the heart of a subtle yet significant disparity in diplomatic language regarding the Iranian nuclear threat. It divides Israel from the US, but it is also one of the few concrete differences in foreign policy between US President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September, President Obama said, “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
While again rejecting the option of containment, as he has consistently done in recent months, Obama also avoided imposing practical red lines or ultimatums upon Iran short of the bomb itself.
On the other hand, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has consistently stressed the need to stop Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, and to delineate unambiguous red lines for Teheran.
As Netanyahu explained to the UN in his own address: “The red line must be drawn on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we can definitely see and credibly target,” he said, and added “I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down.”
Like Netanyahu, US Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has also adopted language using the word “capability” to describe his own red lines on Iran.
In last month’s third and final Presidential debate, Romney stressed that “[Iran] must not develop nuclear capability”, and that “a nuclear [weapons] capable Iran, is unacceptable to America,” a view that he has expressed on numerous occasions during his campaign.
So why does the word “capability” matter?
The concern is that by drawing the red line at a “nuclear weapon”, one could infer that all the preparatory work that goes into nuclear weapons development, such as weapons-grade enrichment, is acceptable.
One could even conclude that it may be likewise acceptable to prepare all the elements of a nuclear weapon in their unassembled state, just so long as final assembly does not occur.
Such a policy would be foolhardy. A nuclear-capable power – one which can assemble nuclear weapons in short order – must be understood to be just as hazardous to confront as one which actually possesses nuclear weapons. All of the dangerous consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran would apply as soon as Iran develops all the components of a weapon. It would then be too late to do anything about it.
The Iranians essentially argue that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – to which they are signatories and which bans signatories who are not already nuclear weapons states from weaponising nuclear technology – gives them a right to what amounts to a nuclear weapons capability. Their argument is that until all the components of the nuclear bomb are put together into a working weapon, they are not violating the treaty (never mind that they are unequivocally violating numerous legally-binding UN Security Council resolutions).
Meanwhile, some analysts committed to the idea that a diplomatic settlement should be reached on virtually any terms, have embraced this Iranian position, arguing the West should agree to whatever “capability” Iran wants, as long as the Iranians don’t actually produce weapons. This “solution” would achieve nothing except to preserve the illusion that the NPT was not being violated, while stripping the treaty of all value as a means of preventing nuclear proliferation.
This sentiment, however, has been soundly rejected by the American political mainstream and most international actors. In May, the US House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill “regarding the importance of preventing the Government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability” – by the overwhelming margin of 401-11. In July, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague told the Daily Telegraph “if [Iran] obtains nuclear weapons capability, then I think other nations across the Middle East will want to develop nuclear weapons.”
Meanwhile, Wikileaks cables have revealed that Iran’s Sunni Muslim Arab neighbours are terrified of a nuclear-capable Iran, and would prefer to see the US or Israel strike Iran’s nuclear infrastructure rather than face this eventuality.
These actors recognise the obvious: Iran, a confirmed state-sponsor of terror groups including Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, must never be able to develop a nuclear weapons capability that would allow its proxies the freedom to operate under a nuclear umbrella, spark a regional nuclear arms race and hold hostage global oil supplies.
It is clear from recent nuclear talks that Iran’s leaders appear to believe that they can gain most of the benefits of a nuclear arsenal by essentially stopping just short of the final step of assembling highly-enriched uranium and bomb components into warheads. Then, whenever the time seems propitious, Iran can simply put its nuclear components together and “officially” go nuclear.
We are now at the point where Iran has enough low-enriched uranium to create five nuclear bombs if further enriched – a process that could take as little as two months for the first nuclear device.
In addition, August’s US National Intelligence Estimate report confirms that Iran is making rapid progress in the development of key components of its nuclear program specific to military applications.
If, as President Obama contends, nuclear containment is not an option with Iran, it is now critical for Iran’s interlocutors to specify where the actual red line is. If that line does not emphasise nuclear weapons capability, the barn door will be meaninglessly closed on Iran after the nuclear horse has bolted.
A version of this article appeared in the Canberra Times.