To deter and assure
Last week, I had the honor of giving a presentation before the US Air Force Global Strike Command down at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana. It was an amazing opportunity to spend some time with the airmen whose job it is to focus on nuclear threats everyday, and an experience I won’t soon forget.
The talk I gave was based on my thesis (due May 4 — yikes), and had the working title of “Deterring Iran’s Latent Nuclear Weapons Capability.” Rather than post the whole text — which is mostly scratched in the margins of the copy I printed the night before anyway — I’ll give the dime store version here. (I’m supposed to say that these views are my own and do not reflect the opinion of Global Strike or the US Air Force).
1) Iran’s Nuclear Capabilities
To start, Iran today can build nuclear weapons. Believe it or not, that’s actually good news.
Everyone remembers the NIE from 2007 because it said Iran halted its nuclear weapons program years before. What nobody seems to notice is that same NIE declared that Iran “has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.” So Iran has been able to build nuclear weapons for more than four years, and yet it does not have the bomb today. What can we conclude from this? Actually, that’s why it’s good news that Iran has a nuclear capability. The longer Iran goes without building nukes while it remains capable of doing so, the more confident we can be that Iran’s leaders themselves are restraining their country’s nuclear progress. The only other interpretation is that the global sanctions regime is so effective that Iran has been simply unable to get what it needs for a bomb [good luck finding someone willing to argue that].
If Iran really wanted nukes, it would already have them by now. So why haven’t they built them? Easy: they don’t have to, and it’d be too risky.
Iran’s leaders aren’t stupid. They know that if they kicked out IAEA inspectors like Saddam did it would be handing the West a causus belli. And any attempt to make nukes under the nose of those inspectors would almost certainly be caught ahead of time. Add to that recent revelations that US officials don’t believe Iran currently possesses any secret nuclear facilities, and there just isn’t a credible pathway for Iran to break out as a nuclear-armed country.
Nor would they need to. They’re doing okay gaining most of the benefits of nuclear weapons (prestige, self-sufficiency, even a little existential deterrence) without turning the last screw on a bomb. I described Iran’s strategy by borrowing a term from math class (with a h/t to @shashj who first used the term this way) as “asymptotic” — that is, Iran’s progress always approaches (but never arrives at) the nuclear weapons threshold.
2) Nuclear Intentions
We can then make a clear, definitive observation about Iran’s nuclear intentions up to this point: Iran is not actively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. We know this because Western intelligence agencies and the IAEA say so. We know this because, given Iran’s scientific and technological know-how, it is almost certain that, if they wanted to acquire the bomb, they would already have it by now. We know this because the best experts in the US government assessed four years ago that Iran could build a bomb if it wanted to, and it still has not. We know this because Pakistan, which lacked Iran’s scientific and technological base, was able to obtain the bomb in less than ten years, while Iran’s program has been ongoing since the 1980s. And we know this because Iran’s political and religious leaders are unanimous in their view, which they repeat time and time again, that nuclear weapons are contrary to both Islamic principles and Iran’s national interests.
Based on all the available evidence, then, it appears Iran is seeking what is known as nuclear “latency” — having the capability and capacity to build nuclear weapons in the future if it feels threatened.
3) Nuclear Timelines
So what sort of timelines are we talking about here? If Iran felt the need to build nukes, how long would it take?
Most likely, any breakout scenario would take place at Fordow (unless of course that facility gets shuttered as part of a diplomatic deal). If Iran were to fill Fordow to capacity with IR-1 centrifuges, it could use its existing stockpile of 3.5% LEU as feedstock for enriching up to weapons-grade uranium and within about 8 months could have enough material for one bomb. Starting with 20% LEU, that timeline shrinks down to 8 weeks. At Natanz, where Iran already has over 9000 centrifuges at work, the breakout calendars for 3.5% LEU and 20% LEU are 9 weeks and about 2.5 weeks, respectively.
Once again, however, it would be next to impossible for Iran to carry out this type of activity without being discovered.
4) US Considerations
The big question US defense planners must face now and into the next couple of years will be: how to deal with Iran’s latent nuclear weapons capability.
I suggest that the US should approach this challenge from an extended deterrence perspective, albeit with some modifications.
Classic extended deterrence involves deterring acts of aggression against its allies by threatening to retaliate on their behalf, even if US interests are not directly endangered. An extended deterrent strategy for countering an Iran with a latent nuclear weapons capability could serve US strategic interests in a number of ways.
First, conveying credible security guarantees throughout the region will help counter any sense of emboldenment that Iran might derive from a latent nuclear capability. Defense planners fear the “stability-instability paradox,” in which Iran’s nuclear deterrent could allow it to pursue an aggressive foreign policy with impunity. Traditional extended deterrence seeks to counter this type of aggression.
Secondly, an extended deterrence framework would reassure US allies in the region, both to prevent a cascade of proliferation in the region and to persuade Israel not to strike Iran without American backing.
There is, however, a key difference in an extended deterrence framework when facing a latent — rather than an actual — nuclear adversary. That is the nature of a deterrence failure. When facing a nuclear-armed adversary, failure of extended deterrence is understood to mean an act of aggression is carried out against US allies. When facing a latent-capable adversary, on the other hand, deterrence failure could result in either conventional aggression or a decision to “actualize” its weapons capability.
When facing a latent-capable Iran, the US deterrent is — as the President recently declared — primarily designed to deter Iranian weaponization. The overwhelming superiority of US conventional military power means our check on Iranian aggression is strong. However — and here’s the real challenge — that same conventional superiority, which deters Iranian aggression, makes weaponization more likely. US conventional superiority increases the value of an actual nuclear deterrent in the eyes of Iran’s leaders.
Thus, a key difference in deterring a virtual nuclear state as opposed to an actual one is the security dilemma that grows out of a conventional imbalance of forces. Whereas threats and commitments strengthen the credibility of classical deterrence, overtly threating a latent-capable state can actually be counterproductive by convincing it of the need for nuclear weapons.
The challenge of deterring Iran’s latent nuclear weapons capability requires a finely tailored approach: seeking to give Iran a reason not to weaponize its capability while simultaneously taking pains not to give Iran a reason to weaponize. Unfortunately, this is precisely the type of deterrence we have the least amount of theoretical and historical experience to guide the way.