What to do about Iran Part II: Recapitulation and a new refrain…

Debates in the realm of US nuclear politics conform to a familiar pattern, especially in the academic realm. On the one hand, deterrence pessimists believe that US nuclear force posture must be built on the assumption that deterrence will fail. In order to be credible, a deterrent threat must be backed by a fully operational plan to fight and win a nuclear war. This leads to the operational concepts of nuclear superiority, flexible response, and damage limitation. On the other hand, deterrence optimists believe that everyone loses in the event of a nuclear war. To that end, optimists believe US nuclear force posture should presume that fighting and winning a nuclear war is not an option. To them, the sole purpose of the US nuclear deterrent should be to threaten massive retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack. By limiting the size and composition of its nuclear arsenal, the US reduces the possible pathways to nuclear war. At the same time, if done right, eliminating other options can have the effect of locking the US into massive retaliation as a last resort, increasing the credibility of a retaliatory threat. Deterrence optimism leads to relatively small arsenals that meet a minimum threshold of a secure second-strike capability. The goal is not nuclear superiority, but rather strategic stability through arms control.

In the previous post, I argued that the current debate over whether or not it is time for the US to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities maps nicely onto the old deterrence pessimist/optimist framework.  Explicit arguments that recommend conventional bombing in order to avoid—or at least forestall—a nuclear-armed Iran are implicitly based on the pessimists’ assumptions about deterrence. From this point of view, the alternatives boil down to a choice between a conventional conflict now and living in a constant state of preparation for nuclear war later. Therefore, attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities is “the least bad option.” In contrast, the argument against conventional bombing is based on the optimists’ assumption that containing a nuclear-armed Iran would work. Thus, the debate boils down to an implicit disagreement over the interpretation of deterrence theory.

Viewing problems of proliferation through the framework of deterrence provides us no resources through which to assess or recommend diplomatic solutions. If the only questions to which deterrence theory provides us answers lie in the realm of “the diplomacy of violence,” our conversation will be severely limited. In contrast, a theory of nuclear fetishism creates intellectual tools to analyze why various diplomatic agreements might, or might not, work. It widens our aperture by explaining how nuclear weapons function as a currency of power. Thus, we are able to focus our attention on what the technical substance of a negotiated settlement should (or should not) contain in order to resolve the underlying political conflict. (I’ve written about the relationship between the substance and purpose of arms control and nonproliferation agreements at length in a previous post).

Currently, two different communities of experts are addressing questions of what a negotiated settlement would look like. A community of nuclear policy experts is writing primarily about what the technical substance of an agreement would need to entail, while a second community of diplomatic experts is writing about political factors at work. Bringing together these two different perspectives on this crisis, one from nuclear expert Matt Bunn and the other from Ambassadors William H. Luers and Thomas R. Pickering, gives us some building blocks with which to begin putting the pieces of a solution in place (although articulating a unified proposal will have to be work for another day).

Bunn explains what is realistic and possible in the realm of nuclear technology, and Luers and Pickering explain what it is at stake politically. In both cases the suggestions begin with answer the following three questions: “What do they want, what do we want, and what do we both want?” According to Bunn, the formal agreement would include:

  • The P5+1 agrees to allow some operational centrifuges in Iran.
  • Iran agrees to limit enrichment to 2-8 centrifuge cascades (other centrifuges in place, but not operating).
  • All centrifuge operations, R&D, manufacture (also other sensitive nuclear operations) are shifted to international ownership with a 24/7 international staff.
  • Iran agrees to the Additional Protocol and broad transparency measures.
  • The P5+1 implements an incentives package (trade, nuclear assistance, etc.).
  • Bilateral and multilateral dialogues are established to address other issues over time – including recognition and an end to sanctions if these other issues are successfully addressed.
  • The United States pledges not to attack Iran and not to attempt to overthrow the regime as long as (a) Iran complies with its nuclear obligations, (b) Iran does not commit or sponsor aggression or terrorist attacks against others.

And according to Luers and Pickering, politically an agreement would meet the following needs:

“Iran wants recognition of its revolution; an accepted role in its region; a nuclear program; the departure of the United States from the Middle East; and the lifting of sanctions. The United States wants Iran not to have nuclear weapons; security for Israel; a democratic evolution of Arab countries; the end of terrorism; and world access to the region’s oil and gas. Both Iran and the United States want stability in the region — particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan; the end of terrorism from Al Qaeda and the Taliban; the reincorporation of Iran into the international community; and no war.”

Taking these two analyses of the conflict as a starting point, the question we are left with is how they interact to create a viable solution.

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