The success of any nuclear framework agreement negotiated by Iran and the P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, Germany, France and Britain) this week ultimately will be determined not by the signing of a final accord in June but by Tehran’s fidelity to nonproliferation in the years and decades to come.
Given Iran’s history of nuclear deception, the gnawing question remains: What if the mullahs attempt to break out and build a bomb? Then what?
“Then what” is not a new nonproliferation concern. Think North Korea. Policymakers in the United States and elsewhere never got a handle on putting Pyongyang’s nuclear genie back in the bottle.
But history has much to teach about how to enforce an Iranian nuclear deal. Lessons can be learned from a serious nonproliferation failure: Mao Tse-Tung’s China and its quest for the bomb.
From the late 1940s through the early 1970s, Communist China was Washington’s bête noir — much as Iran is today. Beijing cast a spell over Americans as the menacing totalitarian “yellow peril” with hegemonic ambitions in Asia and across the developing world.
By the time John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, evidence pointed to a Chinese nuclear weapons test. The alarm prompted the U.S. government’s search for options.
On April 29, 1963, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, released a lengthy “top secret” options memo. It remains an impressive review. Clustered into two baskets, the “indirect actions” (nonmilitary) strategy relied on two tacks. One, the incentivizing tack, called for coaxing China from developing the bomb. It would be a global appeal to Beijing’s “national interest” to remain nonnuclear. It included proposals to end China’s diplomatic isolation with lures to help it resolve its economic difficulties, including direct U.S. food assistance.
By contrast, punitive indirect actions would encourage countries to cut diplomatic and economic ties with China. They included a propaganda and psychological warfare campaign to challenge Beijing’s global stature. The chiefs conceded the success of either tack was a long shot.
The second basket, “direct actions,” looked to military options. It was bounded on one end by covert aerial reconnaissance to signal U.S. “readiness to take action” and “select” tactical nuclear-weapons use on the other. In between the two, alternatives included U.S. support for Chinese Nationalist and South Korean “infiltration, subversion and sabotage” inside China, maritime interdiction and blockade, and “small-scale conventional air attacks” against nuclear plants.
In evaluating the options for the defense secretary, the joint chiefs proved to be reluctant warriors. They warned that much in the “direct approach” were “acts of war” that “should be initiated only after all other means have been exhausted, and only after full and careful consideration of the implications of such action at the time.” They added, “…[I]t is unrealistic to use overt military force to obtain CHICOM [China’s] acceptance of any [arms control] agreement.”
The State Department was more emphatic in its review: Military action would not work. Intelligence had failed to identify all nuclear installations, which made comprehensive destruction impossible. In addition, China could rebuild the bombed facilities within a few years.
What to do about China remained unresolved until Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. It was almost a year later that Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy and CIA Director John McCone met over lunch on Sept. 15, 1964 to cobble together their recommendation for Johnson’s review.
Bundy summarized the plan for the record: “We are not in favor of unilateral action against Chinese nuclear installations at this time. We would prefer to have a Chinese test take place than to initiate such action now. If for other reasons we should find ourselves in military hostilities at any level with the Chinese Communists, we would expect to give close attention to the possibility of an appropriate military action against Chinese nuclear facilities.”
The presidential advisers laid out their case to Johnson later that day, and he signed on.
On Oct. 16, 1964, China exploded its first nuclear device. In the years that followed, it manufactured several hundred bombs. Contrary to fears, the weapons played little role in Sino-U.S. relations in the decades that followed.
But proliferation elsewhere did raise concerns, which allowed a test of some of the joint chiefs’ options. Mixed results followed.
Coordinated diplomatic action and trade embargos, for example, failed to stop North Korea, India and Pakistan from going nuclear. Israel applied limited military strikes to Syria’s Al Kibar and Iraq’s Osirak reactors, the latter spurring Baghdad to do what China watchers had feared, namely rebuild.
Only victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, followed by the insertion of inspectors, eliminated Iraq’s new bomb-making uranium-enrichment effort. The 2003 invasion of Iraq brought the final end to Baghdad’s nuclear ambition by eliminating the regime, much as the defeat and occupation of Nazi Germany terminated its nuclear dream.
The joint chiefs’ options to halt China, as applied in later cases, provide insights for dealing with an Iranian breakout. Mimicking the chiefs’ indirect strategies, Washington has already seen the positive impact that the combination of sanctions and diplomatic pressure had on bringing Tehran to the bargaining table. The Obama administration plans to rely on a “snap back” of sanctions should Iran cheat on the agreement.
But the chance that snap-back will suffice were Iran to make the audacious decision to break out is questionable. Then what?
One course would follow Johnson’s China path: stand down military responses and manage nuclear risks that follow. History found it to be the right decision.
If, however, today’s policymakers conclude that a nuclear Iran would be a malignant adversary, one more prone to nuclear use than any country since World War Two, then only the Iraq strategies applied in 1991 and 2003 – using military force with occupation or insertion of inspectors authorized and capable of destroying all Iranian nuclear contraband – would serve.
While every option must remain on the table, all should remain mindful of the joint chiefs’ original admonition: Any serious use of force should take place “only after all other means have been exhausted” and the “implications” fully weighed.
Bennett Ramberg served as a policy analyst in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration.