Effective enforcement of the Iranian nuclear deal remains a conundrum. Enshrined in the agreement is “snapback” – the restoration of international economic sanctions against Tehran should it violate the deal’s terms. Yet the expected rush of European, Russian and Chinese businesses into Iran would make such unified action questionable.
Aware that economic pressure might not be enough, U.S. officials have repeatedly declared “all options” are on the table. Though most have been reluctant to offer details, recent Pentagon talk has focused on a new bunker-buster bomb. Such talk feeds into the growing presumption that Washington would rely on air strikes if Iran violated the agreement.
Yet history shows that forceful alternatives either don’t work or are too dangerous and costly. In addition, past air strikes have proved to be unreliable. So policymakers should indeed consider all options. Previous tactics — including assassination, special-forces sabotage, technology disruption, armed forces mobiliztion, massive bombing and war — deserve another look.
Some tacks have worked better than others. Determining the best course, however, can be complicated. Here’s a list:
1) Assassination marks the nadir on the violence spectrum. It has reportedly been applied by Israel against Iraqi and Iranian scientists — for example, the bomb, delivered by motor cycle, that struck the car in Tehran in which Majid Shahriari, a senior nuclear engineer, was riding in 2010. But the tactic has failed to seriously hinder nuclear development.
2) Sabotage by special forces of nuclear installations has had more impact but is not enduring. One early application was during World War Two, when British commandos attempted to destroy a plant in Nazi-occupied Norway that produced heavy water, a vital substance Germany required for the nuclear weapons effort. Israel’s 1979 commando detonation of the Osirak reactor core as it sat in a French warehouse awaiting shipment to Iraq marks a second case. In both instances, engineers repaired the damaged equipment within months.
3) Sabotage of a different sort, including cyberattacks on Iran’s uranium- enrichment plants, as well as the adulteration of material imported to fabricate centrifuges, set back Tehran’s nuclear program by months. But that was it.
4) Air strikes. Without the precise delivery systems of current air forces, the United States tried a massive bombing campaign during World War Two to destroy the Norwegian heavy-water plant after Britain’s attempted sabotage failed. Even with that, the allies needed a follow-up commando operation to eliminate the surviving heavy-water stocks. But the success in Norway failed to halt Nazi Germany’s program back in Germany. Scientific barriers proved far more important in undermining the Nazi effort.
With more advanced aircraft, Israel’s bombardment of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, and Syria’s Al Kibar reactor in 2007, succeeded far more efficiently. The destruction of Syria’s reactor may be the most effective use of force in history. With few resources to rebuild the North Korean-engineered plant, Damascus abandoned its nuclear effort.
The attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor told another story. Here, destruction prompted Baghdad to undertake a 10-year covert effort to enrich uranium. By some estimates, Iraq was within a year of succeeding when the 1991 Persian Gulf War broke out.
But bombing will not prevent efforts at covert reconstruction by countries with the personnel, drive, resources and effective stealth to do the job. Iran, unlike Syria, falls into this category.
5) War or the threat of war. In the end, the only forceful policy that eliminated emerging nuclear weapons programs with certainty — putting aside voluntary monitored relinquishment by former Soviet states, South Africa and Libya — was the successful wars waged against Nazi Germany in World War Two and Iraq in 1991. Occupying military forces in the first case, and international inspectors in the second, were able to eliminate all nuclear contraband.
War, however, remains the most costly option, in both blood and treasure.
It also adds a wrinkle, not in its application, but in its gestation. The Cuban missile crisis demonstrated that threat manipulation — preparations for the use of overwhelming military force to invade the island, coupled with the naval quarantine and the ramping up of the alert status of the nuclear arsenal — intimidated Moscow to abandon its Cuba gambit.
But coercive diplomacy is never a sure thing. Think about the massive buildups undertaken by U.S. and allied forces against Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Both failed to intimidate, and war ensued.
6) There is one last option of the “all options” alternative that policymakers appear loath to talk about: acceptance of Iran as a nuclear armed state. Farfetched? Even the Israelis apparently gave a nod to that possibility when Ehud Barak, former prime minister and defense minister, recently revealed that, between 2010 and 2012, Jerusalem seriously contemplated military action against Iran but then got cold feet.
For Washington to take this course would actually be consistent with historic behavior. When faced with a nuclear buildup in China during the early 1960s, North Korea in recent years and the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War, the United States decided that managing an adversary with an emerging nuclear arsenal was a better course than using force to stop it. Of course, acceptance of Iran into the nuclear club banks that it will be a responsible steward of the bomb.
History’s lessons for halting Iran’s nuclear temptation are sobering. “All options are on the table” may be a nice catch phrase — but if the mullahs attempt a nuclear breakout, only a winning war would guarantee full success.
Half measures, notably air strikes, may buy time to sway Tehran to rethink its nuclear course. But the past’s inconvenient truth remains: Unless Iran complies with the recent agreement and the underlying nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Washington faces a daunting choice should snapback fail. It can go to war or bet that deterrence applied against nuclear adversaries in the past will work again against Iran’s revolutionary regime.
Bennett Ramberg served as a policy analyst in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is the author of Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy.