A team of conservative policymakers and thinkers believes that there's a real chance that Western efforts to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon will fail, in which case the United States would have to lead an international effort to contain Iran and deter the Islamic Republic from using its nuclear weapons capability.
Experts at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative Washington think tank, have spent the last six months thinking about how the United States should respond to a nuclear-armed Iran. They are getting ready to release an extensive report tomorrow detailing a comprehensive strategy for dealing with that scenario, entitled, "Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran."
"The report is very much an acknowledgement of the very real possibility of failure of the strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and any responsible party should recognize that failure is an option. There's been a huge disservice done by all who have spent their lives in denial of that possibility," AEI Vice President Danielle Pletka told The Cable in a Monday interview. "Whenever you devise a strategy for what happens before a country gets a nuclear weapon, you should have a strategy for what happens after they get one as well."
Pletka will unveil the report on Tuesday morning at an event with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), and fellow AEI experts Tom Donnelly, Maseh Zarif, and Fred Kagan. The project brought together Iran experts of all stripes to brainstorm what would be needed to create the maximum level of confidence that, if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon, it would not decide to use it.
"While there can never be certain deterrence, Cold War presidents often had confidence that the United States had sufficient military power to support a policy of containment through a strategy of deterrence; for most of the period they felt that deterrence was assured," the report states. "It is worth repeating Dean Acheson's basic formulation: ‘American power would be employed in stopping [Soviet aggression and expansion], and if necessary, would inflict on the Soviet Union injury which the Moscow regime would not wish to suffer.' Assured deterrence began with assured destruction of the Soviet regime."
Pletka said that while the geopolitical environment is now different, the basic goal of U.S. policy is the same -- to create a situation whereby Iranian leaders would credibly believe that any nuclear attack would mean the end of their regime. But Pletka doubts whether this administration has the stomach for such a stance.
"Take out Soviet and Moscow from Acheson's quote, and sub in Iran and Tehran. Are we willing to inflict on Iran injury which the Tehran regime would not wish to suffer? I doubt it," Pletka warned. "There's no question that a country can be deterred from using a nuclear weapon, the only question is if there is the will to put those tools in place."
The report works under the assumption that Iran is working to build a nuclear weapon now and could complete one before the 2012 U.S. presidential election, after which it would continue to build nuclear weapons at a rapid pace. The report also assumes that the Obama administration is unwilling to go to war with Iran before November 2012 over the issue, and that even a limited strike by Israel would not achieve a full destruction of Iran's nuclear capabilities.
"Strategically, Iran's leaders would be foolish to wait until after November 2012 to acquire the capability to permanently deter an American attack on their nuclear program," the report states. "Sound American strategy thus requires assuming that Iran will have a weaponized nuclear capability when the next president takes office in January 2013. The Iranians may not test a device before then, depending, perhaps, on the rhetoric of the current president and his possible successor, but we must assume that they will have at least one."
"Make no mistake -- it would be vastly preferable for the United States and the world to find a way to prevent Iran from crossing that threshold, and we wholeheartedly endorse ongoing efforts that might do so," the authors write. "But some of the effort now focused on how to tighten the sanctions screws must shift to the problem of how to deal with the consequences when sanctions fail."
For Donnelly, part of the report's value is that it highlights the high costs of a deterrence and containment strategy compared to the costs of taking stronger actions now to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
"Deterrence and containment are the default mode for the people who are not up for going to war, but we wanted to point out that this was not a cheap or easy alternative, which is the way a lot of people make it sound," Donnelly told The Cable in an interview.
At Tuesday's event, Kirk will make the argument that the deterrence and containment strategy are too costly and too uncertain to depend on. His speech will be entitled, "If Iran gets the bomb..."
"Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran is on the march to nuclear weapons. And if this brutal, terrorist-sponsoring regime achieves its goal -- if Iran gets the bomb -- we, the United States of America and freedom-loving nations around the world, will have failed in what could be our generation's greatest test," Kirk will say, according to excerpts of his speech provided to The Cable.
"Iran remains the leading sponsor of international terrorism -- a proliferator of missiles and nuclear materials -- a regional aggressor -- and an abuser of human rights. We cannot afford to risk the security of future generations on a policy of containment."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.