Force Won’t Much Slow Iranian Nuclear Progress, But Something Else Can
The historical record shows that diplomacy can do what force alone has not.
On July 2, an explosion took place at Iran’s Natanz nuclear complex, in a workshop that develops advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium. Perhaps it had nothing to do with other recent explosions at military and civilian sites around the country, including a Revolutionary Guards base in western Tehran. But many suspect that the Natanz incident may be part of a wider campaign — perhaps led by Israel, or aided by the United States — to disrupt Iran’s nuclear and military capabilities.
Even if deliberate, the damage to Natanz and other sites is likely only a temporary setback to Iran’s nuclear capabilities and one far shorter than that achieved by the more targeted effort by the last administration: the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. If outcomes are compared, it is clear that diplomacy backed by the threat of force is a more effective means to address nuclear risks than the use of force backed by some stated desire to negotiate.
Unsurprisingly, Israeli authorities have neither confirmed nor denied that their country is responsible. Jerusalem seems happy to let the idea grow that it was behind this incident regardless of the truth. The United States, in the person of Secretary of State and former CIA director Mike Pompeo, had “no comment” when reporters asked about the incident on July 8.
Israel has long feared an Iranian nuclear weapon, and with reason. For over four decades, Tehran has adopted a harsh anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic rhetoric; supported a host of non-state actors to counter Israel, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad; and increasingly built a presence in Israel’s backyard. And until 2003, Iran had an active program to develop nuclear weapons technology, as verified by U.S. and Israeli intelligence and international inspectors. But while parts of the Israeli military and security establishment saw the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts to scale back Iran’s nuclear program as a viable approach, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies did what they could to torpedo the diplomatic process and its product, the JCPOA. They argued all along that diplomacy was at best a delaying tactic, one incapable of permanently ending Iran’s nuclear potential.
Just months before the JCPOA was concluded in 2015, Netanyahu appeared before a joint session of Congress having bypassed the White House to lobby against the agreement. And once President Trump took office in 2017, Netanyahu reportedly sought to push the administration toward leaving the agreement. The following year, the president pulled out.
Since then, predictably, Iran has increased its ability to produce nuclear material that could be used in a nuclear weapon. Under the JCPOA, Iran remained at least one year from being able to enrich enough uranium for a bomb, and was complying with provisions that made doing so secretly much more difficult. Now, Tehran may only be a few months away from such a capability—a timeline that will continue to shrink unless Iran agrees to refrain from sensitive activities.
Netanyahu and the JCPOA’s American critics appear to share the view that diplomacy—even when it works—shows weakness. Iran, they say, respects only “strength,” which they associate with economic sanctions and military action. But the record shows that these kinds of “strong” responses are objectively less effective than past diplomatic achievements.
At best, the result of the Natanz explosion is a pause, setting back Iran’s future capabilities for some months. With a stroke of a pen, however, the JCPOA delayed Iran’s nuclear ambitions over a decade and made intrusive inspections permanent. The nuclear deal also came without the inherent and very real dangers of increased tensions and escalation. The JCPOA also did not create political pressure inside Iran for both escalation and greater public support for a nuclear program that has no economic justification.
Threatening or undertaking covert action or sabotage may satisfy some, but the reality is that the hard, slow, and painstaking work of producing the JCPOA achieved more lasting limits on Iran’s nuclear potential without firing a single shot. Moreover, diplomacy left military or other actions in reserve as a last possible resort should the regime violate its commitments, something Iran has been able to do because America did so first.
The JCPOA was hardly perfect. Many (including us) believed that follow-on diplomacy would be needed to extend provisions and make them even more permanent. But it achieved far more than recent developments, and at less cost. Whether Trump remains in power or Biden wins the presidency, America’s interests would be best secured by returning to diplomacy and doing so before Iran decides that a nuclear weapon, rather than engagement, would best serve its interests.