America’s Failing Iran Nuclear Policy: Time for a Course Adjustment
America’s inability to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program after exiting the 2015 nuclear deal — to halt the Islamic Republic’s subsequent accumulation of fissile material and to forge a “longer and stronger” deal — should prompt Washington to reassess its Iran policy. Such a reckoning should acknowledge that the United States has never used all of the implements in its policy toolkit to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, while the tools it has generally relied on — diplomacy, sanctions, and (to a much lesser extent) the threat of force — are less effective today due to a shifting geopolitical landscape.
For now, it is unclear if ongoing stop-gap diplomacy to reach informal understandings with the Iranian leadership absent a formal deal will cause the Islamic Republic to curb its fissile material buildup indefinitely in return for the easing of sanctions on its oil exports. Furthermore, the Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza will almost certainly absorb the attention of U.S. policymakers for months to come. Yet policymakers will need to remain focused on halting Iran’s fissile material buildup while undertaking a long-term effort — using a broader policy toolkit than employed to date — to shape Tehran’s assessment of the risks, costs, and utility of nuclear weapons. The goal should be to dissuade and deter Iran from building a bomb, and thus to keep it kicking the (nuclear) can down the road.
Because there are no insurmountable technical obstacles to Iran building nuclear weapons, shaping its proliferation calculus is key to influencing the trajectory of its nuclear program. A “shaping strategy” to avoid a nuclear-armed Iran, moreover, should be something to which nearly all parties to the often fraught Iran policy debate can agree — whether “engagers,” “containers,” or “regime changers.”
Outdated U.S. Policy Assumptions
Many of the assumptions underpinning U.S., European, and Israeli policy approaches toward Iran’s nuclear program are no longer valid. The U.S. (and to some extent European) approach was best summed up by Secretary of State Antony Blinken when he stated that “diplomacy is the best way to verifiably, effectively, and sustainably prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” though if “Iran rejects [this] path … all options are on the table.” Yet Iran has repeatedly rejected opportunities to negotiate a longer, stronger deal, and should push come to shove, it is not clear that “all options” really are “on the table” — that a U.S. president would order a military strike on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
By contrast, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed that “the only thing that has … stopped rogue nations [like Iran] from developing nuclear weapons is a credible military threat or … military action. … The longer you wait [however], the harder that becomes.” Yet Israeli credibility has been undermined by its failure to enforce its own nuclear redlines or to prepare adequately for the consequences of the U.S. exit from the 2015 nuclear accord after it encouraged Washington to abandon the deal. Moreover, relying on Israel to do the job is not the answer, as Iran is too big a problem for Israel to handle on its own.
Approaches that lean heavily on a single factor for success, whether diplomacy (the United States and Europe) or the threat of force (Israel), are likely to yield fragile policies built upon a single point of failure. By contrast, a more holistic approach that employs all the instruments of national power (sanctions, diplomacy, covert action, the threat of force, and influence activities) is more likely to yield a robust, sustainable policy of dissuasion, deterrence, and delay. And such an approach is more likely to succeed at shaping Tehran’s perception of the potential risks, costs, and utility of nuclear weapons — and to dissuade it from building a bomb. At any rate, U.S. policymakers do not seem to recognize that many of the policy tools that the United States and its allies traditionally relied on to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions are no longer as useful as they were in the past:
Sanctions: Washington’s ability to sanction Tehran’s oil sector has frequently been constrained by a desire to avoid price shocks and limit tensions with China — currently its main customer. And Iran’s efforts to build a more diversified, self-reliant “resistance economy” will increasingly limit the efficacy of sanctions; today, oil and gas sales as a proportion of total exports and government revenues are a fraction of what they were a decade ago.
And if the United States were to undertake a revived “maximum pressure” campaign, the Islamic Republic could respond as in 2019 with attacks on oil transport and infrastructure in the Gulf. Preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and tensions with China, any administration will try to avoid new entanglements in the Middle East. So while sanctions remain useful — restricting Tehran’s access to foreign exchange and limiting its military spending — economic and military considerations increasingly constrain their application.
Diplomatic isolation: Tehran aspires to a regional and global leadership role but cannot achieve this goal if it is diplomatically isolated. So, to avoid diplomatic censure, it has regularly promised greater access and transparency to United Nations nuclear inspectors to avoid a referral of its case to the United Nations Security Council. Similarly, to gain relief from crushing sanctions and ease its international isolation, it agreed to roll back large parts of its nuclear program in a 2013 interim deal that led to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany). Since then, Tehran’s ties with Europe have frayed due to its role in a string of terrorist plots in Europe, its violent repression of the “women, life, freedom” protests, and its military support for Russia’s war on Ukraine.
However, the emergence of a multipolar global order and the Iranian government’s recent efforts to forge close partnerships with Russia and China have created new opportunities for the Islamic Republic. After all, its allies in its efforts to counter U.S. “hegemony” (Russia, China, and other members of the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa group and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) comprise almost half of the world’s population. So while Tehran still lacks a reliable great power partner, it may no longer feel that it can be isolated.
Covert action and sabotage: Covert action can buy time by disrupting and delaying the activities of nuclear aspirants, but it cannot halt a determined proliferator. Israeli efforts to sabotage Iraq’s nuclear program did not eliminate the need to eventually bomb the Osirak reactor in 1981. Likewise, though Iran’s march toward a nuclear weapons capability has been delayed by acts of sabotage, it continues to make progress. And recent Israeli covert actions may have spurred Tehran to accelerate its efforts. So while covert action remains a vital tool, it is not a game changer and may be counterproductive, absent a willingness to employ military force to deter countermoves.
Preventive military action: The United States has implied, and Israel has practically expressed, a readiness to use force to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Yet military action may not always be possible if nuclear diplomacy fails: hardening, burying, and dispersal may eventually put the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program beyond the reach of conventional weapons; crises elsewhere (e.g., the Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza) may preclude effective Israeli or U.S. military action; Iran’s growing missile and drone force may make preventive action prohibitively costly; and intelligence sources could dry up (though Iran’s nuclear program seems thoroughly penetrated).
Even if a military strike remains a viable option, it is likely to yield only modest benefits. Bombing nuclear reactors (as Israel did in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007) may buy up to a decade of delay; bombing a dispersed and hardened centrifuge program that can be quickly reconstituted would probably buy much less time. Iran will almost certainly rebuild — perhaps in secret and possibly after expelling United Nations inspectors — and it might abandon its hedging strategy after a strike and go for a nuclear bomb. For this reason, follow-on strikes might be necessary months or years down the road — and again after that.
Both Israel and Iran, then, face unpalatable options. For Israel, a preventive strike would need to maximize damage to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure without catalyzing a broader, more destructive conflict that might preclude future attacks. And while “mowing the grass” might have worked for a time in Gaza, it is probably not a viable approach for managing Iran’s nuclear program. Iran, for its part, would try to hit back hard enough to deter follow-on strikes, but not so hard as to spark a broader conflict that could draw in the United States and possibly leave its oil and gas infrastructure in shambles. And domestic uncertainty in Israel (due to the war in Gaza) and Iran (due to planning for the post–Ali Khamenei succession) argue against risky moves by either at this time — though it is unclear how the Gaza war will affect Iran’s calculus.
Israeli policymakers would probably prefer to defer a decision about a preventive strike, while Supreme Leader Khamenei will probably defer a decision about building a bomb as long as he believes it could prompt such a strike; the risks and costs of both are potentially high and the benefits uncertain. The symmetry in the dilemmas faced by the two sides is striking. Tehran’s dilemma, however, when seen in the context of its nuclear hedging strategy, may represent an opportunity for America and its allies.
Iran’s nuclear hedging strategy and proliferation calculus
Locked in a grinding conflict with Iraq, Iran initiated its nuclear weapons program in the mid-1980s, acquiring technology and know-how. By the late 1990s, it launched a secret crash effort to obtain nuclear weapons. However, its secret fissile material production program became public in 2002, and after the United Sates invaded Iraq in 2003, the Islamic Republic halted nearly all weapons-related work, fearing an American attack if these activities were discovered. Iran’s leadership had apparently concluded that the potential risks and costs of building a bomb were greater than previously anticipated.
Tehran thus adopted a nuclear hedging strategy that has enabled it to create a nuclear weapons option while managing the risks of doing so. The resulting cautious, go-slow approach has on several occasions led Iran to temporarily halt or roll back elements of its program in order to achieve other vital objectives: avoiding diplomatic censure, obtaining sanctions relief, and gaining recognition of its “right to enrich.” This approach has also enabled Iran to become a nuclear threshold state, which may confer many of the benefits of having a bomb without the risks that trying to get one would entail.
And the risks would be substantial. Given its program’s penetration by foreign intelligence services, Iran has to assume it will get caught if it tries to build a bomb, perhaps prompting an Israeli or U.S. military strike. So it will probably accumulate a large stockpile of fissile material before attempting a breakout, to ensure that significant quantities survive a possible strike. This will help jump-start efforts to rebuild and allow Iran to make more than the handful of devices initially envisaged by its 1990s-era crash program.
And then there are the technical challenges of bomb-making — not all of which Iranian scientists have mastered. A large, simple device for delivery by ship or aircraft might take six months to build; a more compact device for delivery by missiles might take 18 to 24 months. This would create a window of vulnerability that Iran would need to cross before it got its first bomb. For this reason, rather than dashing to a nuclear “breakout,” Tehran might attempt to “creep out”: moving slowly and deliberately, while conducting low-signature weapons development activities at small clandestine sites in the hope that they would not be detected — or at least would not provoke a military response if discovered.
These dilemmas, rooted in the very logic of its hedging strategy, create opportunities to shape the Iranian regime’s proliferation calculus by playing on its concerns that an attempt to acquire nuclear weapons could prompt a military strike, while they would contribute little to regime protection or power projection. In this way, Washington and its partners may induce Iran to further postpone a decision to weaponize — buying time to develop additional sources of leverage to persuade the Islamic Republic to keep kicking the (nuclear) can down the road.
Fostering Concerns about the Risks, Costs, and Utility of the Bomb
The United States and its European partners have traditionally relied on a few “big sticks” in their nuclear diplomacy with Tehran — particularly the threat of diplomatic censure and economic sanctions — and they should continue wielding these sticks as best they can. But these should be augmented with several “smaller sticks” — information- and cyber-driven influence activities — as well as another big stick that Washington has often been reluctant to employ — military signaling — in order to shape Iran’s proliferation calculus.
Given Tehran’s apparent uncertainty about how to proceed with its nuclear program, such influence activities might tip the psychological balance in the minds of key Iranian decisionmakers in favor of proliferation restraint and convince the regime that deferring a decision on nuclear weapons continues to be in its interest. Thus, relatively small policy adjustments that play on Khamenei’s aversion to risk and the paranoia and conspiratorial thinking that characterize Iranian politics may yield potentially large policy payoffs. Influence activities should emphasize several themes in order to shape the Islamic Republic’s proliferation calculus:
Nuclear weapons — a two-edged sword: Iranian decisionmakers need to consider whether a country that has failed to protect its most senior nuclear scientists from foreign hit teams, its most sensitive nuclear facilities from sabotage, and its nuclear archives from theft, should build nuclear weapons. After all, they could be stolen by disaffected military personnel or individuals working for foreign intelligence services and used to threaten the regime. Or they might be used without authorization by hardline zealots against Israel or U.S. targets in the region, provoking a catastrophic nuclear response. Growing disaffection in Iran will only magnify these risks in the coming years. Furthermore, Iranian decisionmakers should consider whether in a crisis or war, cyber attacks or sabotage could cause nuclear missiles to be misdirected as a result of cyber manipulation, global positioning system spoofing, or the intentional entry of incorrect target data so that they hit targets in Iran. To this end, the United States and its partners should quietly demonstrate, from time to time, their ability to penetrate sensitive Iranian military command and control networks with cyber tools.
Crisis instability: The deployment of nuclear-tipped missiles would create new capabilities as well as new dilemmas for the Islamic Republic. Short missile flight times (seven to eight minutes) from Iran to Israel might cause the latter to adopt a launch-on-warning nuclear posture and pre-delegate use authority to military commanders. This could increase the risks of miscalculation during a crisis or war. Thus, in the event of an attack, Israel might not be able to discern whether incoming Iranian missiles were conventional or nuclear. It would then have to choose between riding out what could be a devastating nuclear first strike or launching a nuclear “counterstrike” in response to what might turn out to be a conventional attack. Paradoxically, nuclear-armed missiles might undermine the utility of Iran’s large conventional missile force.
Iran’s nuclear vulnerabilities: Public discussions in Iran have rarely addressed the potentially devastating consequences of a nuclear strike, although former President Akbar Rafsanjani once mused about Israel’s vulnerability to a single nuclear weapon due to its small size. Yet with 75 percent of its population living in cities and with greater Tehran the home to 50 percent of its industry, 30 percent of all government workers, and more than 50 higher education institutions, Iran is also extremely vulnerable to a nuclear strike.
Consequently, it would benefit greatly from the kind of discussion about nuclear weapons that occurred in the United States and elsewhere in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks to the efforts of antinuclear activists and movies such as On the Beach (1959), Fail-Safe (1964), and The Day After (1983), which educated citizens and policymakers about the horrors of nuclear war. These films and others like them should be dubbed in Persian and made available to Iranian audiences, while maps of various Iranian cities that illustrate the effects of a nuclear blast should be made available to Iranians through social media. This will enable Iranian citizens and policymakers to experience the gut-wrenching feeling that many Americans in the 1960s and 1970s experienced when viewing such maps and assessing the odds of surviving a nuclear strike.
A proliferation cascade: Senior Iranian officials have only occasionally evinced concern that the country’s nuclear program might set off a regional proliferation cascade that could jeopardize the country’s security. Why? They might believe that their neighbors are incapable of building nuclear weapons or would not pose a threat were they to do so, or that a proliferation cascade would constrain the United States and Israel more than it would Iran. Alternatively, Tehran may harbor such concerns but may consider it unseemly to voice them. Its hedging strategy may therefore be driven, at least in part, by a desire to achieve nuclear threshold status without causing a cascade. If so, the Iranian leadership is not succeeding. Several regional states have already established civilian nuclear energy programs — at least in part as a hedge against Iran’s nuclear program. And a proliferation cascade could eventually make Iran’s hedging strategy untenable, causing it to build a bomb to stay ahead of its neighbors. This might spark a nuclear arms race that could one day pose an existential threat to Iran — yet another reason for nuclear restraint by Iran.
The utility of nuclear weapons: Supreme Leader Khamenei has sometimes questioned the military utility of nuclear weapons, perhaps to provide an after-the-fact justification (in addition to his so-called “nuclear fatwa”) for his 2003 decision to halt Iran’s crash program. According to Khamenei, nuclear weapons did not ensure the survival of the Soviet Union, help the United States in Vietnam, or enable the Islamic Republic’s enemies to foil its regional designs. Likewise, Khamenei seems to believe that Israel’s nuclear arms will not prevent Iran and its proxies from destroying the Jewish state. Tehran’s growing conventional missile and drone arsenal might also lead it to conclude that nuclear weapons are unnecessary — at least for now — causing it to double down on its hedging strategy, while it inches ever closer (in asymptotic fashion) to a nuclear weapons capability.
Finally, there is no evidence that the Islamic Republic sees nuclear weapons as essential to regime survival. If that were so, it would not have agreed — just a few years after the 2009 Green Movement protests revealed the extent of popular disaffection with the regime — to an interim nuclear deal in 2013 and a longer deal in 2015 that would have capped most of its nuclear activities for over a decade. The uncritical embrace of such a flawed assumption may lead to missed opportunities to influence Iran’s proliferation calculus, and to failed policies.
The threat of force and U.S. unpredictability: Fears of U.S. military action in 2003 and foreign intelligence penetrations of its nuclear program caused Tehran to eventually adopt a nuclear hedging strategy; threats of Israeli military action between 2010 and 2012 encouraged Iran to continue down this path. Yet in recent years, U.S. leaders have generally been reluctant to take steps that could lend credibility to their pledges that Iran will never get the bomb, satisfying themselves with performative gestures that entail little risk — such as the dispatch of carrier strike groups to the Gulf and B-52 presence patrols there. (Now focused on the Indo-Pacific region, the U.S. Navy has not had a carrier in the Gulf region since 2021.) While the Iranian leadership has never doubted U.S. military capability, it has come to doubt U.S. commitment and resolve. Accordingly, Tehran’s fears of U.S. military action have faded.
This, however, may be changing. Since early 2023, the U.S. military has held a series of joint exercises with Israel and reinforced its presence in the Gulf with fighter aircraft, bombers, and warships. Some of these actions were likely taken to deter adversaries and assure friends, in the wake of attempts by Tehran to seize foreign tankers in the Gulf and Russian efforts to disrupt U.S. drone operations over Syria. Other steps were likely intended to indicate that a U.S. military option against Iran’s nuclear program is still “on the table.”
In the meanwhile, the United States responded in March to the killing of an American contractor in Syria by killing eight pro-Iranian militiamen in a strike on an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps facility there. In July, a U.S. Navy destroyer prevented Iranian naval vessels from seizing two foreign oil tankers in the Gulf. In August, U.S. media reported that the United States was considering the deployment of armed guards on tankers in the Gulf to prevent their diversion by Iran. And in response to the Gaza war, Washington sent two carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean. These demonstrations of resolve — signaling the need for Tehran to tread carefully — may help deter future attacks and convince the Islamic Republic that Washington might act if it attempted a nuclear breakout.
Iran’s leadership has seen that while nearly every U.S. president since World War II has tried to avoid or to extricate U.S. troops from military entanglements in the Middle East, nearly every single one has been drawn into conflicts there. They therefore should wonder whether President Joseph Biden might be the next to do so if they are not careful. Indeed, Biden’s impassioned speech following a brutal terrorist attack by the Gaza-based Palestinian Hamas organization that killed more 1,300 Israelis and resulted in the abduction of 200 more may mark the beginning of just such a policy turnabout. Under such circumstances, Tehran may worry that an Israeli military strike on Iran could drag in the United States.
Keep the Hedger Hedging
Whether Tehran continues hedging or attempts to build a bomb will be influenced greatly by how America and its allies shape Iran’s assessment of whether it would get caught attempting a breakout; the odds of an Israeli or U.S. military response to such a step; and the risks, costs, and utility of nuclear weapons. Yet because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei seems uncertain about how to proceed with Iran’s nuclear program, relatively small policy adjustments may yield large policy payoffs. This only underscores the need for America and its allies to use all means available to shape the Islamic Republic’s proliferation calculus in accordance with a policy of dissuasion, deterrence, and delay, in order to “keep the hedger hedging” — and to keep it kicking the (nuclear) can down the road.
Michael Eisenstadt is Kahn Fellow and director of the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Parts of this article were drawn from his most recent publication, Iran’s Nuclear Hedging Strategy: Shaping the Islamic Republic’s Proliferation Calculus (Washington Institute/Rowman & Littlefield, 2022).
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