The deal is done. Iran has sort-of promised it won’t build nuclear weapons, but even the promise has serious caveats: Iran can continue to build weapons platforms to deliver the non-existent weapons; it can cooperate with friendly countries to acquire enhancements to weapons delivery technology; and it can prevent entry to requested facilities by international inspectors for 24 days per request; it need not account for prior military activity. And Iran will be vastly richer.
Based on the world’s experience with the efficacy of multinational inspection regimes and with Iran specifically, it would be wise to assume that the Islamic Republic will move (continue?) covertly to build nuclear warheads, perhaps just leaving out the nuclear fuel. Iran will likely begin testing rockets so that they will be able to release a future nuclear weapon securely at the right moment to get the right blast effect.
The rocket is as important as the nuclear weapon it carries.
Nuclear weapons don’t go off if they plow into the ground, because as they disintegrate they can’t achieve the necessary chain reaction; they must explode above ground at a fixed altitude
Allowing Iran to openly acquire ballistic missile technology can shorten the time from weapons acquisition to weapons use, increasing the relative nervousness of the neighbors — not a recipe for stability. Israel will have to try to interdict and disrupt Iranian ballistic missile testing on an active and overt basis. Because Israeli is not a signatory to the Iran deal, it can expect to be censured by its allies and everyone else. But Israel will have no choice.
If a nuclear weapon were to be fired at Israel, in the few minutes from launch to impact Israel could, in theory, launch its own nuclear weapons from diverse platforms including land-based intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), from F-4’s and F-15’s, and from the newer Israeli submarines. Iran would face annihilation. It potentially could mean the same for Israel, although Israel’s anti-missile system may be sufficient to block the Iranian strike. A lot will depend on how good the Iranian technology is, how well tested it is, and what Israel’s countermeasures are.
The above scenario suggests this might be the time for Israel to place whatever nuclear cards it holds on the table. Israel has long been a presumed nuclear power, including by the CIA since the 1970s, and Secretary Robert Gates said so explicitly in his confirmation hearings. But Israel’s official posture remains “nuclear ambiguity” and a vague statement that Israel would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in the region, hinting that the program was designed as a deterrent. But given that Iran is likely on its way to being a nuclear power as well, and has threatened Israel specifically and directly with annihilation, Israel’s deterrence may well be enhanced by a less ambiguous posture.
While the first of the deal’s unintended consequences is that it forces Israel to officially become a nuclear power, there are others.
The deal increases the chances of direct conventional warfare between Israel and an emboldened and wealthier Iran. It may come as a consequence of Israel’s “interdict and defeat” effort in Syria; too many Iranian missiles in the hands of Hizb’allah; the deployment of Iranian troops in Syria threatening Israel; a firefight in the Golan or southern Lebanon; or conflict on the high seas. The list is a long one.
And Israel is not the only country that views Iran with alarm. Egypt and Saudi Arabia will urgently step up their search for nuclear capability. Egypt has gone down this road before and the Saudis have been leaning on Pakistan for a bomb. Neither Egypt nor Saudi Arabia is inherently stable, and instability runs different scenarios. Saudi Arabia has IRBM delivery systems and F-15s that can be used to deliver a nuclear weapon. Egypt does not presently have the rockets, but it has a good nuclear science base that it gained in cooperation with different international partners. How viable its nuclear science pool is today is unclear; but in the 1980s Egypt was working with Iraq on the creation of plutonium fuel for weapons (at the Osirak reactor, among other locales) and was partnered with Argentina and perhaps others in building a version of the American Pershing II mobile nuclear missile. It is not unreasonable to think these programs or variants of them will in some way be revived.
The U.S. administration may think the Sunni Arab states have nowhere to turn for technology, but that would be wrong. Russia, for example, and China are more than capable under the right circumstances of cynically supporting both sides in the region — greatly enhancing the chances of war.
In the short term, the Saudis and Egyptians will need to rely on under-the-table relationships with Israel to resist pressure from Iran, which will grow apace thanks to the Washington-led deal; whether this can be concretized and turned into a workable and useful collective security pact is an important consideration. At a minimum, given the substantial barriers to overt cooperation, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States will be heavily exposed and at risk for some time.
The security consequences do not only accrue to the regional countries, but to the United States and our European allies as well.
The U.S.-led deal leaves the Islamic Republic on the road to nuclear weapons capability, now or in five years or in ten — we don’t actually know because the administration gave up its demand for information on Iran’s previous military activities. The cost of this, which we already are seeing, is further diminution of American power and influence in the Middle East as neither our Arab allies nor Israel believe we can protect them. This fuels Russian as well as Iranian ambitions. Europe, which needs oil from the Middle East, can consequently be expected to back away from NATO, encouraging Russian nibbling on the margins of Europe — Estonia is already panicked. The Atlantic Alliance system and Pax Americana that emerged from the ashes of WWII will collapse.
In the face of that possibility, the U.S. — whether in this administration or the next — will find that it cannot stand aside. In some manner, however halting, the United States will have to agree to do what Israel by circumstance is being forced to do, namely move militarily to truncate Iran’s nuclear program.
That being the case, it would be wise for the U.S. to pick up the leadership gauntlet earlier rather than later, and to do so in the company of as many friends and allies as it can muster.