Exclusive to the Trib: Can a nuclear Iran be contained? It’s an iffy proposition on President Obama’s watch
President Obama this week hosts six key Arab leaders at the White House and Camp David. They will have much to talk about, undoubtedly including the war in Yemen; ISIS, al-Qaida and international terrorism generally; and Israeli-Palestinian issues.
Unarguably, however, the predominant topic will be Iran’s nuclear weapons program. All the participants, Obama most of all, will have reached the same conclusion, although none of them, Obama again most of all, will want to say it openly.
The conclusion is quite straightforward: America’s diplomatic efforts to stop Iran, including economic sanctions, have failed; Iran is on track to get nuclear weapons at a time of its own choosing. The only issue remaining, therefore, is whether a nuclear Iran can be contained and deterred.
The monarchs meeting Obama (from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates) are just as worried about Iran becoming a nuclear-weapons state as Israel. Obama is deeply concerned that their public opposition to whatever agreement ultimately emerges from the current talks with Iran, coupled with Israel, could wreck his concession-laden efforts.
Comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), these oil-producing states (facing Iran across what they call the Arabian Gulf) collectively retain an enormous influence on global petroleum markets, although not what it once was. Moreover, despite their cultural, religious and domestic political differences from America, they have, in varying degrees, effectively been U.S. allies for decades. The United States bases military forces in several of them and has teamed with them all during Persian Gulf conflicts for over three decades.
Recent news reports about this U.S.-GCC summit highlighted the possibility Washington might offer sophisticated weapons systems and related defense materials in an effort to reassure the Gulf Arabs. Such hardware might well be high on the agenda. But it is ultimately irrelevant to a larger geopolitical issue, which is whether Obama is prepared to make security guarantees to the GCC states and others threatened by a nuclear Iran, such as Egypt, Turkey and Jordan.
Enhanced conventional firepower is utterly insufficient to contain or deter a determined nuclear power. And as long as the ayatollahs run Tehran, determination will not be a scarce resource. Indeed, it is the very fanaticism of the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards, undimmed after 35 years, that worries the other regional actors. Moreover, from America’s perspective, once weapons leave our control, they can fall into the wrong hands either by regime change or covert transfer.
So while the U.S. arms souk might be open for business on Wednesday and Thursday, the real question is whether a nuclear Iran can be contained and deterred through a strategy of U.S. security guarantees, especially under Obama. The only “guarantee” that can truly deter a dangerous nuclear-weapons opponent is the threat of nuclear retaliation; conventional retribution alone, even by another nuclear power, is hardly likely to deter use of nuclear weapons in the hands of a regime like Iran’s.
Unfortunately, the Islamic Revolution does not follow the same cost-benefit analysis that Soviet leaders did during the Cold War, largely because their apocalyptic religious views contrast markedly with the Communists’ resolute secularism. For the mullahs, as Bernard Lewis astutely observed, the threat of retaliatory destruction is an incentive, not a deterrent.
Even in the extraordinarily unlikely event Obama promises U.S. nuclear guarantees against the possibility of an Iranian first strike, the credibility of such a pledge would instantly be at issue. American assurances, especially from Obama, simply will not be adequate. Even Washington’s long-standing pledge during the Cold War to unleash “massive retaliation” in the event of a Soviet conventional attack against Western Europe became subject to enormous skepticism by our NATO allies and not a few Americans. Can Obama convince his fellow citizens to launch nuclear warfare to defend even friendly Arab states when no U.S. president has been willing to make such a commitment to Israel?
Whatever the outcome of this week’s meetings, the GCC states are likely to pursue their own increasingly independent policy from Washington. Their leaders might not like it but the evidence from six years (and counting) of the Obama administration is unmistakably that America does not stand by its allies when their time of troubles comes.
The Arab monarchs are nothing if not realists and they will explore multiple options rather than relying solely on a weak, feckless president who cannot distinguish his country’s interests from those of its adversaries.
That prospect is truly discouraging, highlighting that, in the precious little time remaining, America’s real objective must be to do whatever is necessary to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear finish line (assuming it has not already done so undetected by us).
Obama, however, will most probably only give evidence of the continuing decline he has wrought in American influence throughout the critical Middle East and around the world.
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security.