The Common Good
June 2012

Preventing an Iranian Bomb

by David Cortright | June 2012

History shows engagement, not attack, dissuades countries from developing nuclear weapons.

CALLS FOR THE use of military force against Iran are dangerously misguided. Israeli bombing strikes are not capable of destroying Iran’s deeply buried and dispersed nuclear program, most experts agree. Attacking Iran would prompt a violent reaction that could plunge the United States into another war and unleash a regional conflagration. According to U.S. intelligence estimates, Iran has not yet decided to build a nuclear bomb. If attacked, Iran would almost certainly resolve to proceed.

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Consider the lessons of history: Israel’s bombing of a nuclear reactor near Baghdad in 1981, far from ending Iraq’s nuclear program, prompted Saddam Hussein to accelerate that program and begin manufacturing weapons-grade uranium. When U.N. inspectors entered the country 10 years later, they discovered that Iraq was only a year or so from having the bomb. The inspectors dismantled Iraq’s nuclear program, succeeding where bombing had failed.

Sanctions and diplomacy offer a far less risky and more effective strategy for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. To be successful, however, sanctions must be combined with incentives as part of a diplomatic strategy designed to achieve a negotiated settlement.

The Obama administration has convinced the U.N. Security Council and countries in Europe and beyond to join in a rigorous set of sanctions that have cut off financial transactions with Iran’s major banks and curtailed purchases of Iranian oil. As a result, inflation is rising, the Iranian rial has lost half its value in the past year, and economic hardships are mounting.

Such costs have not stopped Tehran from enriching uranium and steadily enhancing its nuclear capability—and, indeed, past experience shows that sanctions alone never succeed in stopping nuclear proliferation.

Over the decades more than two dozen countries have considered but then decided not to develop or maintain nuclear weapons capability. In almost every instance, countries were persuaded to give up the bomb because of improved political and economic conditions or in response to security assurances and financial incentives, including the offer to lift sanctions. In Libya in 2003, for example, the Gadhafi regime agreed to abandon its weapons of mass destruction as part of a diplomatic bargain that eventually removed U.S. sanctions and opened the country to international investment. The art of diplomacy lies in creatively blending pressures and inducements. Convincing countries to forego the bomb requires cooperating with them, however unpalatable that may be with a regime such as Iran’s.

Diplomatic options are available for defusing tensions with Iran. A first step would be to resume negotiations for a uranium fuel swap: Iran would transfer some of its low-level enriched uranium to another country, probably Russia, for further enrichment and return as fuel pads for medical isotopes. This would lower Iran’s growing stockpile of low-enriched uranium—and, more important, set a precedent for greater transparency and international participation in Iran’s nuclear program. U.S. and European officials complain that the proposed deal has loopholes and would not shut down continuing enrichment. But the swap, as proposed by Iran, Turkey, and Brazil two years ago, is not meant as a final resolution but rather as a confidence-building process to begin dialogue.

Ultimately, the U.S. and its partners will need to accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty does not prohibit enrichment and in fact guarantees the “inalienable right” of all states to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Leading opposition figures and Green Movement activists in Iran oppose further sanctions and support Iranian development of nuclear technology—although they support compliance with international monitoring. An offer to accept enrichment in return for more rigorous inspections could be decisive in resolving the nuclear standoff.

Words are better than war. Negotiating with Tehran offers the best option for preventing nuclear proliferation and avoiding military disaster.

David Cortright, a Sojourners contributing writer, is director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

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