This is Part 2 of a two-part post. Part 1 is here.
The consequences of Iran getting the bomb are significant, of course, including the urge other nations will feel to acquire the bomb for themselves, and the geopolitical use Iran will make of the bomb as both a regional threat and a deterrent against other nations, to cover Iran’s support of insurgencies and other proxy efforts abroad. I have discussed these concerns, and others, at length elsewhere. (Most links can be found at The Optimistic Conservative Iran Page.)
But the idea of this month’s deal as a watershed in global relations with Iran sets up a more imminent crisis point, and that is what will make Israel feel bound to take action against Iran’s nuclear program. There are three “triggers” I see: situations which Israel must, for her own security, react to. The deal has no features in it that will genuinely avert the development of any of them.
This, in effect, is where the rubber meets the road, as far as whether watching Iran “comply” with the deal will be a useful exercise. The deal has the appearance of addressing two out of the three triggers. But administering Iran’s compliance won’t be a matter of knowing for sure, on every day of the next six months, what is going on at any given facility. Nor does the deal entail IAEA gaining access in the next six months to suspect locations like the tunnels at Natanz. It only entails talking about increasing IAEA’s access, where such access has been denied before.
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Here, a discussion of the three triggers:
1. Iran prepares for an imminent warhead test. I regard the probability of this as very low. But that’s not because Iran couldn’t do it, even under the deal she has just signed. Her activities are not constantly and pervasively monitored, even at Natanz, where she undergoes routine inspections. We also don’t know what goes on in the underground tunnels. (If it’s anything related to a nuclear-weapon development process, it would be uranium enrichment. An actual warhead test would be done elsewhere.)
An underground warhead test would be detectable via seismic equipment monitored by foreign nations, and Iran – already suspicious about Israeli intelligence and intentions – will assume that the Israelis can gain knowledge of most if not all steps leading up to it. The Iranians know that Israel is likely to detect any prior indications and try to interdict the test. I believe that from Iran’s perspective, the timing won’t be right in the next six months to attempt this game-changing step.
But the terms of the Geneva deal won’t be decisive in preventing it. Iran has too many ways to get around the one relevant clause in the deal: the stipulation that she dilute half of her existing stock of “medium”-enriched uranium. She is likely to slow-roll this requirement anyway, not wanting to set a precedent of rapid compliance on any point. But even if she didn’t, her dilution compliance will be for show, rather than having a decisive impact on her actual capabilities.
2. Iran prepares to start up the plutonium reactor at Arak. I consider the probability of this to be low in the next six months. But Iran is very close to being able to do it, and I assess her main decision factor now is political rather than technical.
As with the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, struck by the IDF in 1981, and the Syrian reactor struck in 2007, the Israelis will want to attack the Arak reactor before it goes critical. There is no way to safely and gracefully bring the reactor down once it has gone critical. Unlike the light-water reactor at Bushehr, the Arak reactor will produce weaponizable fissile material efficiently, so it cannot be left in operation if it starts.
What Iran will want to do, as things stand today, is start the reactor up without tipping off the Israelis. Although there will presumably be a flurry of inspection activity around the reactor at some time in the next six months, Iran could profit from holding a thorough inspection visit early on – establishing a putative baseline of “facts on the ground” – and slow-rolling further requests for access afterward.
Iran would remain in compliance with the Geneva deal as long as she was talking about further access. Iran can thus arrange to have time to herself at Arak in the next six months, if she manages it cleverly. The decision to do things she can’t hide later, if she does admit IAEA for further inspections, will be a judgment call.
Israel could potentially interrupt or discourage suspicious Iranian activity by notifying the UN of specific concerns, and getting the Western nations (e.g., France) to press Iran for additional visits based on those concerns. Keeping a spotlight on Arak is probably enough to prevent the Iranians from starting the reactor up in the next year. If it isn’t, Israel will consider this a trigger for a strike. As long as Iran knows that, she will constrain herself to do things in ways that are inconvenient and take longer.
3. Iran prepares to operationally deploy the S-300 air defense system, or a similar Chinese-built (or even Iranian-built) system. Of the three triggers here, I consider this one to have the highest probability in the next six months. That said, I think it’s more likely to happen over a period of 12-18 months from now. The main error would lie in asserting that it couldn’t happen in the next six.
There is no direct evidence that the S-300, or the Chinese HQ-9, has been delivered to Iran at this point. I’m less confident today than I would have been 3-4 years ago that this means Iran can’t import and/or deploy the system rapidly.
Israel must be concerned with a mobile air defense capability that complicates the anti-air threat to the level of the S-300. The maps offer a visual depiction of that. (See another sample notional depiction at this analysis.) Each individual intercept missile may be of older, less sophisticated technology, but the IAF can’t ignore a mobile net of overlapping range rings capable of blanketing every approach to Iranian air space.
Deployment of mobile, longer-range, modernized air defenses in Iran will change the game for the IAF, forcing it to devote significantly more of its assets to own-force protection than it would have to right now. That will mean being able to strike fewer targets – do less overall with an attack – in the short campaign window Israel will have available (probably 1-2 days). Of course, it will also mean an increased likelihood of combat losses, including the potential for aircrew to be captured by Iran.
The Geneva deal doesn’t address Iran’s collateral, conventional military capabilities in any way. If Iran is technically able to deploy an updated air defense system in the next six months, the deal may even be considered a sort of cover under which she could do it, with the maximum push from other Western powers for restraint on Israel’s part.
Israel, meanwhile, will not want to strike only the new air defense system components. She won’t want to strike only the Arak reactor, for that matter. It is much harder to mount combat sorties against Iran than it is against Lebanon, Syria, or even Iraq or Sudan – and the blowback will be the same whether the IAF strikes one target or a dozen. Israel won’t want to piecemeal a set of air attacks on Iran. The need to optimize the target set – make any choice to strike meaningful enough to justify the overall geopolitical risk – will constrain the Israelis at each decision point.
Beyond the specific treatment of the “trigger” cases, readers should take away two important points. One is that everything about the deal, including what it may lead to in the next six months or beyond, and Israel’s potential reactions, will be driven ultimately by what Iran thinks she can get away with. If Iran doesn’t “try” very much, nothing much will happen. If Iran does think she can get away with a lot – with secret activity, and/or activity it’s obvious Israel can’t tolerate – then the Israelis may have to decide to act.
The other point follows the first one. What Iran thinks she can get away with will be bounded by how she perceives the will and intent of the Western nations. This is why so many pundits are, quite correctly, comparing the current moment to Neville Chamberlain’s concessions to Hitler at Munich in 1938. The particulars of how combat and conquest would unfold, after such an exercise in preemptive capitulation, are different today. But the dynamic of power and perception, between status-quo nations on one hand, and radical, anti-status-quo forces on the other, is substantially the same.
Iran isn’t the only one watching. Radical Islamists of all stripes will see in Western gullibility a unique opportunity – as all the Axis powers, and the Soviet Union, did after Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” moment. Unfortunately, with the Geneva deal, the last vestiges of America’s post-World War II mode of leadership have fallen away. Not through nervous inaction, this time (as with Syria), but rather through the nature of our positive actions, we have demonstrated that we are no longer the world’s singular, indispensable leader of last resort. There is no such leader now. America is but one among many nations that will conclude laughable deals for convenience and politics’ sake.
In the title of part 1, I referred to the Geneva deal as potentially launching “a thousand attack sorties.” This wasn’t a reference to the likelihood that Israel will see a need to attack components of Iran’s nuclear program at some point. The comparison is to something more like the Trojan War invoked by the poetic allusion: a war that changed the face of the known world in its time. The mistaken complacency of 1938 makes a nearer and more politically exact analogy. But the human pattern of such transformative wars, and the tomfoolery that leads to them, goes back to the earliest days of recorded history.