Let's not kid ourselves. The deal with Iran that President Barack Obama so proudly announced on Tuesday does not prevent the Islamic Republic from becoming a nuclear power. Far from it. The unasked, and unanswered, question in all the predictable hubbub and blather is how much that matters.
Some credible estimates, like those in the Los Angeles Times, say that Iran is only two to three months from being able to produce a nuclear weapon. (The deal supposedly ups that to a year, but only if the inspection regime actually works as advertised, which, as you will see, it will not.) If that's the case, Iran will be just a hop, skip, and a jump of moves employing subterfuge and a little more brass from joining Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea, and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in the nuclear club.
The centrifuges producing enriched uranium, just not yet weapons grade, will keep on spinning. And, most importantly, the long suspect military sites which Iran doggedly declared absolutely off limits to inspections will still require lengthy gymnastics to gain access to.
In fact, if a concern is raised about one of the sites -- something which could quickly become a diplomatic incident chilling a new era of good feelings in Obama's hoped for rapprochement with Iran -- it can take another 24 days for inspectors to actually gain access to the site.
Gosh, do we think stuff can be moved in 24 days?
Iran also is not required to acknowledge that it has ever pursued nuclear weapons, though its program makes little sense otherwise. That's because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa in 2003 against weapons of mass destruction. The Iranian leadership doesn't want to look like hypocrites.
So unless the U.S. Senate can muster a two-thirds vote to overcome an Obama veto of any move to block the agreement, the stormy relationship we've had with Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis moves into a much sunnier phase. And, gazing out at a timeless Pacific horizon as I write this, that seems like a good thing. But not for the reasons being bandied about today by the politicians and their mouthpieces.
So long as Iran's leaders see it to be in the Islamic Republic's best interests, good times can continue. If they go nuclear, they can risk all that, not to mention a potential last ditch attack to prevent their achieving the Bomb.
But make no mistake. If they want a nuclear weapon, it's within their grasp.
A preventive attack might work, or it might not. We don't know. We do know that it would ignite yet another war in the Middle East, something all rational people are thoroughly sick of. Renewing ramped up sanctions? Much harder to pull off dealing with an effective fait accompli. Many players would be looking to accommodate an oil power that is the newest member of the nuclear club.
Assuming a deep level of sophistication, deeper than White House happy talk, to Obama's calculations, he must be betting that Iran will westernize faster than the desire to have nukes. It's true that Shiite Persian Tehran feels much more western than Riyadh, the Wahhabi Sunni
Arab capital that today rivals Jerusalem in dismay. (Whether that means that left-wing British columnist Robert Fisk, the long-time Middle East provocateur, is right in saying that the Obama administration has chosen sides with Iran is another matter.)
Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has been insisting for more than 20 years that an Iranian nuclear weapon is an "existential threat" to Israel. What does he really mean?
If he means, as he says, that Iran's leaders are such irrational religious zealots that they would nuke Israel and risk their own nuclear destruction, that's probably wrong. If he means that a nuclear Iran would affect nuclear Israel's freedom of geopolitical movement, he may be right. But that is a much more attenuated threat to Israel's existence.
In the weeks and months ahead, Obama will probably claim this as a victory in the stalled nuclear abolition campaign he announced in 2009. Of course, it is not.
Nuclear abolition is a wonderful sentiment, but not a realistic goal. As soon as UC Berkeley's Robert Oppenheimer and his crew of brilliant and largely progressive scientists created the Bomb, the genie was forever out of the bottle. Someone, somewhere, would always want the awful power and attendant prestige that nukes confer. Some proliferation can be dissuaded, but the truly determined, capable, and guileful player will go nuclear, as veterans of President John F. Kennedy's administration learned with Israel, notwithstanding assurances by Israeli leaders to JFK himself.
The question then becomes one of preventing the use of nuclear weapons.
Even a regional nuclear war would have horrifying consequences beyond the theater of conflict for the environment and the food supply. Fortunately, the use of nuclear weapons has been been prevented since two fateful days 70 years ago next month.
May we be so fortunate in the future.
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