When making up their minds about the nuclear deal with Iran, people are properly focused on its details. But to figure out whether an agreement that limits and inspects Iran’s nuclear program is acceptable, one has to consider seriously the alternatives to it — and there are really only two.
First, a return to sanctions. Let’s say that the U.S. Congress rejects the final agreement reached by all in June. What then? The current sanctions regime against Iran is almost unprecedented in that all the world’s major powers, and Iran’s neighbors, support it. Usually sanctions wear thin over time.
If other countries believe that Iran made a reasonable offer that the United States turned down, they are unlikely to continue to support a tight sanctions regime. Most studies confirm that it is the multilateral aspect of the sanctions against Iran that has made them effective.
Countries are eager to buy Iran’s oil, which tends to sell at a discount. The key player here is probably Beijing. As the West has shunned Iran, the country has deepened its economic ties with China. A 2012 Rand study notes that, “Over the past several years, China has become Iran’s biggest oil customer and biggest economic partner.” China could view the West’s isolation of Iran as an opportunity to build a special relationship with it and develop that country’s vast energy economy.
If, however, the sanctions can be maintained, Iran will be in trouble. Oil prices have halved and Iran is bleeding resources in Syria and Iraq (and Yemen, though considerably less there). Iran is a proud, nationalistic country. It has withstood challenges in the past — during the Iran-Iraq war, it endured eight years of brutal conflict, chemical weapons attacks, and half a million dead — but the pressure will be real.
Would continued sanctions halt the nuclear program? That’s highly unlikely. Iran has expanded its nuclear program under sanctions for the last two decades. In 2003, Iran had under 200 centrifuges. Today it has 19,000. The restrictions are now tighter — if they last — but Iran’s nuclear establishment is also much larger. Keep in mind that Iran began showing active interest in a nuclear program as early as the 1950s. It now has thousands of nuclear scientists and technicians who work in the field.
That raises option two, a military attack. People speak of a strike on Iran like Israel’s against an Iraqi reactor in 1981 and a Syrian facility in 2007. But those were single facilities. Iran, by contrast, has a vast nuclear industry, comprising many installations spread across the country, some close to population centers, others in mountainous terrain. The United States would effectively have to go to war with Iran, destroying its air defenses, then attacking its facilities in dozens — perhaps hundreds — of sorties. The bombers would be equipped with highly explosive weapons, demolishing buildings, reactors and laboratories, but also producing considerable collateral damage.
What would be the effect of such an attack? When any country is bombed by foreigners, its people tend to rally around the regime. The Islamic Republic would likely gain domestic support. It would also respond in various ways, through its allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. The attacks might be directed at U.S. troops or allies.
An attack would also mean the splintering of the international coalition against Iran. Russia, China and many other countries would condemn it. Iran would be seen as the victim of an unprovoked invasion. The sanctions would crumble. Its nuclear program would be devastated, but Iran would begin to rebuild it. Even under the current sanctions regime, Iran makes tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues, more than enough to afford to rebuild its facilities.
Finally, once it had been attacked, Tehran would invoke the need for a deterrent against future attacks and would work directly and speedily not on a nuclear program but a nuclear weapon. In his op-ed advocating war with Iran, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton argues that military attacks “should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran.” But bombing and then threatening the Islamic Republic’s existence would likely produce exactly the opposite effect — a government strengthened at home with a clear rationale to acquire a nuclear deterrent.