Parallels between Iraq’s former nuclear weapons program and the Iranian nuclear program have shaped policy debates for nearly a decade. We are still paying the costs of failing in Iraq. Israel now seems determined to make similar mistakes in Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now claims that the real Iranian threat is hidden from view, and that it is necessary to act before the window of opportunity closes for good. His solution is straightforward: a targeted strike.
Many will agree with the diagnosis, even if they are reluctant to support the proposed solution. However, these claims are misleading on historical and logical grounds. Let us start with history.
Netanyahu’s recent statements about the Iranian nuclear program mirror the arguments that were made about Iraq’s alleged nuclear weapons program before the 2003 invasion. Netanyahu claims that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report of Nov. 8 does not reveal the full scope of the Iranian nuclear threat, as it only contains information that the agency can independently verify.
Two implications follow from this statement. First, the I.A.E.A.’s judgment is not trustworthy. Instead, we must rely on intelligence assessments whose sources cannot be verified. Second, the real Iranian threat is not their known enrichment capacity: their apparent efforts to hide information and bury facilities underground constitute evidence of a growing threat.
Such logic played a key role in bringing about the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003. Following extensive Iraqi concealment of their past weapons of mass destruction programs between 1991 and 1995, international organizations and intelligence agencies began to assume that what could not be verified was hidden. Furthermore, the U.N. investigation of the so-called Iraqi concealment mechanism contributed to Iraq’s expulsion of U.N. inspectors in late 1998.
After the 2003 war, we discovered that Iraq’s smoke and mirrors amounted to just that — there was no trace of a smoking gun. As it turned out, the I.A.E.A.’s 1997 assessment was correct: Iraq’s nuclear weapons program had been dismantled shortly after the 1991 Gulf War.
The I.A.E.A.’s recent assessment of Iran’s nuclear program judges that Iran studied several applications of a weapons program prior to 2004. It suggests that Iran is slowly moving closer to a nuclear capability. However, the report does not contain a smoking gun.
Netanyahu’s proposed solution for dealing with Iran — a targeted attack — also builds on a historical lesson from Iraq. Unfortunately, it is the wrong lesson. In 1981, Israeli pilots destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor complex as it stood on the verge of becoming operational. As Avner Cohen, an expert on nuclear weapons, recently wrote in Haaretz, this decision resulted from Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s flawed interpretation of intelligence. (His decision was strongly opposed by Shimon Peres, then defense minister and deputy prime minister.)
Israelis tend to credit this attack for denying Iraq a nuclear weapons capability. However, sources that have emerged since 2003 demonstrate that the attack created an unprecedented Iraqi consensus about the need for a nuclear deterrent and triggered a more intensive effort to acquire them. By the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq stood on the threshold of a nuclear weapons capability.
What is known about Iran’s nuclear program suggests an attack could have similar consequences. Iran’s erratic nuclear advances over the past decade suggest that there is no consensus about whether and when to develop a nuclear weapons capability. While it is possible that Iran could develop fissile material for a nuclear weapon within weeks or months, such a high-risk move would require a consensus that does not currently exist in Tehran. Instead, Iran is edging closer toward a nuclear weapons option. An attack is one of the very few events that could create consensus in Tehran that it is necessary to develop nuclear weapons sooner rather than later.
Netanyahu further claims that it is necessary to strike against Iran now because it may not be possible to carry out such an attack once the underground Fordow enrichment facility is fully operational. That argument obscures a simple fact: a military strike will make this problem more difficult to deal with in the long term.
In the case of Iraq, fears of what was presumed to be hidden distracted analysts and decision-makers from the facts on the ground. In the case of Iran, facts on the ground suggest that the best course of action is to resist the temptation of pushing the red button.
A more logical course of action would be to focus efforts on ensuring that Iran will abstain from crossing the nuclear weapons threshold. In fact, this is the most likely outcome if Iran is not attacked. An Iranian nuclear test would entail further isolation from the international community, which Tehran could ill afford. Not striking against Iran would be the better containment policy.
Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer is an assistant professor at the Norwegian Defense University College, Oslo.