Kicking the Can Down the Nuclear Road

Come this October, the US will have to decide whether or not Iran is in compliance with its nuclear deal, the JCPOA. Earlier this week, the President of Iran suggested that if the US decides on noncompliance, Iran’s nuclear program could be up and running in a matter of days. But such a threat begs the question as to what kind of nuclear deal was negotiated in the first place? If Iran’s program can be up and running in a matter of days, what does that say about the future, when Tehran’s nuclear capacity will be fully legalized?

President Donald J. Trump has correctly stated that the Iran nuclear deal was a “disaster”. He claims it is one of the worst deals ever negotiated. It allowed Iran a legal breakout (or sneak out) capacity within a decade or less of a mere few weeks. Now the Iranians are suggesting that such a capacity could be achieved within an even shorter time frame. Trump will either do something about Iran’s nuclear capacity in the very near future (October) or he will continue in the tradition of previous US administrations by allowing nuclear proliferation to proceed unabated. North Korea is a prime example of this serious US procrastination.

Trump has been left holding the bag on North Korea because the previous administration decided that the military option was far too risky to pursue. But without the legitimate threat of a military option, North Korea has called the US bluff. Pyongyang has achieved a nuclear arsenal and is now very close to achieving a global delivery system. In the meantime, President Trump has decided that tough talk about a viable military option might put a fear into North Korea to get them to stop their ballistic missile program. But are Trump and his generals merely playing at military bluff and bluster, or is this administration truly serious about putting an end to nuclear proliferation in Asia and the Middle East?

Military threat only makes sense when accompanied by a serious diplomatic alternative or the establishment of agreement noncompliance. If the Iran nuclear deal is in noncompliance due to illegal nuclear research at off-limits Iranian military bases — that is, advanced centrifuge experimentation or other restricted work — the US should demand that Iran open these bases to inspection. If they refuse, the US will need the assent of Britain, France, Germany and the EU to require Iran to comply. In other words, the Trump administration will have to make the case to its allies that Iran is in noncompliance. This might take time, and there is always the distinct possibility (probability?) that the case will not be accepted. And if Iran is not in official noncompliance, how does Trump justify any militant action against the present JCPOA? Or does the US president go it completely alone in the face of global opposition?

But if the Iran nuclear deal is as flawed as Trump says it is (and it most definitely is), is the US prepared to come up with an alternative? Or will Trump risk isolation with a policy of unilateral military action against Iran? And could such a policy action cause a serious escalation by Iran against Saudi Arabia and/or Israel? And couldn’t a military escalation between oil giants risk a global melt-down of the world’s stock and bond markets? And couldn’t an Iran-Israel war involve Hezbollah and potentially have a deleterious impact on all involved including Lebanon and Syria?

Surely the Russians might have something to say about an extreme alteration to the balance of power against the Assad regime in Syria. How might Moscow react to such a war? Is it any wonder that Trump’s generals — Mattis at the Defense Department and McMaster at the National Security Council — have both advised President Trump not to renege on the JCPOA. Because if he does, Iran will once again be at the nuclear threshold, the Middle East and/or the world could become embroiled in a devastating war, and the US could be internationally isolated.

In other words, America’s military establishment has advised President Trump to continue with the failed JCPOA and the policy of kicking the can down the road until such time as another president will have to decide what to do. It’s either that or risk a major Middle East escalation. But what about the precedent established by Trump of a viable military option for North Korea? Because when it comes to the Korean Peninsula, there is no longer any more nuclear road to kick the can down. The US policy of nuclear procrastination has been exposed. Either the Peninsula will be denuclearized, or there will be a war. How soon will it be before a similar situation happens with Iran? And what does that portend for the entire Middle East?

For there to be a serious alternative to American procrastination on Iran, it will require some much needed out-of-the-box diplomatic thinking. But a serious diplomatic alternative does not mean that the threat of war is to be taken completely off the table. This is the reason that the current nuclear deal was so unevenly tilted toward Iran. President Obama bent over backward to avoid any kind of military confrontation with Iran. This gave all the leverage in the negotiations to Tehran. President Trump (on the other hand) is correct not to dismiss a serious military option. But where is the out-of-the-box diplomatic thinking when it comes to an alternative to the present situation with North Korea or Iran?

Between war or a policy of procrastination lies the potential for successful diplomacy. Obama’s policy encompassed the facade of diplomacy built around the unrealistic policy of procrastination. The JCPOA is a failure because, within a decade or less, Iranian nuclear capacity will be so large that its potential for militarization will become undetectable. In fact, when it came to both North Korea and Iran, Obama decided to kick the can down the nuclear road. He did this through neglect (North Korea) and through diplomatic weakness (Iran).

Now it is Trump’s turn. On North Korea, Trump has begun a rhetorical military engagement. Time will tell whether such an engagement will be real or fake, and whether or not it will be accompanied by a sincere and agreeable diplomatic component. On Iran, Trump and his generals could still decide to procrastinate. Or they could attempt another far more militant strategy. Either way, the clock is ticking. But in the first way (procrastination) the clock is not necessarily ticking in Israel’s favor. And the second way will certainly bring a devastating war of missiles to Israel’s cities, towns and vital infrastructure. Whichever way the American president decides, I find it very difficult to believe that Donald J. Trump has the political standing to adopt a policy in contradiction to his generals. And at this writing, his generals are loath to adopt a policy that would overthrow the JCPOA and risk an escalation of the current Middle East quagmire.

However, in four years time, it is very doubtful that the Republican Party will remain in power. Then, Iran will be counting on a new Democratic president to continue to kick the can down the nuclear road. An Iran, permanently ensconced in Syria and Lebanon, and in possession of nuclear weapons (on the threshold or worse), has become the nightmare scenario for Israel. Both Moscow and Washington should be advised that the Iranian situation in the Middle East must change, and it must change soon. Israel will not wait four long years. It needs to act, and it needs to act before Iran builds its military potential in Syria to the maximum. Israel simply cannot allow Syria to become another Lebanon. But Israel must also offer the world a diplomatic alternative.

This alternative must be within the context of a new and out-of-the-box agenda for the region. But such an alternative must also have a strong counter-strategy, if it is eventually rejected by Iran. In other words, Washington, Moscow and Beijing must be apprised that the rejection of a new all-encompassing regional diplomatic initiative will have severe economic consequences for Iran. Israel must have a regional alternative to the current situation with both the JCPOA and the Iranian position in Lebanon and Syria. This alternative is also true for the Sunni Arab states — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

I call this new diplomatic alternative “the Zone of Peace”. It has been published many times within this blog. It includes the prospect of a nuclear-weapons-free zone to eventually replace the JCPOA. Within this context, the current Iran nuclear deal becomes an interim platform leading to the construction of a totally non-nuclear regional military architecture with a very distinct set of rules. Such a policy will require the cooperation of Russia, China and the US. No more kicking the can down the nuclear road. With G-d’s help, all things are possible.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).