Going nuclear is every country’s dream. Atomic bombs not only bring much prestige but also create deterrence and allow their owners to launch offensives strikes that could annihilate any enemy. That’s why a rogue state like Iran would love nothing more than to get its hands on them. Or at least that’s what conventional wisdom, and many Israeli officials, would have you believe.
“Even after the signing of the nuclear agreement, Iran has not relinquished its aspiration to obtain nuclear weapons,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated earlier this month.
But François Heisbourg, a renowned French expert on nuclear deterrence and proliferation, argues that Tehran is currently not keen on crossing the nuclear threshold, and will likely not even seek to do so even after the nuclear agreement expires in 15 years. Rather, he explained, the regime suffices (and will probably suffice) with what he calls “recessed deterrence.” In addition to avoiding the various headaches that come with operating a military nuclear program, most notably international sanctions, staying clear of the club of nuclear powers gives Iran greater flexibility to wage conventional warfare, Heisbourg argues.
“The Iranians have made their point,” said Heisbourg, who chairs the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. “They have shown that under certain circumstances they could become a nuclear power. That has value in itself. It provides a form of deterrence, which is, ‘Don’t fuck with me. I am not a nuclear power but I could become one tomorrow, so behave.’ For the time being, this is more than enough for the Iranians.”
After all, the international community is aware that, under the parameters of the nuclear deal, Tehran remains between six to 18 months away from breakout capability. That means that the regime could, at a moment of its choosing, cancel the agreement, resume its military nuclear program and produce a bomb in less than two years. (Many experts put the current breakout time at about 12 months.)
‘Nuclear weapons give you deterrence, but they also tie your hands. This is the beauty of Iran’s current situation. If they do something very rash, they’re not provoking a global crisis; they’re provoking a regional crisis’
According to the terms of so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Tehran was not forced to entirely dismantle its military nuclear program but had to give up essential parts of it. For as long as Iran adheres to the deal, it is thus not a nuclear power. That means that when the regime wants to act forcefully — in Syria or Iraq, against the Saudi embassy in Tehran, or against its Sunni rivals in the Persian Gulf — it is not provoking a nuclear crisis, Heisbourg said.
“Insofar as it is not provoking a nuclear crisis, it is not provoking a world crisis — and that gives you much more freedom of maneuver than when you are a nuclear power,” Heisbourg told The Times of Israel at the sidelines of the Institute for National Security Studies’ annual conference last week in Tel Aviv.
Conflicts involving nuclear powers always bear the risk of nuclear war, which makes them a global concern. But as long as the Iranians do not have that status, their aggression in the region is less worrisome to the rest of the world, said Heisbourg, who in the 1980s served as the French defense minister’s international security adviser.
“Nuclear weapons give you deterrence, but they also tie your hands, to some extent,” he said. “This is the beauty of Iran’s current situation. If they do something very rash, they’re not provoking a global crisis; they’re provoking a regional crisis.”
Israel, he noted, is the exception to this rule. It has reserved full conventional freedom of action, despite its assumed arsenal of nuclear weapons. And Jerusalem gets away with this due to its policy of nuclear ambiguity, he said. “You do not acknowledge that you have nuclear weapons, therefore you do not brandish them, therefore everybody can pretend you’re not a nuclear power, and therefore [when Israel wages war] it’s not a nuclear crisis. This is the real strategic rationale for Israeli opacity. It’s a beautiful doctrine.”
Interestingly, he elaborated, Iran could have had the same policy of nuclear ambiguity if its secret uranium enrichment facility in Natanz had not been discovered in 2002. “I think Iran’s intention was to copy the Israeli model. It certainly looked like it,” Heisbourg said. The idea was to operate a hidden program to quietly produce a nuclear weapon and then make it “sufficiently known for people to take it into account, while at the same time saying, We don’t have nuclear weapons,” he said. “They could have played it the Israeli way. But they didn’t get away with it.”
Strategically speaking, the July 2015 nuclear deal, which came into force this month, thus has both good sides and bad sides, according to Heisbourg. It keeps the Iranians two steps away from the nuclear threshold, which, paradoxically, allows them to act more aggressively in the region. For its duration, the JCPOA “significantly reduced the risk of nuclear proliferation.”
But in conventional terms, the escalating conflict with Saudi Arabia “is proof enough how destabilizing an unfettered Iran can be,” he said.
‘Living with the Persian bomb is intolerable for the Arabs’
Heisbourg, who started dealing with nuclear non-proliferation issues in the late 1970s while working for the French foreign ministry, disputes the often-made argument that the Iran deal will spark a nuclear arms race in the region. Opponents of the agreement posit that since Iran was allowed to keep a certain part of its nuclear infrastructure, thus legitimizing it as a threshold nuclear state, every other country in the Middle East will want a similar deal.
Heisbourg is dismissive of that argument. “The agreement is so intrusive that Saudi Arabia or Egypt or other countries in the region are obviously not going to seek a regime similar to that which Iran has been led to agree to.”
Few countries are capable of launching a covert program or willing to risk sanctions in case such a secret endeavor is revealed, he said. Egypt, for instance, relies on the US for financial support. “If you are Egyptian, what do you prefer: [a covert nuclear program] or to go without American support, eating grass?”
‘Of course the Iranians want to destroy Israel. But they are not irrational in the manner in which they do this. They are not meshugge’
The temptation to launch a nuclear program is obviously there, Heisbourg allowed. “Saddam Hussein wanted it. Gaddafi wanted it. Assad wanted it. And others may want it. But that’s not because of Iran,” he said. “That’s because of Israel.”
Several Arab states attempted to go nuclear because of Israel’s alleged program, but over the decades have learned learned to live with it. This has two reasons, Heisbourg said. One, Israel never acknowledged its nuclear arsenal, providing the Arabs with a face saver. Two, “Israel has had the bomb but has proved to be extraordinarily responsible in its conduct as a nuclear power. The Arabs don’t have much to worry about.”
Israel is an “enemy” of the Arab world but not a “rival,” he argued. The Jewish state does not claim to lead the Muslim world and has no ambitions to become the regional hegemon. Shiite Iran, on the other hand, is both an enemy and a rival of the Sunni states. “Living with the Persian bomb, the Shiite bomb, is intolerable for the Arabs.”
Since the Iranians are unlikely to violate the nuclear deal, as this is not in their strategic interest, and will thus not obtain a nuclear weapon for about a decade and a half, the Arabs have no reasons to start their own military nuclear programs, Heisbourg asserted.
While some believe that Tehran will cheat and try to get to the bomb before the deal elapses in 15 years, Heisbourg is confident that this will not happen. After all, he argues, the JCPOA was brokered by six superpowers — the so-called P5+1 — and confirmed by the UN Security Council. An Iranian infraction would thus humiliate the entire international community. “That’s a pretty powerful deterrent,” Heisbourg said. As opposed to groups like Hezbollah, the Islamic Republic of Iran is subject to the workings of deterrence, he insisted.
That is also why he rejects the argument, made repeatedly by Iran’s enemies, that the ayatollahs who control the country are religious fanatics who cannot be counted on to act rationally in their hope for Israel’s destruction. While their hatred for the Jewish state, and their efforts to harm it at every opportunity, cannot be doubted, he said, they have not taken overly irrational steps against Israel since seizing power in 1979.
“That’s a pretty long track record,” Heisbourg said. “These people of course want to destroy Israel, and therefore they do what they think they can get away with in terms of undermining Israel and countering Israeli interests. Of course — this their goal in life. But they are not irrational in the manner in which they do this. They are not meshugge.”
‘Iran’s basic interest is to continue to be an unfettered hegemon’
Heisbourg believes that for now, Iran has no reason to violate the nuclear agreement. But what happens after the so-called sunset clauses kick in and Iran is allowed to enrich unlimited amounts of uranium?
What happens after the so-called sunset clauses kick in?
Heisbourg sees three scenarios. It’s possible that the Iranian people overthrow the ayatollah regime and become a democratic, secular state. In this case, all bets are off vis-a-vis the nuclear question. But given that even the shah had nuclear ambitions, it is not inconceivable that a non-Islamic Iran still would seek a military nuclear program, albeit one which the Western powers are likely to accept.
If the Islamic Republic survives until the nuclear deal elapses, the regime can be expected to do what India did in 1974: make efforts to demonstrate its proximity to the nuclear threshold but not to announce militarization, he said. “That, of course, would provoke the proliferation cascade. Everybody in town would do the same thing.”
But when a country commences an overt military nuclear program, it is sanctioned by the international community, which is why, paradoxically, Iran might want to get close to the threshold but not cross it.
Unless Saudi Arabia would have surprisingly turned into a powerful country posing a genuine threat to Iran, therefore, a renewed Iranian nuclear military program remains unlikely, Heisbourg assessed. Currently, Riyadh is not nearly competent enough to attempt its own military nuclear program, he said.
“Iran’s basic interest is to continue to be an unfettered hegemon not facing an Arab nuclear power. So I think that Iran would actually remain short of breakout.”
Only in the third scenario would it make sense, strategically speaking, for Iran to go for the bomb when the deal elapses, according to Heisbourg. “If there were a powerful Arab country which could seriously thwart Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in Syria, Iraq and the Gulf, then Iran would find it in its interest to go nuclear, to brave Israel’s response and to run the risk of facing a new round of disapproval of the P5+1,” he said. And, he stressed, “It would (only) be disapproval at that stage; no agreement would have been broken.”