By: Eli Lake
Recent events show that there are better ways to frustrate the regime’s nuclear ambitions.
Whoever wins the U.S. presidency in November, there is a good chance he will try to negotiate a stronger nuclear deal with Iran in 2021. But events of the last few weeks show that there are better ways to frustrate the regime’s nuclear ambitions.
Both President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, favor talking with Iran. “I would rejoin the agreement and use our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and extend it,” Biden told the New York Times last winter. Trump, meanwhile, was on Twitter last month urging Iran to “make the Big deal.”
The logic of a deal goes like this: Except for war, the only sustainable way to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons is to reach an agreement with its leaders. That has been the basic assumption underlying U.S. nuclear policy on Iran for the last 20 years. With the right mix of carrots and sticks, the thinking goes, Iran will negotiate away a potential nuclear weapon.
But a nuclear deal with Iran would have to rely on a partnership with a regime that oppresses its citizens, preys on its neighbors, supports terrorism on three continents and has shown contempt for international law. And the alternative to a deal is not necessarily a costly and dangerous war. The West can delay and foil Iran’s nuclear ambitions by other means.
Since late June, explosions have rocked at least three Iranian military facilities. The latest appears to have targeted an underground research facility for chemical weapons. Earlier this month, a building at Iran’s Natanz centrifuge site burst into flames.
Much remains unknown about this latest spate of explosions. A relatively new group calling itself “Homeland Panthers” has claimed credit for the attack on Natanz. Iranian officials have blamed it on Israel. David Albright, the former nuclear inspector and founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, told me his organization — which has studied satellite imagery of the facility before and after the explosion — cannot rule out that it was an accident. But “it looks more like a deliberate act,” he said.
There are several good reasons to think all of this was an act of Israeli sabotage. To start, the Israelis have done this kind of thing before. In the early 2010s, Israel’s Mossad conducted a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Before that, Israel and the U.S. cooperated on a cyberattack on Natanz that sped up its centrifuges, causing them to break down.
More recently, Israeli spies broke into a Tehran warehouse and stole a technical archive of Iran’s nuclear program, demonstrating that they have “human networks that have penetrated Iran’s security structure,” said David Wurmser, a national security expert who most recently worked as an adviser to the National Security Council.
Whoever is responsible for the attack — and to be clear, the Iranians say they are prepared to retaliate against Israel, though they have yet to do so — the damage at Natanz alone has significantly set back Iran’s nuclear program. The facility there was an assembly center for more advanced and efficient centrifuges, which Iran was allowed to produce under the flawed 2015 deal. “This was a crown jewel of their program,” Albright said.
And the damage may be to more than just the centrifuges — it could also destabilize the Iranian regime itself. “The more Iran’s government looks impotent, and the impression is left the Israelis are everywhere, the more high-level Iranian officials will calibrate their survival by cooperating with Americans or Israelis, which itself creates an intelligence bonanza,” Wurmser said.
The attacks could also undermine the regime’s legitimacy among the Iranian public more generally. Sabotage of this sort shows that Iran’s leaders are not nearly as powerful and all-knowing as they say.
At the very least, the fact that someone was able to explode a “crown jewel” of Iran’s nuclear program should make clear that the civilized world can delay Iran’s nuclear ambitions without conferring legitimacy to the regime.