The Big Iran Threat Is Nukes, Not Coronavirus
A Q&A with Iran expert Michael Rubin on the latest scary news about Tehran’s push for weapons of mass destruction.
March 8, 2020, 6:00 AM MDT
Politics & Policy
It’s still their revolution.
Source: AFP via Getty Images
Because it’s all anyone wants to talk about right now, we’ll start with coronavirus. Admittedly, the videos of body bags on the floor of a hospital in Qoms, Iran, are unsettling, even if we aren’t certain of the causes of death. That the country has confirmed more than 100 deaths from coronavirus (including a top aide to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) yet reports fewer than 5,000 cases total is evidence of incompetent public health services, a government coverup or really terrible math. Travel is being cut off between cities; prisons are being emptied; the health minister is urging people not to use paper money; and hoarding face masks might get you the death penalty.
But the really scary news out of Iran last week involved the regime’s fitful yet determined pursuit of a nuclear arsenal. First, Iran has violated the 2015 nuclear deal by tripling its stockpile of low-enriched uranium over three months, and now probably has enough to make a single bomb. This was perhaps unsurprising, given that President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal in 2018 and European efforts to keep it alive are on life support. The second report was that the regime has been stonewalling International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from sites to which they were guaranteed access under the deal, and where they suspect nuclear-related activities took place in the mid-2000s. That was was more surprising — although not so much to the skeptics who opposed the nuclear pact in the first place and insisted Tehran had never come clean on the history of its weapons program.
Michael Rubin has for years been a leading voice in that faction. Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School and was an adviser to the Pentagon on Iran and Iraq during the George W. Bush administration. Here is a lightly edited excerpt of an exchange we had on Friday:
Tobin Harshaw: Why is Iran’s stonewalling over the past such a concern? How does this fit into the broader patterns unearthed by Israeli intelligence in 2018?
Michael Rubin: First, it’s necessary for inspectors to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s to ensure that all materials are accounted for. This is no easy feat: When South Africa gave up its covert nuclear program in 1991, the IAEA wanted to account for all materials dating back more than two decades, and even with a fully compliant government, it took 19 years to give South Africa a clean bill of health.
One of the biggest concerns critics of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action had was about whether Iran really came clean with regard to the so-called possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. These were chronicled in an annex to an IAEA report in November 2011 and listed all the concerns about Iranian nuclear activities that did not fit with a civilian energy program. These included such things as detonator development, mathematical modeling and neutron initiators. While it can be hard to hide uranium enrichment facilities because they are so large (although Iran succeeded in doing so previously), a lot of the weapons-related work can occur in relatively small areas and would likely be at military bases. If inspectors showed up at an enrichment facility and were denied, there could still be trace evidence weeks later. If they are denied at other facilities working on possible military dimensions, however, the facilities could be completely cleaned before the standoff is diplomatically resolved.
TH: The recent buildup of enriched uranium reported this week is more understandable, given the U.S. pullout from the 2015 deal. Are you concerned about a “breakout” attempt to try to build a bomb, or is the bigger threat the long-term goal of a full nuclear arsenal that would really alter the Middle East balance of power?
MR: No one can afford to be complacent, but I do not foresee a breakout attempt in the near term. Rather, Iranian leaders would try to develop as much of a bomb program as they could without crossing that line in order to keep their strategic options open.
Even if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon down the road, I don’t think they are suicidal. Rather, the nightmare scenario is that the regime might become terminally ill. If there is a spark in Iran that leads to mass protests such as those of 1999, 2001, 2009 and in recent years, but the security forces join in and turn on the regime, the situation could become very dangerous. Custody of any nuclear weapon would likely be with a specially-vetted unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. If they see the government collapsing around them — think Romania 1989 or Libya 2011 — then it is conceivable that they could use their nuclear weapon against enemies near or far knowing that their regime is dead anyway. In such a case, traditional deterrence breaks down. After all, who would retaliate against a country that already had regime change?
TH: Are the setbacks Iran has recently suffered — the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the Israeli bombings of its forces and proxies in Syria, popular unrest and low turnout in February’s election, the coronavirus outbreak — reasons Iran might actually put more emphasis into a nuclear program?
MR: Yes. All that is true, but I’d argue simple demography is as important, even though it’s not a sexy subject. When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the Islamic Revolution of 1979, he promoted huge families — a mother, a father and seven children. Economists warned him that Iran couldn’t take the baby boom coupled with the disruption of war and revolution. He used to wave them off, quipping, “We didn’t have a revolution over the price of a watermelon” — until he began to fear in the late 1980s that Iran could. He then encouraged smaller families — a mother, a father and a child. Long story short, Iran’s birthrate is only about half of what it was in the 1980s. Put another way, during the war of the 1980s, Iran had a quantitative military edge over Iraq. Iraq had better equipment, but Iran had a seemingly endless supply of 14- and 15-year-olds which it could send sweeping across minefields. Today, with an aging population and a different demographic profile than many Arab states that have youth bulges, Iranian leaders seek a qualitative military edge in order to make up for in technology what they no longer can in sheer numbers.
TH: You were a leading critic of the 2015 nuclear deal, and said Trump was “absolutely right” to pull the plug on it. This latest news goes some way to justify your opinions. But beyond a general “maximum pressure” campaign, can anything be done specifically to hamper the nuclear program?
MR: To be clear, I thought Trump went about things the wrong way. There wasn’t a great amount of international pressure to maximize intrusive inspections to show the deal was a success. I think Trump would have been better off increasing demands for inspections to see if Iran would then be the one to walk away. Iranian cheating or not, it would be foolish to suggest the U.S. hasn’t suffered reputational damage from the way Trump went about things.
Beyond that, however, there is no magic formula. Where I think the Obama administration went wrong and what I do think proponents of diplomacy with Iran need to be careful about, however, is just what a stranglehold the Revolutionary Guards have over the economy. Investment in the civilian economy was a deliberate strategy on their part after the end of the Iran-Iraq War in order to develop an independent cash flow so they would not be dependent on the whims of parliament. Loosely speaking, to understand the role of the Revolutionary Guards in the Iranian economy today, picture the Army Corps of Engineers merged with Bechtel, Halliburton, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Exxon, Dell, Citibank and Walmart, and then using its military might to suppress any competitors. Because of this grip on the economy, any sanctions relief or trade with Iran benefits the Revolutionary Guards disproportionately and can actually better expedite its covert programs.
TH: Looking at Iran’s nefarious activities in general, is there any chance to get Europe back on board for bigger sanctions?
MR: This isn’t as much of a problem as people think. First, we were down this path before during the Bill Clinton administration with regard to some of his executive orders and the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. European leaders and diplomats complain about extraterritorial sanctions being applied to their companies, but European business leaders will acknowledge that they are accountable to their shareholders rather than politicians. They simply are not going to risk a multibillion dollar fine that could impact their bottom line.
This was the behind-the-scenes reason why Trump designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group last year. It means any European company doing business with an Iranian firm with links to the Revolutionary Guards would open itself to liability should victims of terrorism sue it. The risk was simply too great to bear, even if European companies resented the U.S. position.
TH: Is Trump serious about renegotiating a better deal? Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders both say they would re-enter the nuclear pact. Is that realistic?
MR: It’s not realistic to re-enter the JCPOA simply because of the sunset clauses in the agreement, allowing Iran to resume the program. The Iranians would not agree to resume the status quo ante when many of the nuclear controls were otherwise due to expire during the next U.S. presidential term.
With regard to the Trump administration, I don’t think there is consensus as to the primary goal of “maximum pressure.” Some hardliners want regime change. I suspect Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in this camp. Others simply want to force Iran to the table for new talks. I believe Trump himself is in this latter camp. The Iranians are loathe to give him the photo-op, however, especially if they believe it might help his electoral prospects or if they do not believe Trump has thought beyond that photo-op.
TH: Finally, if there is just no turning the mullahs away from their nuclear dreams, what should the U.S. do on other fronts?
MR: First, it’s important to recognize that regime change is coming to Iran and it won’t have anything to do with the U.S. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is 80 years old, has acknowledged having had cancer, and is partially paralyzed from a 1981 assassination attempt. A lot of the old guard have died, and speculation is rampant in Iran about who or what might come next. The question then becomes whether it’s only necessary to delay a program until a new leader emerges who, from the Western standpoint, might be more reasonable. That said, I’m not optimistic that the problem will simply die with Khamenei.
This may sound fluffy, especially coming from a conservative, but I really do think the U.S. has neglected soft power. The key to any positive change in Iran is to fracture and temper the Revolutionary Guards. There are a number of nonviolent, soft-power strategies we could take in order to diminish their stranglehold. Supporting independent trade unions would be one. Every dollar the Revolutionary Guards have to spend on workers’ back wages or to improve working conditions is one dollar they can’t invest in a centrifuge or missile. I find it ironic that American progressives and European greens are willing to support organized labor everywhere except Iran.
When I studied in Iran, I was struck by how much dissension there was among Iranian military veterans who feel forgotten by their government. In response, I would send hospital ships to Dubai and offer Iranian veterans free medical care. Either they take it up, which would be a huge propaganda coup, or the government would prevent them, which would sow further dissension within the ranks. It is also essential to provide Iranians with the means to bypass the internet and communications blackouts that have become frequent as the government worries about its own stability.
There are other things we could do. Frankly, while partisans can re-litigate the past, I think this would be a more productive conversation in which both progressives and conservatives could try to find common ground. As a nation, we are far more effective when we focus on defeating our adversaries rather than each other.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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