The Futility of Seeking “Strategic Clarity” on Iran

"Gulp." (Netanyahu gets word that attack on Iran is underway.)

“Gulp.” (Netanyahu gets word that attack on Iran is underway.)

Three recent reports highlight the appeal (and folly) of demanding greater clarity in the case of Iran’s nuclear capabilities in the hopes that an equally obvious US/Israeli policy response can be devised. Seeking such clarity in inherently ambiguous situations has a tremendous emotional and political appeal. Decision-makers contemplating foreign policies ranging from negotiations to war instinctively strive to uncover the final bit of conclusive evidence that will demonstrate a clear opportunity or threat requiring an equally firm and compelling policy response.

However, the real-world ambiguities and uncertainties of policy and strategy rarely accommodate this understandable desire. George Tenet’s assertive claim to President George W. Bush preceding 2003 American invasion of Iraq that Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was a ‘slam-dunk’ case did not make it necessarily so. The CIA director’s confident assertions were conclusively proven wrong. In hindsight, this false sense of certainty rested on a flimsy case of largely circumstantial evidence underpinned by the unquestioned logic that Saddam had to be guilty of developing WMD because he hadn’t proven himself innocent through total unconditional cooperation with international inspectors.

The parallels with present-day Iran are striking. The international community is essentially requiring Iran to prove the negative case that it doesn’t have a covert nuclear weapons program. As I’ve suggested elsewhere (here and here), no international inspection regime can guarantee success although a rigorous regime can be an effective deterrent to developing a nuclear weapons capability.

The most recent IAEA report does not definitively clarify the status of Iran’s nuclear program, although it largely confirms the assessment of the US intelligence community that Iran has not yet made a decision to go forward with a nuclear weapons program. For instance, the report notes that “the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities…declared by Iran.” This is a clear statement that there is no concrete evidence indicating Iran is diverting its nuclear fuels for military purposes. This conclusion is consistent with repeated claims by Iranian political and religious leaders that Iran has no intent of producing nuclear weapons. Indeed the highest religious authority in Iran – a country whose identity is grounded in Shi’a Islamic theology — has declared the pursuit of nuclear weapons a ‘big and unforgiveable sin’. Eternal damnation can be a powerful incentive for good behavior.

However, the IAEA report goes on to say in the very same summary concluding paragraph that without unrestricted cooperation with the IAEA (something no sovereign government would tolerate from an outside international body), “the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.” In other words, Iran – like Saddam – has to prove its innocence. Clearly, this latest IAEA assessment on Iran falls far short of George Tenet’s ‘slam dunk’ standard of proof for Iraq. Nonetheless, there remains sufficient ambiguity in the report’s language providing alarmists both here and in Israel with sufficient fodder to protest about the continued possibility that Iran could have a covert nuclear weapons program hidden from view of international inspectors. The likelihood is that future IAEA reports will continue to offer similarly ambiguous and qualified assessments. Thus informational clarity will continue to elude policymakers as the IAEA hedges its bets.

Of course, some policymakers will strive to compensate for this inherent ambiguity by creating a sense of policy certainty. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is only the most recent example as he pushes the international community (read the United States) to remove any uncertainty in Iranian calculations by setting a “clear red line” for military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. This demand for clarity is especially ironic given Israel’s long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity regarding its own nuclear weapons capabilities. Apparently, it is uncertainty and ambiguity in the case of Israel’s nuclear capabilities that has its apparent strategic advantages.

PM Netanyahu’s essential argument is that the chances of Iranian miscalculation are reduced if leaders in Tehran are convinced that overwhelming military action will be taken if certain ‘red lines’ are crossed. The problem, however, is in determining where the appropriate ‘red line’ is to be drawn. PM Netanyahu, as well as some American politicians, would seek to make the mere possession of a “nuclear-weapons capability” by Iran a red line; others suggest drawing the line before Iran has reached a suspected ‘zone of immunity’ – a point at which when military action becomes ineffective at eliminating an Iranian nuclear weapons program. However, these are themselves ambiguous thresholds that defy clear definition. Is this line crossed when Iran has produced sufficient nuclear fuel for a bomb? When Iranian underground enrichment facilities are in theory capable of producing highly enriched uranium? When Iran actually produces weapons-grade fuel? When Iran has acquired the scientific knowledge needed to design a nuclear weapon; to actually produce a nuclear weapon? When Iran has successfully tested a nuclear weapon? When Iran has successfully mated a nuclear warhead to a missile capable of hitting targets in Tel Aviv, Madrid, or New York? And the list goes on. The search for clearly identifiable ‘red lines’ in Iran’s case is illusory.

Moreover, there is also the alternative prospect that strategic clarity itself could be counterproductive — especially if the goal is to reach a diplomatic resolution of this problem. Most analysts recognize that the minimum acceptable deal from an Iranian perspective is an agreement that will allow some level of domestic nuclear fuel enrichment by Iran in exchange for intrusive inspections that verify the non-diversion of technologies and fuels to military purposes. Such an agreement would be consistent with the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which confers on Iran (as with any signatory to the treaty) the “inalienable right…to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” However, permitting these activities would necessarily enhance Iranian nuclear know-how, expand Tehran’s access to advanced nuclear technologies (even if only civilian), and thus likely shorten the timeline to nuclear weaponization if that were the intent of leaders in Tehran. In this case, the strategic ‘clarity’ demanded by PM Netanyahu could well undermine the achievement of his basic strategic objectives – limiting Iran’s access to nuclear technologies in order to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state. Of course, this is exactly why the ‘red lines’ envisaged by Prime Minister Netanyahu are likely to abridge the basic rights entailed within the NPT (to which Israel is not a signatory) and thus serve to simultaneously undermine prospects for a diplomatic resolution – raising an entirely different set of strategic complications and challenges for decision-makers in Washington and Tel Aviv.

Finally, the Christian Science Monitor recently echoed these calls for certainty by making an empty plea for “more information, not less…for decisions of peace and war”; by critiquing President Obama for not having a clear “red line” for military action; and by calling for the President to ‘clarify’ his position at the upcoming Democratic National Convention. As we’ve already discussed, the latest IAEA report is evidence enough that no definitive evidence in Iran’s case is likely to be forthcoming. Moreover, echoing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire for specific triggers for military action also has its practical downsides, as we’ve already explored. Additionally, clear ‘red lines’ now would obligate the actors – whether the international community, the United States, or Israel — to specific actions down the road. Those ‘red lines’ made explicit now will necessarily narrow the future flexibility of the decision-makers at a time when nuance and sophistication may be required to avert a crisis. These ‘red lines’ could also limit the ability of policymakers to adopt a more favorable course of action that is not readily apparent in the present. Unfortunately, President Obama has already unwisely fallen victim to this trap by publicly dismissing the viability of a strategy of containment in his AIPAC speech earlier this year. Finally, these premature pledges to action ultimately risk the credibility of these actors should they fail to make good on these commitments whatever the subsequent justification.

The nature of the strategic environment is one of volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity (VUCA). To be successful, policies and strategies must admit to these realities. To pretend there is certainty where there is none, to create a false sense of assurances about the present or future actions of states, or to overly simplify a complex problem is to court disaster.

Christopher J. Bolan, Ph.D., Col. (R), U.S. Army, is a Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the U.S. government.