United States officials have typically gone back and forth when discussing Iran's nuclear program between saying the US will not accept Iran building a nuclear weapon and saying the US will not accept Iran having the capabilities to build a weapon.
George W. Bush showed us one example of this in October 2007:
"If Iran had a nuclear weapon, it’d be a dangerous threat to world peace," Mr. Bush said. "So I told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."You'll notice Bush not drawing a distinction between the knowledge necessary to build a weapon - which is part of legal nuclear weapons capabilities that many NPT non-weapons states have - and deployed nuclear weapons.
"I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously," he said.
What is dishonest about Bush's position is that he is blithely confounding two very different concepts. A weapon is very different from the knowledge necessary to make a weapon, and preventing a country like Iran from acquiring what he describes as the knowledge necessary to make a weapon would be a much more difficult task. Also a task the directly opposes both the letter and the spirit of the non-proliferation treaty which guarantees access to nuclear technology to all signatories "without discrimination".
Barack Obama in April 2010 made a similar statement.
All the evidence indicates that the Iranians are trying to develop the capacity to develop nuclear weapons. They might decide that, once they have that capacity that they'd hold off right at the edge -- in order not to incur -- more sanctions. But, if they've got nuclear weapons-building capacity -- and they are flouting international resolutions, that creates huge destabilizing effects in the region and will trigger an arms race in the Middle East that is bad for U.S. national security but is also bad for the entire world.Again, the US objective is to prevent Iran from attaining legal nuclear weapons capabilities.
Aside. I've meant to mention something about this idea of an arms race. Saudi Arabia is not an independent country. If it was, it would have entered the nuclear arms race when Israel, the country most Arab people consider their biggest threat acquired nuclear weapons. The US has ordered Saudi Arabia not to acquire even legal nuclear weapons capabilities and Saudi Arabia follows US orders. Iran having the legal nuclear weapons capabilities would not make Saudi Arabia any more independent than it is today.
The sources of the UK's Daily Mail confirm this.
Few analysts believe Riyadh, the world's top oil exporter and a key ally for the United States, is likely to embark upon a weapons programme in defiance of U.S. calls for restraint. But Turki's remarks signal the extent of concern over non-Arab Iran's military ambitions among Arab Gulf countries.The Daily Mail is right. Saudi Arabia, under its current government is not independent enough that its possible responses merit consideration. Egypt, so far, is the same - a subject non-independent client state. But if Egypt becomes independent, which may well begin as a process in 2012, it would not build its nuclear program because of Iran, but because of Israel. Turkey has never expressed concern with Iran attaining legal nuclear weapons capabilities and in the 2010 Tehran declaration proposing that Iran export enriched uranium for TRR fuel Turkey has officially expressed agreement with Iran's right to enrich uranium domestically.
The idea of Iranian legal nuclear weapons capabilities fueling an arms race has always been a lie and Barack Obama knew it was false in 2010 when he said it. His concern with Iran having legal nuclear weapons capabilities has always been that it might limit Israel's ability to invade its neighbors as Jeffrey Goldberg has described.
But US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta this year has said something that may be slightly different:
I think the international strategy here, and this really has been an international strategy to apply sanctions, to apply diplomatic pressure on them, to try to convince Iran that if, you know, they want to do what's right, they need to join the international family of nations and act in a responsible way. I think the pressure of the sanctions, I think the pressure of diplomatic pressures from everywhere -- Europe, United States, elsewhere-- is working to put pressure on them, to make them understand that they cannot continue to do what they're doing. Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that's what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is do not develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us.So Panetta says Iran cannot continue to do what it's doing, but what Iran is doing is not building a nuclear weapon. But Panetta has separated actually building a weapon into a different category. Building a weapon is a red line. What Iran is doing, building what outside of Israel's region would be legal nuclear weapons capabilities does not cross a red line.
The United States does not have any plausible options that would prevent Iran from acquiring legal nuclear weapons capabilities. Sanctions will not do it. A military attack would not do it. The incentives the US is able to offer - constrained by the US commitment to prevent any country in Israel's region from becoming powerful enough to threaten it - are not enough to get Iran to voluntarily accept US demands to indefinitely limit its nuclear program.
The US would like to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities, but it does not have resources that would enable it to deliver that desire. The most likely scenario from here is that the US presses for sanctions, possibly enough to put Iran into a war footing. Iranians are harmed, US troops are harmed, US interests are harmed, and ten years from now Iran's government is just as solidly in place and its nuclear program has developed just as much as if the US had not bothered.
The US has the option of literally making sacrifices for nothing. Or the US can begin acknowledging that having legal capabilities to make a nuclear weapon is a concept separate from deploying actual nuclear weapons. While the US would rather Iran not have those capabilities, it may be approaching the point that it cannot commit to preventing Iran from acquiring them.
The US, according to Panetta, now has two separate objectives regarding Iran's nuclear program. One is preventing Iran from acquiring legal nuclear weapons capabilities. That objective is a concern. The other is preventing Iran from deploying an actual nuclear weapon. That is a red line.
I'm often overly optimistic. But depending on how flexible the US is willing to be about its concern, not its red line, it is possible that both the US and Iran can benefit from avoiding further escalation. An important question remains: Is the United States psychologically capable of admitting that its powers are limited? That there are things the US can be concerned about but that it cannot prevent.
Panetta possibly is taking a step in that direction. If the US goes further in that direction a large amount of pointless loss of lives and resources can be avoided.