The Iranian reaction to the killing of Qassem Soleimani, which some news reports tied to critical intelligence provided by Israel, has thus far been a textbook example for how Iran responds asymmetrically to threats. First, Iran launched a barrage of ballistic missiles against two airbases in Iraq where coalition troops reside. They then used proxy forces to twice fire short-ranged rockets against U.S. facilities and troops. Finally, they shot down a Ukrainian airliner, which was likely accidentally interpreted as an American military strike. To this point, the escalation has been similar to the short-lived conflict between the United States and Iran in the late 1980s. Similarly, the escalation is likely to end with the United States establishing escalation dominance and Iran backing down.
But what happens after that? If history is a teacher, one of the most prominent conclusions Iran will take from the death of Soleimani is that until Iran develops an arsenal of nuclear weapons, America will have the ability to stifle any moves it makes with near impunity.
To best preserve their strategic freedom of maneuver and expand the Shi’ite “axis of resistance,” Iran is likely to develop nuclear weapons as fast as possible. If anything, the killing of Soleimani and America’s ability to block Iranian retaliation will teach the regime that asymmetric capability—proxies, terrorists, cyber attacks, mines and other deniable weapons—only go so far. Nuclear weapons are the only guarantor of unconstrained behavior and regime survival. This is a lesson that is underscored by the fates that befell Libya and Ukraine after shuttering their nuclear-weapons programs.
In Libya, former leader Moammar Qadhafi terminated his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs—limiting it to nuclear-weapons research—in exchange for the promise of normalized relations with the West and the end of economic sanctions. Less than a decade later, those same Western powers reimposed sanctions and led a military intervention against the Qadhafi regime, which vowed to commit war crimes during Libya’s civil war, resulting in Qadhafi’s brutal and public execution.
After the collapse of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world (stockpiling nearly 2,000 warheads and 200 missiles). As part of a worldwide arms reduction effort, Ukraine felt pressure to dismantle its arsenal. It initially resisted, but finally relented to the withering pressure from the West and Russia. In exchange for surrendering their weapons in 1994, Ukrainian leaders were given economic compensation and the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia promised to “respect the sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” and to “provide assistance … if Ukraine should become victim of an act of aggression.”
Two decades later, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea while the West did nothing.
In many ways, the sequence of events in Libya and Ukraine, along with the killing of Soleimani, has reaffirmed Thucydides’ warning to Iran: “The strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must.” In other words, there is no stronger way for Iran to deter its enemies than through nuclear weapons.
It would not be difficult for Iran to join the small collection of states armed with nuclear weapons. In fact, even before the killing of Soleimani, Iran was working to chip away at the main limitations of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). First, Iran exceeded limitations on stockpiles of heavy water and uranium. Then they surpassed the number and type of centrifuges permitted. These steps were accomplished incrementally, perhaps in order to prevent reaction for the United States, Israel and other allies. Since Soleimani’s killing, Iran announced they would no longer limit enrichment of uranium—a critical precursor to building nuclear weapons. If Iran takes another step and reactivates its plutonium reactor at Arak, any weapons program would be further accelerated.
Proliferation experts estimate that Iran could develop a single nuclear weapon in roughly one year. However, one weapon would not create a credible deterrence threat. To do that, Iran would have to build five to 10 warheads and pair them with a delivery system. Considerable evidence indicates that it would not take Iran long to adapt their already formidable missile arsenal, which includes weapons capable of reaching Europe, to mount warheads. Building a stockpile of nuclear weapons would take longer, and most experts believe that even a fully regenerated nuclear program could only produce enough material for a handful of warheads per year. It should be noted that all these estimates are based on what Iran has declared, coupled with what intelligence agencies have discovered. If Iran has been successful in pursuing a covert development program, their pathway to a nuclear arsenal could be much shorter.
Looking at Iran’s recent actions and dangerous potential, any state opposed to allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons should begin to take preventive action. Intelligence resources should be refocused and prioritized on Iranian proliferation sites, known and unknown. R&D efforts should be expanded to design munitions capable of destroying deeply buried and heavily protected facilities. Military preparations should be made in terms of procurement, training and pre-positioning. Methods to defeat Iran’s advanced Russian air-defense systems should be developed or obtained. Other domains, such as cyber, should be made ready for battle. Research to determine how to minimize collateral damage should be undertaken. Likeminded allies should begin coordinating efforts. And if we discover indisputable evidence of Iranian proliferation, we should take action.
With Iran, we cannot afford to ignore the lessons of Libya, Ukraine and the Soleimani killing. Iran will almost certainly initiate an accelerated program to develop nuclear weapons. It would be the only rational choice given their circumstances and objectives. The key question is will we be ready to prevent it?
Col. Frank Sobchak, a former Special Forces operator in the U.S. Army, has taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Tufts University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a Ph.D. candidate in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts in Medford, Mass. He is Contributor at Www.MirYamInstitute.Org.