For all intents and purposes, the Iranian nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is dead.
In December, Iranian officials said they had doubled their capacity to enrich uranium. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring cameras were shut down by the regime last May, and IAEA inspectors have been banned from checking on the program. IAEA officials say Iran has enriched 154 pounds of uranium to 60% purity. According to the head of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, that is enough to produce several weapons.
Iran can now enrich its uranium stockpile to 90%, which is weapons-grade, within a few weeks. After that, the regime only needs to place the enriched uranium in a warhead and run a nuclear test to join the league of nuclear rogue states like Russia and North Korea. Barring a full-scale invasion of the country, or an extremely unlikely coup or revolution, this will happen. Constructing a nuclear warhead is no simple task; it is exponentially more complicated than constructing conventional bombs. However, given Iran’s determination, it is only a matter of time.
What many proponents of the JCPOA have repeatedly failed to recognize is that Iran has been dead set on having a nuclear arsenal, no matter the cost. After watching what happened in Libya and Iraq, Iran’s leaders understand this is the only way for them to guarantee their safety. In 2008, then-Libyan President Moammar Gaddafi warned Iranians to abort their nuclear program, saying that they would “suffer the same fate as Iraq.” Three years later, Gaddafi was overthrown and brutally murdered after NATO intervened to support a popular revolution against him. North Korea’s official news service promptly claimed that by giving up his nuclear-arms program, Gaddafi had opened himself up to an invasion. While they wisely remained silent on the issue, the Iranian regime drew the same conclusions.
Alex Grinberg, an expert on Iran at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, says Iran has seen the cause of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine on the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for a worthless U.S. guarantee of security.
Optimists suggest that if Iran were to get its nuclear warheads, its leaders might relax their policy of entrenchment through the arming, training and funding of proxy groups like Hezbollah, Yemeni Houthis and Shia militias. Yet while of course desirable, this is unlikely. What is more apt to happen is Iran will join nuclear regimes like Russia and North Korea in becoming more aggressive globally precisely due to their new confidence.
Moreover, this tendency would only worsen once Iranians can guarantee a second-strike option, with either a nuclear submarine or hiding their stockpiles deep in the mountains as they have previously done with their nuclear facilities. Iran’s massive size and numerous mountain ranges make that a likely option.
Iran is unlikely to use nuclear weapons, given the potentially fatal consequences as a result. Nonetheless, its nuclear threats must be taken seriously, as should be the potential for accidents. During the Cold War, on several occasions, the United States and the Soviet Union were almost accidentally plunged into nuclear war, such as with the case of Vasili Arkhipov and many other close calls. It is noteworthy that Moscow and Washington have mutually consented to set a communication line following the Cuban Missile Crisis as the leadership of both countries realized the risks of an undesired nuclear conflict. Tehran has refused to establish any kind of communication with Jerusalem, even in the case of emergency alone. This only further aggravates the risk.
Given the likelihood of a nuclear Iran, U.S. policy should be aggressive containment and deterrence. Iran must understand that if it uses a nuclear weapon, even a tactical one. then it will pay a large price—whether through crippling cyber-attacks, conventional strikes on critical infrastructure or other means. There must be a credible deterrent in place to Iran and any other rogue nuclear power that breaking the nuclear taboo will never be worth it.
But the threat of nuclear weapons goes beyond their actual use. Nuclear weapons have always been a force multiplier, and if Iran feels that its force is multiplied, it will ramp up its subversive activities. Iran must also be made to understand that the security it has from invasion does not apply to its proxies and that it will be struck hard in reprisal for Iranian provocations. Overall, the regime must be made to understand that its nuclear weapons will not give it any advantages outside of Iranian territory.
Additionally, the United States should ramp up support for allies that would come under increased threat from a nuclear Iran—i.e., Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan. If the United States does not do so, these allies will likely turn to Russia and China for protection, giving those nations an even larger foothold in the Middle East and diminishing U.S. influence to almost zero.
Regardless of U.S. policy, Washington will have to prepare for Saudi Arabia to seek to acquire nuclear weapons, as it said it would once Iran does. The United States may be able to prevent Riyadh from proliferating by storing U.S. nuclear warheads on Saudi soil; however, given the Biden administration’s teetering relationship with the kingdom, it remains unclear if there is enough trust on either side for this to work. Saudi proliferation may then lead to Turkish and Egyptian proliferation.
Unlike in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where only he is in charge of major decisions such as the deployment of nuclear weapons, in Iran, they are more likely to be taken by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps command together. Considering that this decision would have to be taken by such a large group whose consistent goal has been invulnerability and survival, this is unlikely. All the same, the force-multiplying ability of nuclear weapons in Iranian foreign policy is extremely dangerous. If the United States is not ready to respond with a robust policy to counter and protect its allies in the region, it risks losing them.
Joseph Epstein is a legislative fellow at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).