Are We Going to War With Iran?

Iranian progress towards a nuclear weapon has hinged on its ability to produce weapons-grade uranium, or 90% enriched U-235. According to reports that analyze information released by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran now has the capability to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon within a matter of months. However, enriched uranium is only one component necessary to build a nuclear weapon. Once the uranium has been enriched it must be formed into a core that can be placed into an actual weapon equipped with detonators built and fitted into a delivery system, usually a missile or bomb. In an interview aired on Israeli television before his recent trip to the Middle East, President Obama stated that it would take Iran "over a year or so" to fashion a deliverable, reliable nuclear weapon.

The question of how the international community should go about preventing Iran from actually building a weapon has followed four main tracks: diplomatic negotiations, economic sanctions, threats of overt military strikes, and a campaign of covert sabotage.  So far the diplomatic track carried out by the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, know as the P5+1, has produced several plans for a settlement, none of which have been acceptable to Tehran.  While some confidence building measures have been successful, overall, Iran has steadily continued to build its capacity. In contrast, comprehensive economic sanctions have devastated the Iranian economy with official inflation estimated at 31.5%. Sanctions have specifically targeted Iran’s ability to export oil, its primary source of income, and production has dropped by a reported 50%.

A large-scale aerial campaign to destroy Iran’s research facilities has been discussed. However, Iran’s strategy of creating multiple fortified sites with redundant capabilities has vastly increased the scale and complexity of any such campaign. According to General Cartright, former vice chairman of the joint chiefs, even if all the sites could be found and destroyed "once the manufacturing and intellectual capital have been mastered, the material side of this thing is very difficult to do anything about." While President Obama has continued to insist that "all options are on the table," it appears that his administration is not interested in a military confrontation with Iran and would prefer to see a diplomatic settlement.

President Obama’s reluctance to use military force has not curbed his successful use of covert action in slowing Iran’s march towards nuclear capability. Reports indicate that since taking office Obama has ordered several cyber attacks against Iranian facilities including the widely-reported Stuxnet worm. In addition, two targeted bombings of Iranian nuclear scientists on November 29, 2010 and January 11, 2012 show the Obama administration’s tacit approval if not outright support for such operations. While covert action will not be able to halt Iran's program it has increased the costs and sent signals of the Obama administration's resolve to Tehran.

Of the four tracks pursued by the international community, the diplomatic track has so far proven unsuccessful and the military track seems unlikely to bare fruit. The economic and covert tracks have been able to punish Iran for its actions but have not suppressed its enthusiasm for a nuclear capability. The diplomatic track, despite its lack of progress thus far, must continue to be pursued buttressed by economic and covert pressures.