While various news outlets and neocon blogs are fixated on a RAND Corporation researcher’s estimate [PDF] that Iran could produce a nuclear bomb “within eight weeks,” a report RAND released today offers a sober analysis of the security threats posed by a potential Iranian nuclear weapons program and how the U.S. and its partners can dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Most importantly, the report emphasizes that while Iran “is pursuing a capability that could lead to the production of operation nuclear weapons,” Iran’s weaponization of its nuclear program is not a foregone conclusion and “it is not clear that Iran has made the decision to create actual nuclear weapons.” (This observation matches closely with both the IAEA and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s analyses.)
Applying military pressure to dissuade Iran from constructing a nuclear weapon could have definite costs for the U.S. and its allies, writes the report. The authors warn that military pressure “is highly uncertain but reinforces Iran’s vulnerability and could lead to acceleration of nuclear program.”
If the possibility of empowering hardliners in Tehran and creating new incentives for the construction of a nuclear weapon aren’t enough, the report warns that an Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities might be a self-defeating strategy for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. The report reads:
Israeli leaders are aware that a military strike on Iran would be far more difficult and complicated than either the Iraqi or Syrian cases, even if some suggest that the negative consequences of an Israeli attack may be exaggerated or that the risks of an attack may outweigh the costs of doing nothing. [...]
As a retired Israeli general put it, “If there’s no choice, Israel can set back the Iranian nuclear process,” but it would be unable to launch a sustained campaign to stop it and would likely face Iranian retaliation through ballistic missile attacks directed against Israel.
While not totally disregarding the possibility of an Israeli air strike, the RAND research group raised some interesting questions about Israel’s own nuclear status in the region and proposes that if Iran decides to produce nuclear weapons, “Israel will face growing pressure to bring its bomb out of the basement” if it is to strengthen the credibility of its nuclear deterrent and build reliable ear-warning systems between Israel and Iran.
Finally, and no doubt much to the annoyance of many neoconservatives and Israeli hardliners, the RAND report dismantles the popular meme that Iran’s leaders are irrational or incapable of responding to conventional incentives. They write:
That Iran’s behavior in the past three decades has been characterized by relatively careful characterization of costs and benefits does not mean that its understanding conforms to Western assessments. [...]
However Iran’s foreign policies may appear to those outside Iran, calculations of cost and benefits drive key Iranian foreign policy decisions.
The government’s foreign policies are meant to pursue the interest of regime survival above all else.
While the report doesn’t make much headway in providing a pathway for de-escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Iran, it does take steps to discredit and undermine those who advocate that Iran is a suicidal nuclear state that can only be contained through preemptive military strikes or the threat of military force.