Is Ira­nian con­tain­ment the only op­tion?

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

The path to to­day’s prob­lems with Iran passed through the Univer­sity of Chicago squash court where on Dec. 2, 1942, for 41/2 min­utes physi­cist En­rico Fermi, mak­ing cal­cu­la­tions on a slide rule, achieved the con­trolled re­lease of en­ergy from an atomic nu­cleus. His­to­rian Richard Rhodes says that Fermi and his col­leagues were risk­ing “a small Ch­er­nobyl in the midst of a crowded city.”

Hu­man­ity was al­ready on the path to the dan­ger­ous present in 1918 when the Bri­tish physi­cist Ernest Ruther­ford, who was crit­i­cized for miss­ing a meet­ing about anti-sub­ma­rine war­fare, said, “I have been en­gaged in ex­per­i­ments which sug­gest that the atom can be ar­ti­fi­cially dis­in­te­grated. If this is true, it is of far greater im­por­tance than a war.”

So, when wondering about what can be done about Iran’s nu­clear-weapons as­pi­ra­tions — and North Korea’s nu­clear-weapons facts — re­mem­ber this: Some ad­vo­cates of the Iran nu­clear agree­ment thought its pur­pose was to block “all of Iran’s path­ways to a bomb,” which was Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s for­mu­la­tion when his goal was to dis­man­tle the in­fra­struc­ture of Iran’s pro­gram. Other ad­vo­cates of the deal thought it was pru­dent to pre­tend to think this. The re­al­is­tic pur­pose, how­ever, was the more mod­est one of mak­ing the “path­ways” longer and steeper, in the hope that in­ter­nal Ira­nian fer­ments would be­gin to make that na­tion less men­ac­ing by the time it be­gan to cre­ate nu­clear weapons.

Al­though much so­phis­ti­ca­tion has been added over the decades, the ba­sic recipe for build­ing nu­clear weapons comes from the 1940s, and for bal­lis­ticmis­sile tech­nol­ogy from the 1950s. The Soviet Union was an al­most pros­trate na­tion with a shat­tered so­ci­ety when, just 51 months after the guns fell si­lent on V-E Day (May 8, 1945), it det­o­nated its first nu­clear weapon in Au­gust 1949. China was an al­most en­tirely peas­ant so­ci­ety, with a pop­u­la­tion of 694 mil­lion (about half of to­day’s), when in 1964 it det­o­nated its first nu­clear weapon. In 1998, Pak­istan, with its per capita in­come of $470, ac­quired such weapons.

Nu­clear non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ef­forts have been more ef­fec­tive than seemed pos­si­ble 60 years ago. Dur­ing the 1960 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, John F. Kennedy cited “in­di­ca­tions” that by 1964 there would be “10, 15 or 20” nu­clear pow­ers. As pres­i­dent, he said that, by 1975, there might be 20 such pow­ers. To­day, sanc­tions can in­crease the price Iran pays for at­tempt­ing to ac­quire nu­clear weapons; Is­rael can as­sas­si­nate sci­en­tists work­ing in Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram. If, how­ever, Iran wants such weapons as in­tensely as its decades of costly ef­forts sug­gest, it will get them.

It is a law of arms con­trol: Sig­nif­i­cant agree­ments are im­pos­si­ble un­til they are unim­por­tant, which means un­til they are not sig­nif­i­cant. If Den­mark wanted nu­clear weapons, we would con­sider that na­tion daft but not dan­ger­ous. Iran’s regime is malev­o­lent, but there are polls (how do you poll in a theo­cratic po­lice state?) show­ing sub­stan­tial sup­port for the nu­clear-weapons pro­gram and bal­lis­tic-mis­sile de­vel­op­ment. The me­dian age in Iran is 30.3 years (in the United States: 38.1; in the Euro­pean Union, 42.9). The na­tion is more por­ous to out­side in­flu­ences than can suit the regime, which has a despo­tism’s nor­mal pref­er­ence for in­tel­lec­tual au­tarky. So, buy­ing time was not a neg­li­gi­ble goal for the orig­i­nal deal — or for what­ever comes next, if any­thing does.

It is condign pun­ish­ment for Obama that his sig­na­ture for­eign-pol­icy achieve­ment, the deal with Iran, could be so ca­su­ally jet­ti­soned. It should have been a treaty. If it were, it would have en­joyed more pub­lic sup­port and could not have been erased by what cre­ated it — pres­i­den­tial uni­lat­er­al­ism. Obama’s suc­ces­sor might learn from this when — if — he pro­duces an al­ter­na­tive plan for a slightly more dis­tant and less dan­ger­ous fu­ture.

Seventy-three years have passed since the first nu­clear ex­plo­sion in New Mex­ico. Less than a month later, there oc­curred the first two, and so far the only, uses of nu­clear weapons. Sixty-eight years have passed since the Soviet Union be­came the se­cond nu­clear power. De­ter­rence as the ba­sis of con­tain­ment has not been rest­ful, but has been suc­cess­ful. Nev­er­the­less, in Septem­ber 2012, the Se­nate voted 90 to 1 for a non­bind­ing res­o­lu­tion “rul­ing out any pol­icy that would rely on con­tain­ment as an op­tion in re­sponse to the Ira­nian nu­clear threat.” So, al­most six years ago the Se­nate de­clared un­ac­cept­able a pol­icy that, per­haps six years from now, the United States might have no al­ter­na­tive but to ac­cept.

De­ter­rence as the ba­sis of con­tain­ment has not been rest­ful, but has been suc­cess­ful.

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