What happens the day after Iran gets the bomb?

Josh Rogin Monday, December 5, 2011 – 5:51 PM

A team of conservative policymakers and thinkersbelieves that there’s a real chance that Western efforts to stop Iran fromacquiring a nuclear weapon will fail, in which case the United States wouldhave to lead an international effort to contain Iran and deter the IslamicRepublic from using its nuclear weapons capability.

Experts at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI),a conservative Washington think tank, have spent the last six months thinkingabout how the United States should respond to a nuclear-armed Iran. They aregetting ready to release an extensive report tomorrow detailing acomprehensive strategy for dealing with that scenario, entitled, “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran.”

“The report is very much an acknowledgement of thevery real possibility of failure of the strategy to prevent Iran from obtaininga nuclear weapon, and any responsible party should recognize that failure is anoption. There’s been a huge disservice done by all who have spent theirlives in denial of that possibility,” AEI Vice President Danielle Pletka told TheCable in a Monday interview. “Whenever you devise a strategy for whathappens before a country gets a nuclear weapon, you should have a strategy forwhat happens after they get one as well.”

Pletkawill unveil the report on Tuesday morning at an event with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), and fellow AEIexperts Tom Donnelly, Maseh Zarif, and Fred Kagan. The project brought together Iran experts of all stripesto brainstorm what would be needed to create the maximum level of confidencethat, if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon, it would not decide to use it.

“Whilethere can never be certain deterrence, Cold War presidents often had confidencethat the United States had sufficient military power to support a policy ofcontainment through a strategy of deterrence; for most of the period they feltthat deterrence was assured,” the report states. “It is worth repeating Dean Acheson‘s basic formulation: ‘Americanpower would be employed in stopping [Soviet aggression and expansion], and ifnecessary, would inflict on the Soviet Union injury which the Moscow regime wouldnot wish to suffer.’ Assured deterrence began with assured destruction of theSoviet regime.”

Pletka said that while the geopoliticalenvironment is now different, the basic goal of U.S. policy is the same — tocreate a situationwhereby Iranian leaders would credibly believe that any nuclear attack wouldmean the end of their regime. But Pletka doubts whether this administration hasthe stomach for such a stance.

“Takeout Soviet and Moscow from Acheson’s quote, and sub in Iran and Tehran. Arewe willing to inflict on Iran injury which the Tehran regime would not wish tosuffer? I doubt it,” Pletka warned. “There’s no questionthat a country can be deterred from using a nuclear weapon, the only questionis if there is the will to put those tools in place.”

The report works under theassumption that Iran is working to build a nuclear weapon now and couldcomplete one before the 2012 U.S. presidential election, after which it wouldcontinue to build nuclear weapons at a rapid pace. The report also assumes thatthe Obama administration is unwilling to go to war with Iran before November2012 over the issue, and that even a limited strike by Israel would not achievea full destruction of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

“Strategically, Iran’s leaders wouldbe foolish to wait until after November 2012 to acquire the capability topermanently deter an American attack on their nuclear program,” the reportstates. “Sound American strategy thus requires assuming that Iran will have aweaponized nuclear capability when the next president takes office in January2013. The Iranians may not test a device before then, depending, perhaps, onthe rhetoric of the current president and his possible successor, but we mustassume that they will have at least one.”

“Make no mistake — it would bevastly preferable for the United States and the world to find a way to preventIran from crossing that threshold, and we wholeheartedly endorse ongoingefforts that might do so,” the authors write. “But some of the effort nowfocused on how to tighten the sanctions screws must shift to the problem of howto deal with the consequences when sanctions fail.”

For Donnelly, part of the report’s valueis that it highlights the high costs of a deterrence and containment strategycompared to the costs of taking stronger actions now to prevent a nuclear-armedIran.

“Deterrence and containment are the default mode forthe people who are not up for going to war, but we wanted to point out thatthis was not a cheap or easy alternative, which is the way a lot of people makeit sound,” Donnelly told The Cable inan interview.

At Tuesday’s event, Kirk will make the argument thatthe deterrence and containment strategy are too costly and too uncertain todepend on. His speech will be entitled, “If Iran gets the bomb…”

“Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran is on the march to nuclearweapons.  And if this brutal, terrorist-sponsoring regime achieves itsgoal — if Iran gets the bomb — we, the United States of America andfreedom-loving nations around the world, will have failed in what could be ourgeneration’s greatest test,” Kirk will say, according to excerpts of his speechprovided to The Cable.

“Iran remains the leading sponsor of international terrorism — aproliferator of missiles and nuclear materials — a regional aggressor — andan abuser of human rights. We cannot afford to risk the security of futuregenerations on a policy of containment.”

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