As the world watches for negotiations on the Iran deal to reach either a breaking point or a breakthrough, war hawks in Washington are trying to derail diplomatic progress and push the United States to the brink of a dangerous conflict. Some familiar pro-war voices are even advocating for direct U.S. military strikes against Iran.
This reckless approach is far too cavalier an attitude when we’re talking about initiating yet another war in the Middle East. The pro-war arguments are also based on the misleading premise that we have only several weeks before it’s game over.
That is patently false.
Let’s get one thing clear: Iran’s oft-cited “breakout time” refers not to how long it would take for Iran to build a nuclear weapon, but rather to the time required to produce the fissile material that would go into a bomb. This is a key distinction.
While it’s true that without a return to the deal Iran could soon reach the point where it has the technical capability to produce enough fissile material needed for a bomb, U.S. and Israeli intelligence does not yet indicate that Iran has made the political decision to weaponize this material. Even if Tehran did decide to cross the nuclear threshold, it could take more than a year, or possibly longer, for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon and mate it to a delivery system. There is still time, even in the worst-case scenario, for diplomacy to work.
So why does the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, still matter? Yes, Iran has gained nuclear knowledge in the time since the U.S. withdrawal. But increased International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and monitoring, along with limiting amounts and levels of enriched material, provide the real value of the JCPOA – they give critical insight into Iran’s activities and trigger early warning for the international community to act if there is a transgression. Months of advance notice of breakout, rather than none in the absence of a deal, is a common sense step in our effort to prevent an Iranian bomb. And it’s important to recall that the most important surveillance, monitoring, and IAEA safeguards provisions in the JCPOA already have durations of 20 or 25 years, while others are permanent.
So while Iran’s recent nuclear developments are worrisome, that does not mean that we have to ring the war bells.
If anything, these casual warmongers are making the best case for why the JCPOA was, and still is, the best solution for containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“If the JCPOA were in place right now … the breakout time would be around twelve times longer than it is today,” noted Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group in early January.
Iran’s key nuclear program developments are still reversible. When considering the path forward regarding Iran, American policymakers would be wise to ignore the voices who created this crisis in the first place and those who are advocating for foolhardy military action now.
Military efforts to disrupt nuclear programs at best delay the potential development of weapons by a matter of months or years. This was the case when Israel attacked Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, and has been the case with past efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. At worst, such attacks risk escalating conflict with disastrous consequences.
There is no viable military solution to this urgent challenge, and, as many top American and Israeli national security figures have said, the only responsible way to stall Iran’s progress, protect U.S. national security interests, and prevent regional instability is through diplomacy.
During his campaign for president, Joe Biden promised that we would work to restore the JCPOA and publicly chastised then-President Donald Trump for impulsively withdrawing from the deal. The continued absence of a functioning agreement threatens our collective safety and exacts a grave toll on Iranian citizens, who are suffocating under the weight of severe U.S. sanctions. Now is the time for President Biden and his team to show leadership and redouble their efforts to get back to implementing a deal that tightly limits Iran’s nuclear program and to reduce the chance of yet another war in the Middle East.