Giorgio Cafiero notes near the end of a new article on Israel and Iran that Iranian nuclear weapons are not a foregone conclusion if the Vienna talks fail and the agreement collapses:
Iran’s nuclear activities seem designed to be mainly about boosting the country’s standing and leveraging the fears that other powers have of the Iranian nuclear program. To continue achieving such goals, the Iranians do not necessarily ever need to acquire nuclear weapons and Iran could remain a nuclear threshold country if the JCPOA is not restored.
This is an important point, and one that needs to be emphasized as the prospects for a successful negotiation are dwindling. The nuclear issue is frequently framed as “letting” Iran get nuclear weapons or waging preventive war to stop that from happening, but there are other alternatives. It is not a given that the Iranian government will choose to build nuclear weapons even if the JCPOA collapses. They have not had anything resembling a nuclear weapons program for the last 18 years, and they have not made the political decision to develop these weapons despite being sanctioned heavily for most of the last 15.
The JCPOA was considered necessary to demonstrate that Iran intends its nuclear program to be peaceful, and to prove that Iran accepted substantial restrictions on their program that were not otherwise required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Many of those restrictions expired over time because Iran was never going to accept them in perpetuity. If Iran remained on the threshold but took no action to cross it, that is something that everyone should be able to live with. Preventive war wouldn’t prevent anything, since it would almost certainly provoke Iran to change its position and seek a deterrent.
If the nuclear deal isn’t going to be salvaged, that does not have to mean war or proliferation, but it will give Iran hawks an opening to start a war that will likely end with more proliferation. Salvaging the nuclear deal was still the best way forward, but there is clearly no political will in Washington or in European capitals to do what is necessary to save it. Having completely failed in upholding their obligations, the U.S. and its European allies will pretend that Iran is to blame for the fruits of their failure.
Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.