Today — Tuesday, April 6, 2010 — the Obama Administration will proclaim, as a matter of declaratory policy, that the United States claims the prerogative to use nuclear weapons against the Islamic Republic of Iran, even as Iran remains a non-nuclear-weapons state. The Administration will make this declaration as part of its much anticipated Nuclear Posture Review, which will be issued two days before President Obama and Russian President Medvedev sign a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).
We welcome the conclusion of the new START agreement, a long-overdue step in reducing the role of nuclear weapons in America’s military posture. Such a shift is, of course, critical to any chance of progress toward President Obama’s goal, defined in the historic speech he delivered one year ago today in Prague, of a world without nuclear weapons.
In principle, the Nuclear Posture Review should constitute another initial, concrete step toward the ultimate realization of the President’s worthy vision. To its credit, the Obama Administration will issue the final text of the Review online, for all to see. Unfortunately, though, the Administration will flinch from taking the most important step that it could take in the context of the Nuclear Posture Review — namely, to declare that, as a matter of policy, the United States possesses nuclear weapons for the sole purpose of deterring the use of nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies.
Instead, the Obama Administration will advance a declaratory position that, while the primary purpose of America’s nuclear arsenal is to deter nuclear use against the United States and its allies, deterrence is not its only purpose. More specifically, the Administration will reserve the prerogative for the United States to use nuclear weapons first, at its discretion, against non-nuclear-weapons states that are not, in Washington’s view, in full compliance with their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In that context, recent statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior Administration officials that Iran is not in compliance with its NPT obligations seem quite ominous.
Of course, the George W. Bush Administration and the Obama Administration have both noted that the Islamic Republic has not complied with United Nations Security Council resolutions calling on it to suspend uranium enrichment. These administrations have also called on Tehran to improve its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But the motive behind the recent shift in the Obama Administration’s rhetoric to highlight Tehran’s alleged noncompliance with the NPT was unclear, at least until now. The Administration has painted a nuclear target on Iran’s back (and, to be fair, on North Korea and perhaps Syria as well).
We believe that this is a bad decision with regard to U.S. nuclear weapons policy, but will leave it to others to discuss those dimensions of the matter. We are absolutely certain that it is a horrible decision with regard to America’s Iran policy. We have said and written on many occasions that we believe Iran is establishing the foundations for what some analysts call a nuclear weapons “option,” but, in our assessment, has not taken a decision to move all the way to overt weaponization. (And, Iranian officials at the highest levels, including Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have said repeatedly that the Islamic Republic does not seek and does not want nuclear weapons.) One of the several reasons we oppose U.S. military action against Iran over the nuclear issue is because we believe such action would increase the chances that Tehran would decide to weaponize its nuclear capabilities. In the same vein, making Iran a potential U.S. nuclear target will remove at least some of Tehran’s incentives for restraint in developing its own nuclear capabilities. If Iran, as a non-nuclear-weapons state, will face the threat of nuclear “first use” by the United States, why shouldn’t Tehran proceed to the actual acquisition of nuclear weapons?
Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow. Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs. Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. This article was first published in The Race for Iran under a Creative Commons license.