The Nuclear Deal is Dead! Long Live Deterrence!

Combat missiles on a launcher.

6 December 2021

By Gwynne Dyer

“We reviewed the proposals … carefully and thoroughly and concluded that Iran violated almost all compromises found previously in months of hard negotiations,” said the German Foreign Ministry spokesperson on Sunday. As a funeral oration, it lacked in elegance, but it did the job: the 2015 treaty curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions is dead.

It was last week’s meeting in Vienna that dealt it the death blow. Officially Iran and the six guarantors of the treaty (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) were there to revive the deal that Donald Trump tried to kill when he unilaterally pulled the US out in 2018, but the new Iranian government overplayed its hand.

When Joe Biden replaced Trump last January it looked like reviving the deal would be simple. Washington would drop all the sanctions Trump had slapped on Iran, Tehran would undo all the cautious steps it had taken on enriching uranium beyond the treaty’s limits to bring pressure on America and its allies, and everybody would live happily ever after.

But the government of President Hassan Rouhani, which originally negotiated the treaty, wanted Biden to cancel the sanctions first, since it was the US that had reneged on the deal. Biden wouldn’t do that, and wanted Iran to roll back the uranium enrichment first. A typical bazaar haggle, but the clock was ticking.

Rouhani had reached the two-term limit, and in this May’s presidential election in Iran he was replaced by a hard-line nationalist, Ebrahim Raisi. The new president can see that Iran has survived the renewed American sanctions for three years, and he clearly believes that further US sanctions would hit diminishing returns. He may well be right.

We are probably about to find out, because the first thing Raisi did on taking office was to request a five-month break in the talks while the new Iranian government got its bearings. But Iran’s level of uranium enrichment continued at a high level during the hiatus: it is now up to 60%, and the next step (an easy one) is to 90%: weapons-grade. (The treaty limit is 3.67%.)

When Raisi’s representatives returned to the table in Vienna last week, they brought his new demands: all the compromises that had been agreed in the talks last spring, when Rouhani was still president, were cancelled, and Iran wanted a promise (impossible for a US president to make) that sanctions would never be reimposed. Game over. Iran goes nuclear.

It’s not yet decided whether the planned return to the table in Vienna some time this week will happen, but it would just be to say good-bye. Trump wins: he has trashed a perfectly good treaty, and Iran will get the bomb, or at least the ‘threshold capability’ to make a bomb in a short time if it needs one.

So what should everybody else do now? Not much, if we’re being honest. It was only ever such a big deal because Israel said it was. However, Israel has had nuclear weapons for half a century, and now has several hundred of them, so we may assume that the people who guide Israel’s nuclear strategy know that a few Iranian nuclear weapons are not a mortal threat to Israel.

Ten nuclear weapons could wipe out half the Israeli population if they hit the major population centres, but this is not some special problem Israel faces because it is small. The United States has 330 million people and spans a continent, but it could also lose half its population in an all-out Russian nuclear attack.

This is not great, but it is also not fatal because the United States can strike back and kill half the Russians (or the Chinese or whoever it was that attacked). It’s called nuclear deterrence, and it’s not absolutely foolproof, but it has protected us all from nuclear war for 75 years.

China has one and a half billion people, but could lose half of them in an all-out American attack. Or to get to the point of this exercise, Iran has 80 million people, but it could lose half of them in an Israeli nuclear attack. The majority of the world’s people have to live this way, and quite a lot of them (including the Iranians) have done so for two or three generations by now.

The only way Israel could claim exemption from this aspect of the human condition was to claim that the Iranians were murderous lunatics who could not be deterred by the threat of massive nuclear retaliation. They might attack Israel with nuclear weapons even if they knew they would be exterminated in return.

That was never true, and now Israelis may have to get used to living under the nuclear threat too. Or maybe the Iranians will stop at ‘threshold status’, which would be nice. But I wouldn’t count on it.