In the internal debate in Israel over the subject of Iran, it is generally assumed by many that at the end of the day the U.S. will destroy the nuclear infrastructure of Iran when it becomes clear that sanctions and negotiations have failed. But is that a reliable assumption? True, President Barack Obama made clear last March during his address at AIPAC that he would use "all elements of American power to pressure Iran and prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon." However, with the exception of the 2003 Iraq War, which was launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the historical precedents indicate that the U.S. has not used military force in the past to stop rogue states from developing nuclear weapons.
Writing in Haaretz on August 8, Israel's former ambassador to the U.S., Salai Meridor, warns that it cannot be assumed that Washington will act in the Iranian case as well. He correctly noted that in the past, the U.S. in fact condemned the 1981 attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor and it refused to take military action against the Syrian nuclear program. He doesn't completely rule out the possibility that the U.S. will act, but he points out that it is not at all certain, for when past administrations were faced with making a decision and the moment of truth was reached, they chose to accept the nuclearization of rogue states over starting a war.
The case of North Korea stands out as an instance in which the U.S. would not take action against a dangerous rogue state that was developing a nuclear weapons capability. In March 1994, North Korea blocked inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) from inspecting its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. By June, it appeared that the North Koreans were about to take the spent fuel rods from the reactor and extract enough weapons-grade plutonium for five or six bombs.
The U.N. imposed economic sanctions on North Korea. President Clinton wrote in his memoirs that he was determined to stop North Korea from developing a nuclear arsenal, "even at the risk of war." The Pentagon planned to destroy the Yongbyon reactor, but ultimately pulled back from its threats. Just like today, high-level U.S. officials said that all options are on the table — but that was as far as they went. Negotiations were launched with North Korea that led to the signing of the "Agreed Framework," which the North Koreans violated within a few years. It would become clear that Washington had not pushed hard enough.
The weakness of the "Agreed Framework" was revealed in December 2002, when North Korea removed the IAEA seals from the containers with the spent fuel rods and began to produce plutonium from them. In the months that followed, the Bush administration took no firm action. North Korea then expelled the IAEA inspectors and announced early 2003 it was withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Four years later on Oct. 8, 2006, the North Koreans conducted their first underground test of an atomic bomb.
As a result, the U.N. Security Council adopted a tough resolution on North Korea , but the U.S. did not take any measures to eliminate North Korea's nuclear infrastructure. Six-party negotiations began leading to another agreement in 2007 that was similar to the "Agreed Framework" of 1994. For its part, North Korea was clearly unimpressed with the Western reaction to its atomic test. Thus it conducted a second nuclear test on May 25, 2009, when President Obama was already in office.
Why has the U.S. not taken more forceful action against rogue states crossing the nuclear threshold? First, there is the issue of intelligence. Even a superpower like the U.S., may not have a sufficiently clear intelligence picture that would allow it to detect that a state like North Korea, which is isolated from the world, is about to conduct a nuclear test. This is also a problem for the American intelligence agencies in a country like Iran.
Indeed, just two years ago, Robert M. Gates, who was then the defense secretary, was quoted saying about the Iranians: “If their policy is to go to the threshold but not to assemble a nuclear weapon, how do you tell that they have not assembled? I don’t actually know how you would verify that.” Gates comments were important. He was a former head of the CIA and has a keen understanding of the real limits of intelligence.
The problem that Gates describes explains why it is hard to move against states developing nuclear weapons if you don't know they are actually taking the last steps towards a bomb. In his memoirs, former Vice President Dick Cheney adds that since the Iraq War, the U.S. intelligence community is afraid of repeating the same error of relying on false intelligence, thereby affecting its decision-making even when it has "solid" information, as was the case with Syria.
According to President Bush's account, while CIA Director Mike Hayden said that he had "high confidence" that the Syrians were building a nuclear reactor, since he could not find the facility for the weaponization of the plutonium that the reactor generated, he only had "low confidence" that the Syrians had a nuclear weapons program. Bush concluded that the U.S. could not operate against the Syrians with such a murky intelligence picture. According to foreign sources, Israel had to strike instead.
Thus, U.S. decision-makers understandably demand a level of certainty that intelligence agencies cannot always supply. Before acting, Obama will want to know how definite the information is that Iran has enriched uranium to weapons grade, has assembled a nuclear warhead, and is mounting it on a Shahab-3 missile.
A second limitation influencing the U.S. is the United Nations Security Council and the American dependence on multilateral approval. President Obama justified American military involvement in Libya to Congress by repeatedly saying that he had U.N. authorization. Following administration policy, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 7, that in the case of Syria, before the U.S. could get militarily involved, “our goal would be to seek international permission.” Since that time the Russian and Chinese have proven that they are willing to block a consensus in the Security Council over a resolution calling for stopping the bloodshed in the Syrian uprising.
Given this international environment, the chances the U.S. would receive United Nations authorization to take action against Iran's nuclear program are virtually nil. The U.S. would have to act outside of the U.N., which it has done in a number of notable cases, like Kosovo, under President Clinton. In the case of the Obama administration that would require a sharp break in past policy.
Finally, it must be remembered that the U.S. is a superpower with global commitments. That means it has conflicting priorities, which constrain its ability to take on missions against rogue states that are in the last phase of assembling nuclear weapons. The Bush administration was focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, which undoubtedly affected its approach to North Korea — and later Syria. Perhaps, in the near future, the Obama administration will be involved in supporting an international intervention against the Assad regime in Syria, and will not be focused on the Iranian issue.
Then there is the issue of America's forward-deployed forces around the world. During the Clinton administration it was understood that a strike on North Korea could lead to a retaliatory attack against U.S. ground forces along the Demilitarized Zone protecting South Korea. In the debate over whether the U.S. should take out Syria's nuclear reactor, the risks of Syrian retaliation against U.S. forces in Iraq was raised. Thus while the U.S. unquestionably has the military power to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the world's most dangerous states, or organizations, repeatedly successive administrations have been reluctant to use their vast military capabilities for that purpose because of the international circumstances they have faced.