[I]n his memo, Mr. Gates wrote of a variety of concerns, including the absence of an effective strategy should Iran choose the course that many government and outside analysts consider likely: Iran could assemble all the major parts it needs for a nuclear weapon — fuel, designs and detonators — but stop just short of assembling a fully operational weapon.
In that case, Iran could remain a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while becoming what strategists call a “virtual” nuclear weapons state.
According to several officials, the memorandum also calls for new thinking about how the United States might contain Iran’s power if it decided to produce a weapon, and how to deal with the possibility that fuel or weapons could be obtained by one of the terrorist groups Iran has supported, which officials said they considered to be a less-likely possibility.The Obama administration's response:
Pressed on the administration’s ambiguous phrases until now about how close the United States was willing to allow Iran’s program to proceed, a senior administration official described last week in somewhat clearer terms that there was a line Iran would not be permitted to cross.
The official said that the United States would ensure that Iran would not “acquire a nuclear capability,” a step Tehran could get to well before it developed a sophisticated weapon. “That includes the ability to have a breakout,” he said, using the term nuclear specialists apply to a country that suddenly renounces the nonproliferation treaty and uses its technology to build a small arsenal.The bolded part is important: that Iran could remain a signatory to the NPT while maintaining a "virtual" weapons capability is a concession that developing such a capacity is perfectly legal under the treaty. That being the case, what then would be the justification under international law for taking action -- in the form of economic or aerial warfare -- to stop Iran from possessing the enrichment capacity and knowhow to possibly someday build nuclear weapons, if it chose to do so (which even U.S. intelligence agencies don't believe the Iranians have decided to do)? My money's on a Security Council resolution.
Still, what is clearly illegal is not having a nuclear "breakout" capacity -- as Iran stands accused not of possessing, but seeking to possess -- but "the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State," as the non-proliferation treaty itself notes. That's something to be remembered the next time a U.S. official declares "all options are on the table" when dealing with Iran, and contrasted with the Obama administration's recently stated policy in its Nuclear Posture Review of maintaining the right to use nuclear weapons against those it deems in violation of the NPT (e.g. Iran).
Indeed, Harvard's Stephen Walt observes on his blog for Foreign Policy that Obama's official nuclear posture "amounts to saying that Iran is still a nuclear target even when it has no weapons [of] its own." And beyond the illegality of threatening force against a state in compliance with its treaty obligations -- which also violates the long-standing U.S. pledge to "not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT" -- the administration's policy makes no sense on pure pragmatic grounds, as it only gives Iran "additional incentives to pursue a nuclear weapons option," says Walt. Declaring that "we reserve the right of 'first use' against Iran now (when it has no weapons at all)," however, sure sounds "like a good way to convince them that their own deterrent might be a pretty nice thing to have."
It's sometimes alleged that Ayatollah Khamenei & Co. are irrational, driven by ideology rather than pragmatism. But what should non-proliferation advocates fear in light of the years of bellicose rhetoric from Washington? That they're not.