The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has, on account of its dismal human rights record and decades of aggression towards its neighbors, earned the derision it often receives from American and allied and partner countries’ officials. This public condemnation, however, entered a somewhat new phase on August 30 when President Trump broadcast an image of the smoking wreckage of a failed launch related to Iran’s space program along with a taunt of sorts directed at Iran’s leadership.
The enmity expressed and means of broadcasting it to the world is fairly standard for this president, but the image told several larger, and much more important, stories than any spat between Washington and Tehran. The image the president employed was allegedly taken from an overhead satellite, a program that produces classified material on issues of global importance. The president has absolute authority to declassify material as he did in this case, but in communicating to the Iranians and the world at large he revealed the photographic capacity of the satellite in question, enough information to determine the location of the satellite in orbit, as well as the fact that the Iranian space program’s launch was of sufficient interest to the US that a “national technical means” had been assigned to observe the test. While Iran was clearly the target of the message, Russia, North Korea, China, and other countries certainly took note of the incident for their own purposes.
While the long-term consequences to America’s constellation of reconnaissance satellites is uncertain, the president’s release of the image brought a difficult policy challenge into focus: non-proliferation. At the heart of Iran-US tension is the Iranian government’s interest in developing a nuclear capacity that could be weaponized and a strategic missile arm that could be employed to carry these nuclear weapons. The incident President Trump highlighted may have been cloaked under the guise of scientific development, but launching satellites requires similar ballistics to launching warheads, so that the United States was watching cannot be a surprise to any observer.
In monitoring Iranian activity, and in trying to disrupt or degrade their capacity to build missiles or nuclear weapons, the US and its allies face a considerable structural challenge: human ingenuity. Essentially, the US is trying to prevent a country from developing technology first fielded in the 1940s and perfected by the mid-1960s. Therefore, no amount of sanction, covert action, diplomatic isolation, or strategic communication can prevent Iran from eventually fielding these technologies if developing these technologies is in their strategic interest. Non-proliferation, at its heart, is faced with an inevitability challenge.
Take the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (“DPRK”), for example. A society built around slave labor and a degree of totalitarianism witnessed in no other country on Earth, with an economy marginally larger than that of the state of Vermont, has produced a nuclear program and an equivalent series of delivery systems that threaten not only the Republic of Korea, Japan, and other regional states, but the US itself. Decades of sanctions, covert action, diplomatic isolation, and strategic communication did not prevent the DPRK from developing these capabilities because the DPRK knew having these capabilities was in its strategic interest. By way of comparison, Iran is hardly as isolated and while its government is autocratic, it cannot be fairly compared to the DPRK. With an economy fourteen times larger than that of the DPRK, and also having a strategic interest in developing advanced weapons, Iran stands as a useful demonstration of non-proliferation’s inevitability challenge.
While this is a simplified analysis, the United States faces a significant obstacle in trying to prevent states like Iran from developing nuclear or missile capabilities. The DPRK has offered no indication that it plans to give up its weapons or even stop the development of new systems, so that is hardly a model for the US and its allies to employ. The US has also abandoned the framework of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which promised to at least slow Iran’s development of nuclear capacity, so the Trump Administration is unlikely to embrace multilateral mechanisms to push against the inevitability challenge Iran poses, even if alternative mechanisms were available.
The inevitability challenge does not leave the US without options, however. Focusing on the means of weapons delivery, or the weapons themselves, can theoretically be effective, but this analysis shows the limitations of such an approach. It must be said that concepts from the Cold War like nuclear deterrence obviously exist, but this does not exhaust the options the US has available, either. At the end of 2019, the world has at least eight nuclear states, but this number could have – at various junctures – been much higher. In certain cases, the breakup of the Soviet Union created additional de facto nuclear states, but this was a temporary aberration (perhaps to Kyiv’s detriment). Next, Japan and Germany have all the technical means required to deploy these weapons, they simply need not have them, largely due to their alliances with the US. In other cases, however, like that of South Africa and Sweden, states decided they no longer had a strategic interest in developing a nuclear deterrent (Sweden’s case) or that their existing weapons no longer served a purpose (South Africa had a limited arsenal prior to the end of apartheid). Simply stated, the strategic calculus that made these weapons essential to these states was no longer valid, so the weapons programs ended.
Therein lies the opportunity to avoid the inevitability challenge. With human ingenuity evenly distributed, and even desperately poor countries showing they can overcome technical obstacles (again, obstacles successfully overcome 70 years ago), a focus on weapons and delivery systems alone cannot hope to forestall proliferation. However, nations can change their leaders, their strategic goals, their alliances and partnerships, and re-consider their place in the world.
While it would be excessively naïve to suggest Tehran is ready simply to walk away from the development of advanced weapons technologies, it would also be a folly to assess that Tehran (or any other state for that matter) considers these weapons to be an absolute, eternal necessity. A deal that fundamentally shifts the strategic calculus of Tehran, especially considering the state of leadership in Washington and Jerusalem, is clearly not likely, but it is perhaps more likely than collapsing Iran’s capacity to develop weapons via sanctions, covert action, or diplomatic pressure. It is conceivable that a US president could shift assumptions in the Middle East in a manner that leads Tehran to re-consider its strategic approach, rather than entrench its existing assumptions. In doing so, a deal with Tehran and other regional partners could moot the inevitability challenge of non-proliferation and enable the intelligence community to orient its constellation of satellites to other, equally dire, global challenges.