On November 8, 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) circulated a report to its Board of Governors and the United Nations Security Council alleging “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” The report’s assemblage of evidence and meticulous sourcing elicited questions as to whether it would compel countries like China and Russia to undertake a stronger stance. In the sixth installment of the Arms Control Seminar Series, Elbridge Colby, research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, joined a panel of Chinese experts to discuss how best to manage the Iran nuclear issue. Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated.

Burden of Proof

Colby argued Middle Eastern nations, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, would face strong incentives to draw closer to Washington if Tehran acquires a nuclear weapons capability, increasing U.S. leverage in the Middle East. One Chinese expert argued that inadequate evidence has been provided for the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Colby responded that the preponderance of evidence strongly suggests that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. Saalman cited some of the evidence provided the 2011 IAEA report, including:

  • Computer models of nuclear explosions made in 2008 and 2009;
  • Simulations of conventional explosive shock waves and spherical fuel compression;
  • The construction of a large containment vessel at the Parchin military base;
  • A project to secure a source of uranium for use in an undisclosed enrichment program;
  • Securing of nuclear explosive design information and experiments on nuclear triggers;
  • The construction of a secret enrichment facility near Qum;
  • The creation of 14 design iterations for a missile warhead to deliver a nuclear warhead.

Models of Response

  • Israel: In response to a question from one of the Chinese experts about Israel’s likely response, Colby noted that there are prominent Israeli figures arguing against an attack, including some reportedly associated with Israel’s Mossad. However, he added that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to believe an attack would be necessary, if faced with a nuclear Iran. 
  • Deterrence and Containment: Colby suggested that deterrence and containment provide an alternative model for managing a nuclear Iran. He characterized Iran as a dangerous but basically rational actor, with political and strategic objectives underpinning its nuclear pursuits. Iran is not suicidal and remains responsive to outside stimuli, Colby argued. While the United States would prefer a friendlier regime in Tehran, Colby stressed that it has no interest in invading Iran and forcing regime change. Colby’s model focused on two factors:
    • Deterrence: Arguing against preventive military action, Colby noted that the United States and its allies would remain superior to Iran at every level of the military balance, including nuclear forces and missile defenses.  He nonetheless stressed that defense planning must be prepared for Iran to engage in provocative behavior and potential attack.
    • Containment: Colby  stressed that the United States and its allies would not tolerate a nuclear Iran invading countries or transferring weapons of mass destruction. The United States and Gulf Cooperation Council Partners could undertake coordinated measures, he added.

Implications for China

If Iran has nuclear weapons, China’s influence in the Middle East will be negatively affected, argued Colby. It is thus in China’s best interest to actively engage on the Iranian nuclear issue to avert instability and an arms race that could hurt the Chinese economy. He implied that Beijing’s influence might decrease in the region if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, because U.S. allies would likely grow closer to Washington. To avert this scenario, Colby argued the United States would like to see China’s support for more stringent sanctions.

  • Sanctions: Saalman noted that sanctions remain largely anathema to China’s foreign policy. One Chinese scholar claimed that China follows Russia and so it would be unlikely to support sanctions if Russia does not. Another stated that given China’s lack of participation in Iran’s nuclear program, it does not have Russia’s leverage. Instead, the United States and Israel should commit to a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, he argued. Another Chinese expert advocated a “sunshine policy,” instead of sanctions, while a different panelist disagreed, arguing that sanctions are the only option even if China would likely seek to minimize the damage.
  • Nonproliferation: One of the Chinese experts took issue with the characterization of the Iran nuclear issue as one of deterrence and containment. He argued that the core issue is nonproliferation-based, as Iranian nuclear weapons could provoke a chain reaction. He asserted that Colby’s claim that an unintended consequence would be an increase in U.S. influence in the Middle East was dangerous. Colby emphasized that his model does not indicate that the United States seeks for Iran to gain nuclear weapons. 
  • Deterring the United States: One of the Chinese experts noted that while Colby’s model focused on deterring Iran, it does not answer the question of whether the United States can be deterred by Iran. He asked whether military action could be taken off the table. Colby noted that if the United States supported a military strike, it probably would have already occurred, citing the costs of being too aggressive. Colby asked what China’s response would be if Israel were to attack Iran. A Chinese panelist responded that this would violate international law. When asked for China’s response in the event of a U.S. attack, the expert stated that such an attack is nearly impossible. 

Discussants: Zhai Dequan, Zou Yunhua, Gu Guoliang, Hu Yumin, Han Hua, Hong Yuan, Zhong Zhong, Xue Li, Yang Danzhi, Wu Bingbing, Zhang Xinjun, Liu Chong, Qi Hao, Wu Riqiang, He Yun, Zhou Shuai, Lin Yunzhi