In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama on two occasions went out of his way to warn the Iranians that the development of a nuclear weapon “would be a game-changing situation, not just in the Middle East, but around the world.” Obama later added, “It is unacceptable for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon; it would be a game changer.” And Obama twice this year again used “game changer” in reference to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, warning him not to dare use chemical weapons. In March, Obama announced to Assad that “the use of chemical weapons is a game changer.” A month later, Obama again warned Assad not to resort to WMD use: “That is going to be a game changer.” The Iranians must conclude that Obama’s oft-used sports metaphor is more a verbal tic than a serious red line.
That’s checkers. Now for the chess version.
Ahmadinejad had served his purpose – provide cover for the longish, complicated transition from technology demonstrator to production; as Iran geared its uranium enrichment capacity up, it needed to be left alone, as much as possible. The Mullahs chose an erratic, belligerent face for the regime – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His value during this time was to sow fear in the West and Gulf States – keep them treading lightly – so that Tehran could undertake the construction of dedicated enrichment facilities, buried deep inside a mountain (and attend to their new heavy-water reactor in Arak). Ahmadinejad’s last election was a joke, and the resulting public riots were inconvenient but yielded a valuable lesson – the US was no longer the clandestine threat it used to be. We could be bluffed. The ridiculousness of the election ended Ahmadinejad’s usefulness (he could not be run again), but Iran was now ready for the long sneak to the breakout point, where they could dash to building a bomb if they chose to.
The new face of Iran would have to be smoother – “good cop” to Ahmadinejad’s “bad cop” – the lies would be finer-grained, the diplomatic banter more critical, the overall demeanor nicer. The end is the same (always the same), to maximize development time while keeping the West satisfied that they [the West] are making headway. Iran is in the home stretch of a decades-long head-fake, and just has to keep it going for a little longer. Enter new president Hassan Rouani. He’s sophisticated, articulate – speaks English with a delightful French accent, having lived in Paris [in exile] with Grand Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini – and is deeply conversant with Iran’s nuclear program (his last job was as Iran’s nuclear negotiator to Europe, and bragged in his book about keeping Europe on the string while Iran’s nuclear program surged ahead). And he has that diplomat’s gift of making you think his gentility is genuine.
The Mullahs are keen students of the West; they may know more about us than we do. The day after we invaded Iraq, Iran turned the lights out and closed the door to their nuclear program. Literally, the next day. They did not get back to full speed for a year or more. But then there were the Green Movement riots where social media made its first showing as a tactical and organizing tool for ethereal “movements.” But most importantly, CIA did not intervene on the side of the protesters, as they surely would have in earlier days. The Mullahs are convinced that we wish to topple their regime, and they were surprised (not to mention relieved) that we did not use the riots as an excuse to destabilize Tehran. They have been evaluating our little dance with Bashar al-Assad in Syria – all hat, no cattle. The Americans have used terms like “red line” and “game-changer” with Iran for years, but now it seems, those are naught but bluffs – we would rather let Moscow manage the situation than do it ourselves. That’s fine with the Mullahs. Their geopolitical aspiration is to create a Shi’ite crescent arching over the Sunni Gulf States, and the Russians will be easier to work with than the Americans.
The Mullah’s actual intent can go one of two ways: things are happening just as they say they are (the West is simply misinterpreting what it thinks it knows about Iran’s nuclear program), or; things are happening just as we say they are (Iran is, as clandestinely as possible, working to develop the ability to build a nuclear weapon). The first version – we are just misinterpreting Iranian actions – has a statistically insignificant probability of being truthful. There is a corollary that says Iran is not pursuing a bomb, but is doing what it can to make us believe they are trying to hide a weapons R&D program. This version would at least move the probability needle, but not much. Although this would be the easiest version of events for reaching a diplomatic solution (read: the West is allowed to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for removing economic sanctions), it would by no means be easy – Iran would be very reluctant to admit that they had shamelessly misled the West in a decades-old, very expensive run through a non-existent maze. They would lose serious face (liars, to the West, and paper tiger to Arabs), and they would lose their game – their easy way to manipulate the West, misdirect us while they do something else.
Some version of the West’s interpretation of Iranian intent to become nuclear armed has a moderate to high probability. This can take three possible routes: race to a bomb; race to a-screw-away, or; race to breakout. They could be taking the “Netanyahu route,” tap dancing as fast as they can until they can mount at least a fission weapon atop one of their Shahab IRBMs. On another hand, they could be racing to having all the components ready for some degree of assembly before they technically possess a bomb. This is known as being “a screw away.” On the third hand, they could be racing to reach breakout capability – position themselves with the assets and expertise to sprint to a bomb before the rest of the world could react.
Any one of the bomb options would require Iran to demonstrate their design and fabrication – a test shot. This could be done while still clouding or shrouding Iranian involvement by getting the North Koreans to allow Iran to use one of their test sites, under the guise that another North Korean nuclear test was going to happen. It would take very good methods to get the requisite Iranian technicians out of Iran and into DPRK unnoticed, but it certainly can be done, especially with state sponsorship. Once they have tested – and the test would have to be on a miniaturized warhead (Iran doesn’t have the luxury of conducting numerous tests) – they could “announce” (after stockpiling around five deliverable warheads) by firing a nuclear-tipped Shahab into the dessert to atmospherically detonate a low-KT warhead in the dessert. This would yield maximum psychological impact.
Why is confidence higher for weaponizing than peaceful? A multitude of reasons, but mainly three: pedigree; intel, and; association. By pedigree I mean their national demeanor is one international agent provocateur, having formed a paramilitary foreign legion (Hizbollah) and sponsored an indigenous terror unit (Hamas); constant meddling in Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese internal politics; non-ambiguous threats to destroy another sovereign nation (Israel); and of course their near pathological lying. Iran has missed few opportunities to do the wrong thing. By intel I mean that the things we have caught Iran doing around the edges all point to a weapons program. The West has intercepted shipments to Iran from third parties containing a wide variety of dual-use equipment; we know they have carried out field experiments with high explosive mini-shaped-charges and conducted thermal testing of a group of carbon epoxy resins used for re-entry nose cones; they have enriched uranium far beyond any power generation requirement and enriched far more uranium than their contingent of reactors needs; and of course, there is no peaceful reason to secretly construct an enrichment facility buried deep inside a mountain beside a Holy City. By association I mean that we know Iran was one of the nations that received a “bomb book” from Pakistani nuclear proliferator Dr AQ Khan (DPRK and Libya being the others that we know of); we have evidence that Iranian technicians and officials have been present for two North Korean test shots, and that North Korean technicians have been to Iranian reactor sites.
The question of how to interpret Iran’s nuclear ambitions boils down to their congenital lying word against all the evidence and intangibles. This would be the case even if the supporting facts were weaker – some things are high-probability but minimally dangerous while others are low-probability but very dangerous. Both need to be gamed, the former because it could happen frequently and the latter because if it happens it could be catastrophic. The safest bet on Iran, in other words, is that they are up to no good. The consequences of guessing wrong on this are polar – guessing wrongly that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon decreases danger to the region; guessing wrongly that Iran is peacefully pursuing nuclear power generation increases danger to the region. Would you rather have a pleasant surprise or a nasty one?
Sorry this is longer than usual, but these are things I think people should know going into any sort of negotiations with Iran, and I don’t think you will hear any of this on broadcast news or read in most newspapers.
 Victor Davis Hanson, “Game changers”, Hoover Institution [Stanford University], October 3 2013.
NOTE: Title illustration by Nate Beeler.
 Notice that Hizbollah in the north and Hamas to the south keeps Israel bookended with Iranian paramilitary entities.
 Dual-use equipment consists of industrial machinery that can be used for both non-nuclear and nuclear weapons related manufacturing. Part of the problem is that the variety of equipment seized describes non-nuclear uses that the Iranian economy does not possess.
 This class of explosives includes the pentagon-shaped spherical caps used to symmetrically implode a nuclear bomb core.