Options for the U.S. if Iran breaks a nuclear deal

April 1, 2015

lbj & mac

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in the White House in Washington, July, 27, 1965. LBJ Presidential Library/Yoichi Okamoto

The success of any nuclear framework agreement negotiated by Iran and the P5+1 (United States, Britain, Russia, Germany, France and China) this week ultimately will be determined not by the signing of a final accord in June but by Tehran’s fidelity to nonproliferation in the years and decades to come.

Given Iran’s history of nuclear deception, the gnawing question remains: What if the mullahs attempt to break out and build a bomb? Then what?

“Then what” is not a new nonproliferation concern. Think North Korea. Policymakers in the United States and elsewhere never got a handle on putting Pyongyang’s nuclear genie back in the bottle.

Walter Steinmeier, Kerry, Hammond and Fabius talk after Secretary Hammond made a statement about their meeting regarding recent negotiations with Iran over Iran's nuclear program in London

German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier (L), Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd L), British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (R) talk after Secretary Hammond made a statement about rrecent negotiations with Iran over Iran’s nuclear program in London, England, March 21, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

But history has much to teach about how to enforce an Iranian nuclear deal. Lessons can be learned from a serious nonproliferation failure: Mao Tse-Tung’s China and its quest for the bomb.

From the late 1940s through the early 1970s, Communist China was Washington’s bête noir — much as Iran is today. Beijing cast a spell over Americans as the menacing totalitarian “yellow peril” with hegemonic ambitions in Asia and across the developing world.

By the time John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, evidence pointed to a Chinese nuclear weapons test. The alarm prompted the U.S. government’s search for options.

On April 29, 1963, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, released a lengthy “top secret” options memo.  It remains an impressive review. Clustered into two baskets, the “indirect actions” (nonmilitary) strategy relied on two tacks. One, the incentivizing tack, called for coaxing China from developing the bomb. It would be a global appeal to Beijing’s “national interest” to remain nonnuclear. It included proposals to end China’s diplomatic isolation with lures to help it resolve its economic difficulties, including direct U.S. food assistance.

By contrast, punitive indirect actions would encourage countries to cut diplomatic and economic ties with China. They included a propaganda and psychological warfare campaign to challenge Beijing’s global stature. The chiefs conceded the success of either tack was a long shot.


Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Walt Rostow, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Clark Clifford, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of State. Dean Rusk and Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach in the Situation Room at the White House in Washington, June, 16. 1967; LBJ Library/Yoichi Okamoto

The second basket, “direct actions,” looked to military options. It was bounded on one end by covert aerial reconnaissance to signal U.S. “readiness to take action” and “select” tactical nuclear-weapons use on the other. In between the two, alternatives included U.S. support for Chinese Nationalist and South Korean “infiltration, subversion and sabotage” inside China, maritime interdiction and blockade, and “small-scale conventional air attacks” against nuclear plants.

In evaluating the options for the defense secretary, the joint chiefs proved to be reluctant warriors. They warned that much in the “direct approach” were “acts of war” that “should be initiated only after all other means have been exhausted, and only after full and careful consideration of the implications of such action at the time.” They added, “…[I]t is unrealistic to use overt military force to obtain CHICOM [China’s] acceptance of any [arms control] agreement.”

The State Department was more emphatic in its review: Military action would not work. Intelligence had failed to identify all nuclear installations, which made comprehensive destruction impossible. In addition, China could rebuild the bombed facilities within a few years.

What to do about China remained unresolved until Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. It was almost a year later that Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy and CIA Director John McCone met over lunch on Sept. 15, 1964 to cobble together their recommendation for Johnson’s review.

china-ramberg-alt top

(L-R) George Ball, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy. 07/23/1965 Cabinet Room, White House, Washington, DC. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto

Bundy summarized the plan for the record: “We are not in favor of unilateral action against Chinese nuclear installations at this time. We would prefer to have a Chinese test take place than to initiate such action now. If for other reasons we should find ourselves in military hostilities at any level with the Chinese Communists, we would expect to give close attention to the possibility of an appropriate military action against Chinese nuclear facilities.”

The presidential advisers laid out their case to Johnson later that day, and he signed on.

On Oct. 16, 1964, China exploded its first nuclear device. In the years that followed, it manufactured several hundred bombs. Contrary to fears, the weapons played little role in Sino-U.S. relations in the decades that followed.

But proliferation elsewhere did raise concerns, which allowed a test of some of the joint chiefs’ options. Mixed results followed.

Coordinated diplomatic action and trade embargos, for example, failed to stop North Korea, India and Pakistan from going nuclear. Israel applied limited military strikes to Syria’s Al Kibar and Iraq’s Osirak reactors, the latter spurring Baghdad to do what China watchers had feared, namely rebuild.

Only victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, followed by the insertion of inspectors,  eliminated Iraq’s new bomb-making uranium-enrichment effort. The 2003 invasion of Iraq brought the final end to Baghdad’s nuclear ambition by eliminating the regime, much as the defeat and occupation of Nazi Germany terminated its nuclear dream.

The joint chiefs’ options to halt China, as applied in later cases, provide insights for dealing with an Iranian breakout. Mimicking the chiefs’ indirect strategies, Washington has already seen the positive impact that the combination of sanctions and diplomatic pressure had on bringing Tehran to the bargaining table. The Obama administration plans to rely on a “snap back” of sanctions should Iran cheat on the agreement.

But the chance that snap-back will suffice were Iran to make the audacious decision to break out is questionable. Then what?

One course would follow Johnson’s China path: stand down military responses and manage nuclear risks that follow. History found it to be the right decision.

If, however, today’s policymakers conclude that a nuclear Iran would be a malignant adversary, one more prone to nuclear use than any country since World War Two, then only the Iraq strategies applied in 1991 and 2003 – using military force with occupation or insertion of inspectors authorized and capable of destroying all Iranian nuclear contraband – would serve.

While every option must remain on the table, all should remain mindful of the joint chiefs’ original admonition: Any serious use of force should take place “only after all other means have been exhausted” and the “implications” fully weighed.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story ommitted two members of the P5+1 group. The nations involved are the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. 


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This is a fascinating and well written piece with relevant historical markers. I recall the early 1960’s history with vivid recollection with our fears being very real, as they are now. The big difference between the 1960’s and the current is the media frenzy in combination with technology and a profound overall lack of faith in government.

Posted by Les_Parson | Report as abusive

Of course not a word about Israel’s nuclear arsenal, nor about the nuclear armed Israeli submarines lurking off the Iranian coast.

Posted by Renbe | Report as abusive

“the P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, Germany, France and Britain)…”

Britain gets two votes, huh? I know proofreading is tough before a cup of coffee, but guys – first sentence…

Posted by juhlman | Report as abusive

can you say ‘propaganda’?

Posted by wastingtime | Report as abusive

What a loads of rubbish! Did Netanyahu write this cheap propaganda piece? Do the right-wing warmongers still think their opinions is worth a penny?

Posted by Jeolog | Report as abusive

Who cares. Freedom is dead and everything we are supposed to be is a lie. Blow up the world if you want, but I doubt you will, because even a psychopathic power hungry sadist needs someone to rule and torture. Way to go there weakling. Your mommy must be proud.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Bennett Ramberg, you can’t help yourself but drool over the prospect of bringing death and destruction upon yet another Middle Eastern country, can you? And of course, Reuters should put this piece of absolute rubbish on the first page!

Posted by Jeolog | Report as abusive

We don’t have to go as far around the globe as China and North Korea as examples of countries that gained nuclear weapons on the sly. This article has glaringly omitted how Israel acquired their nuclear arsenal, via. lies, subterfuge, and assistance from certain ‘western’ countries. To this very day ‘western’ governments and the MSM give Israel a pass not shared by any other country on the planet. The fact of the matter is that Israel is the cause of the nuclear arms race in the middle east.

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

Maybe US should finally accept Russia’s advise to make UN functional and all world problems be solved within the international laws.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Reuters never bothered publishing my comments on how Mr. Ramberg is a an Israeli lobbyist. So much for free speech…………

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

Inasmuch as Barack Obama is really a Muslim, he is going to arrange for Iran to build nuclear weapons so that Iran can eventually destroy Israel. However, Israel is going to nuke Iran in either 2015 or 2016, rendering Mr. Obama’s plan null and void.

Posted by SuperDuck | Report as abusive

Remember that the Iranians are religious fanatics. The Chinese were communist fanatics but that does not seem quite the same thing. Supposedly with god on their side, religious fanatics are more dangerous.

Posted by andychrys | Report as abusive

Here’s the caveat with this deal: if Iran breaks their promise, then the US will place sanctions on them. However, those sanctions mean nothing UN because Iran has powerful allies like China and Russia, who have veto in the UN Security council. In addition, Iran could trade with China and peg their currency to Yuan to limit the impact of sanctions. Congress will do nothing to sanction China because the repercussions for that will hurt the US economy more than placing sanctions on Russia and Iran. Unlike North Korea, China wants oil from Iran, so there’s always a buyer for Iran despite the sanctions.

Posted by allin2015 | Report as abusive