COLUMBUS, Ohio — Some years back, construction was quietly started on a nuclear facility at a remote desert location in the Middle East.
The government doing the construction was confronted by the United States, which was concerned because up until then there were no nuclear weapons in the region.
After some cajoling, the government admitted that its facility was indeed nuclear, but, it averred, its plan was to produce nuclear energy for civilian use only. It did not take long for the United States to figure out that the facility was being built to produce nuclear weapons.
The year was 1960. The government was Israel’s.
A few years later, a worldwide treaty came online aimed at stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, complete with inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Israel did not sign up. It did not acknowledge it had nuclear weapons.
Unlike Israel, Iran, which had no nuclear program, did sign the non-proliferation treaty.
A few years later, power changed in Iran with its Islamic revolution. Islamic Iran stayed in the treaty, even though the treaty has an escape clause that allows for withdrawing at will.
Today Iran, like Israel in 1960, says that its nuclear program, currently on hold, was intended for civilian energy only.
Countries typically don’t go the nuclear weapons route for the fun of it. What motivates them is possession of nuclear weapons by a potential adversary.
If Islamic Iran has the aim of producing nuclear weapons, or develops such an aim in the future, the likely motivation is to protect itself from Israel.
President Donald Trump’s position on Israel’s nuclear weapons is that Israel should not be asked to draw them down until and unless the Arab states all recognize Israel. He gives no indication that he sees a connection between Israel having the bomb and Iran potentially trying to get the bomb.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official title of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, throws a monkey wrench into an arrangement between Iran on one side and the world’s major powers on the other that provided assurance that Iran was not going to build nuclear bombs.
To be sure, the deal did not bind Iran past the year 2025, as Trump is quick to point out, but as party to the nonproliferation treaty, Iran remains under scrutiny by the IAEA even after 2025.
Trump faulted the JCPOA because it did not deal with other issues, like Iran’s involvement in trouble spots in the Middle East. But additional issues would have been nonstarters. The nuclear piece was difficult enough.
The JCPOA still has France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China as participants. They are working with Iran to try to salvage the arrangement.
By all accounts Iran has kept its side of the bargain, refraining from enriching uranium and allowing highly intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. So Iran is in a strong position to seek an accommodation with the other powers.
We are now re-imposing strict economic sanctions that keep our companies from having any dealings with Iran.
If economic sanctions are to work, however, Europe must be on board and its economic connections with Iran are substantial.
There is little indication that European governments will pressure their companies not to deal with Iran. The United States could find itself odd country out as the Europeans feast in the lucrative Iranian market.
Trump’s withdrawal leaves the United States with little leverage to keep Iran away from building nuclear weapons. The day after the withdrawal Trump issued dark threats against Iran should it move in that direction.
If our president wants to minimize the chance long-term that Iran will build a nuclear bomb, he might try convincing Israel to make its desert bloom with something less lethal.
John B. Quigley is distinguished professor of law at The Ohio State University. He has a law degree from Harvard and is the author of 11 books on various aspects of international law. Readers may write to him at Moritz College of Law, 55 West 12th St., Columbus, Ohio 43210.