WASHINGTON -- An international commitment to defend Iran from foreign aggressors could play a critical role in a potential deal to steer the nation away from pursuit of an atomic arsenal, a former top U.S. military commander said on Wednesday.
An "extended deterrence" pledge could meet a security need that Tehran might otherwise seek to fill by building nuclear weapons, said retired Gen. James Cartwright, former head of U.S. Strategic Command and retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Senior Iranian diplomats are expected later this month to hold their first meeting since June with counterparts from China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Tehran has for years insisted its nuclear activities are strictly peaceful, but Washington and other Western governments have received the assurance with extreme skepticism.
"One of the things Iran probably wants by pursuing WMD is a guarantor of its sovereignty," Cartwright said during a panel discussion. "Is there a way to provide them that guarantor without them needing the weapons?"
"We did it for Japan, Germany and Korea for 60 years," he said later when asked how such a guarantor might be provided. "There's extended deterrence, there's all sorts of things that you could start to think about in conjunction with your regional partners" to assure Iran that "somebody" would come to the nation's aid should conflict arise, Cartwright told Global Security Newswire.
Cartwright said he was unsure whether the United States could fill that role. The panel event -- hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington -- "was to try to think some of this stuff out," he said.
The 1979 ouster of Iran's U.S.-backed government ended formal ties between the countries, and Washington has not ruled out the use of military force against Iranian atomic assets.
An extended deterrence offer does not figure into any nuclear deal-making recommendations in a Wednesday analysis by the Washington-based Arms Control Association. However, the document suggests formal renunciation of attacks against Iranian people and facilities could be part of a "big-for-big" atomic settlement with the Persian Gulf regional power. Iranian concessions under the multistage plan would include capping uranium enrichment at 3.5 percent -- a purity far short of nuclear-bomb fuel -- shuttering the Qum enrichment facility and forswearing plutonium production.
In previous multilateral meetings held in 2012, the five permanent U.N. Security Council member nations and Germany pressed Iran without success to suspend activities at its Qum bunker complex, end all production of 20 percent-enriched uranium -- its highest declared level of refinement -- and relinquish stocks of the higher-level material.
In return, the powers offered to supply Iran with material for a medical reactor, peaceful atomic risk reduction assistance and nonmilitary aircraft components; however, they did not propose satisfying Tehran's demand for formal acknowledgement of its right to enrich uranium or its call for relief from an intensifying international sanctions regime.
The United Kingdom on Tuesday said the six powers would propose new compromise terms to Tehran at a multilateral meeting scheduled for Feb. 26 in Kazakhstan. British Foreign Secretary William Hague did not disclose details of the offer.
Cartwright said military action should be an option for "delaying" an imminent Iranian nuclear arms capacity if all diplomatic alternatives are exhausted. Any effort to permanently deny Tehran such a capability would be "unreasonable" due in part to the limited ability of physical force to roll back nuclear expertise, he said.
Any armed offensive should be tailored to avoid escalation and "move quickly back to the table ... with viable diplomatic options and solutions," he added.
Speaking at the same event, a former top U.N. atomic inspector said the international community might have a "tough time" responding with adequate speed to any Iranian bid to assemble a nuclear weapon.
Tehran has "quite a set of options to proceed" with development of a bomb, one-time International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards chief Olli Heinonen said, noting Iranian plans to deploy faster enrichment centrifuges and its possible possession of undeclared refinement capabilities outside its Natanz and Qum sites.
Iran's scheduled installation of advanced IR-2M centrifuges at the Natanz facility awould effectively double the site's enrichment capacity, resulting in a "substantially shorter" time requirement to produce bomb-grade uranium, he said.