Iran’s path to the bomb
On Tuesday, I had the privilege of speaking before the PONI Capstone Conference at the headquarters of US Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base. In attendance were members of the Air Force’s Global Strike Command, representatives from the national labs, experts from the think tank community, and a whole herd (gaggle? bevy? ostentation?) of graduate students. It was a great honor to be there.
My presentation focused on what I believe to be the most likely scenario in which Iran might buck its past declarations and overtly declare its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Of course, this is not the only path Iran could choose. But I do believe it is one which has not been given nearly enough attention, particularly given the likely unintended consequences of current Western policy, which I believe create significant vulnerabilities for Iran to exploit.
Slides from the talk can be viewed here. Text follows:
Iran’s Nuclear Strategy: Understanding Tehran’s Acquisition Pathway
Good Afternoon. In my presentation today, I would like to assert that the current Western nonproliferation strategy for dealing with Iran contains a serious risk of backfiring — of ENCOURAGING rather than discouraging an Iranian push for nuclear weapons.
In recent weeks, it has become increasingly clear that Iran and certain western countries are already at a state of war, albeit covertly. A mysterious explosion that destroyed an IRGC missile site and killed the leader of Iran’s ballistic missile program; another unexplained explosion followed, reportedly near the Esfahan uranium conversion facility; this came following no fewer than five assassination attempts on Iran’s leading nuclear scientists; to say nothing of the widespread clandestine sabotage effort including the Stuxnet cyber-attack against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure; all these bear the hallmarks of a concerted effort by Western governments to disrupt and degrade Iran’s nuclear development. We have heard about these activities a lot in recent weeks. What we haven’t heard about is the high likelihood that Iran will retaliate for these acts.
In fact, I argue that Iran’s pattern of behavior suggests it is likely to seize upon what it views as Western aggression to use as a pretext for weaponization.
An important starting point is to acknowledge that Iran already possesses the basic technological capability to build nuclear weapons, and in fact has for a number of years. The US Intelligence Community asserted as such way back in 2007, declaring that “Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.”
The IAEA followed up as early as September, 2009 with the same declaration.
So Iran has possessed the capability to build nuclear weapons for years, yet it has not done so. Why? Experts widely agree that Tehran has yet to form a consensus in favor of weaponizing because Iran stands to lose more than it would gain. For each of three classic rationales for weaponization — security, prestige, and domestic politics — Iran has had compelling reasons not to.
From the security perspective, nothing could be worse for Iran than trying to build a bomb and getting caught before it is completed. Even succeeding covertly, however, provides only marginal additional gain beyond a short breakout capability, which it nearly has already. That is why Iran’s nuclear envoy says it would be a “strategic mistake” to build a bomb, and why Western intelligence agencies believe the Supreme Leader feels the same way
In the prestige category, Iran also has a lot to lose. Russia and China have made their tacit approval of Iran’s program contingent on its ostensibly peaceful nature — any hint of militaristic rhetoric would make that support evaporate almost overnight.
On the domestic front, Iran’s clerical leaders have put themselves in a bind if they ever wake up and decide they want to build a bomb. Having declared time and time again that they are opposed to nuclear weapons for religious reasons makes it difficult to just reverse three decades of religious edicts without some major provocation. To do so arbitrarily would undermine the fabric of religious legitimacy that Tehran’s leaders see as essential.
All of this is to say that, notwithstanding Iran’s long history of obfuscation and noncompliance with international inspectors, we must not reflexively assume that Iran is on a crash course for nuclear weapons — yet.
In the absence of a policy consensus, by most experts’ best estimate Tehran today is content to simply keep the option open for the indefinite future. Having learned their lesson perhaps too well from the Iran-Iraq War that they cannot depend on the international community for help, they have now mandated complete nuclear self-sufficiency as a paramount national objective.
What this boils down to, then, is that whether or not Iran builds a nuclear weapon will be based on cost-benefit calculation.
It may seem obvious, but it is important to note that this is a fundamentally political decision. This fact gets lost all too often in discussions of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. I’ll reiterate: Iran has the capability to build a bomb; the only thing keeping it from doing so is a political decision.
That political decision will or will not be made within the context of Iran’s larger foreign policy strategy, which Foreign Minister Salehi has characterized as a policy of “soft aggression,” whereby Iran responds to pressure with pressure of its own.
By virtue of this dynamic, it is easiest for Iran to arrive at a consensus for acts of escalation in response to a provocation. For example, when the West renewed its effort to pressure Iran in late 2009, Iran’s Atomic chief Ali-Akbar Salehi responded two days later by announcing the highly provocative decision to construct 10 new enrichment facilities, saying quote:
“We had no plan to build many nuclear sites like Natanz but…the West adopted an attitude toward Iran which made the Iranian government to pass the ratification on construction of ten sites similar to the Natanz enrichment facility.”
For the West, this dynamic contains a real danger of sleepwalking toward disaster. Western nonproliferation policy is built upon the assumption that Iran’s leaders are irreversibly committed to weaponization. Based on its strategy of sanctions and pressure, the West’s unstated goal has become to delay Iran’s actual acquisition of a bomb, through sabotage, assassinations, cyber-attacks, and other covert activities
But this is tragically misaligned with the reality of Iranian decision making.
As anyone who has ever dealt with an obstinate two year old can attest: trying to dissuade someone from doing that which they don’t actually intend to do can easily backfire. The danger is that current Western strategy will trigger a nationalistic “rally round the flag” effect in Iran. Indeed, it already has.
The result of all this may be to actually provoke a more aggressive Iranian response than would otherwise have been the case.
From Iran’s point of view, it is being forced to bear the costs of a weapons program regardless of its “true” intentions, yet reaps none of the benefit. This has the potential to shift — by our own doing — Iran’s cost-benefit calculation. And not in the direction we’d like.
So Iran is left with two choices: It can either give in entirely to the West’s demands; or it can “actualize” the West’s suspicions about it and weaponize.
For Iran to choose the former would require at the very least a credible commitment that the West is willing and able to reward good behavior by, among other things, lifting sanctions. Anyone in Washington knows how difficult that by itself would be.
Regardless, Iran most likely believes that it will be punished with further sanctions and threats no matter what it does.
At some point, it is possible that Tehran will feel it has nothing to lose by going nuclear. Even if Iran has had no intention of building nuclear weapons up to this point, Tehran’s leaders might seize upon the state of war between it and the West as a justification for doing so, and in the process seek to lay the blame for the policy shift directly on Western aggression.
There is a historical parallel here that provides an illustrative example. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Iran swore off the development or use of chemical weapons as un-Islamic — the same declaration it has made regarding nuclear weapons. However, following Saddam’s use of CW against Iranian troops, Ayatollah Khomeini reversed course, laying the philosophical foundation for a key principle within the Islamic Republic known as “maslahat-e nizam” or “expediency of the system,” by which the needs of the Islamic Republic as a political institution might trump even Islamic law.
This behavior indicates that the regime’s commitments not to develop CW in the early 1980s carried an implicit understanding that the religious prohibition on development or use of WMD does not necessarily apply in a state of war.
Unfortunately, all this means it is far easier to give Iran’s leaders a reason TO weaponize than it is to convince them not to. For Western policy makers, there is a need to take a broader view of the risks inherent within current policy.
Now, I am by no means arguing that sabotage, sanctions, and pressure should play no role in US nonproliferation policy toward Iran. Far from it. I merely argue that the potential for unintended consequences MUST be given greater consideration and weighed against the benefits of such actions.
Up until now, the focus of Western policy has been on imposing pressure on Iran in order to give Iran’s leaders a reason not to weaponize. Equally important, however, and far too often overlooked, is the need to take care NOT to give Iran a reason TO weaponize, which is exactly what current policy runs the risk of doing.