One country is likely to get increasing attention during the presidential campaign: Iran. So it is important to frame the debate about Iran correctly — without hyping or underestimating the possibility it will get nuclear weapons in the near future.
Compared to four countries that have developed nuclear weapons outside international norms — Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea — Iran has not exactly been sprinting toward a bomb. Yet the Iranian program – which Washington helped start in 1957 – is finally getting close to providing the wherewithal to make nuclear weapons.
Iranian leaders insist that they don’t want such weapons — they are proscribed by Islam, they insist, and useless for waging war. Yet they have amassed ever greater quantities of enriched uranium — with no obvious near-term civilian use. Iran now has more than 4,500 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent U-235 and 70 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent U-235, according to the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency. That’s enough material, if further enriched, for four or five nuclear weapons.
In contrast to other nuclear outliers, Iran still skates within the boundaries of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty legalized the arsenals of the five earliest nuclear states – the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain – and gave other signatories the right to develop peaceful nuclear power. Iran allows the IAEA to inspect its overt nuclear facilities. Most recently, it let inspectors see a heavy water production plant and heavy water reactor – which could eventually yield plutonium, another potential bomb fuel. Iran also allowed the U.N. watchdog to visit a facility for the production of advanced centrifuges that could more quickly convert uranium to bomb material.
But there are limits to Iranian cooperation. Tehran refuses to allow IAEA personnel to interview Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear physicist and officer in the Revolutionary Guards, who allegedly directed nuclear weapons research. Iran also won’t answer questions about alleged studies of nuclear warheads and means of initiating nuclear explosions.
Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA deputy director, says the last time there were “meaningful” talks with Iran about the apparent military dimensions of its program was in summer, 2008.
“The same group of guys who work with high explosives worked with neutron initiators,” Heinonen told me, for a new Atlantic Council report on the reliability of intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program.
“When you take the high explosives, the neutron physics and the missile reentry vehicle, it looks like something to do with a nuclear weapon. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck and has feet like a duck — it most likely is a duck.”
Will this duck ever take flight? Does Iran really want a bomb or just to keep the world guessing about its intentions and capabilities?
The current state of nuclear ambiguity suits Iranian leaders for strategic and psychological reasons. Iranian leaders clearly enjoy causing anxiety to the United States and other pillars of an international order that has largely spurned Iran since its 1979 Islamic revolution. This is especially true of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, scheduled to attend the annual U.N. General Assembly next week — and again likely to infuriate many listeners with outrageous comments about 9-11 and Israel.
On a deeper strategic level, however, Iranian leaders see their nuclear program as providing prestige and deterrence against foreign invasion. With the recent regime-change experiences of near-nuclear states Iraq and Libya in mind, as well as the current troubles of nuclear wannabe Syria, Iran is unlikely to give up enriching uranium. But may stop short of testing a nuclear device.
The U.S. and its allies can help keep the lid on through a mix of policies — including better implementation of sanctions on nuclear-related materials, interdiction of these materials and continued sabotage of equipment and computer software. Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA has been spotty, but improved Western surveillance techniques unmasked in 2009 a secret enrichment facility burrowed into a mountain near Qom.
Iran’s unsettled domestic politics since its disputed presidential elections and mounting economic woes also provide fertile ground for recruiting scientists to reveal more nuclear secrets. More rigorous U.S. intelligence practices since the Iraq fiasco of 2003 give confidence that analysts are neither underestimating or exaggerating Iran’s progress.
Washington should also remain open to diplomacy, and seek to gain from the fact that Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Salehi, is an MIT-educated physicist, who has headed the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization and represented Iran at the IAEA. Diplomacy should test whether Iran would be willing to cap enrichment and accept more rigorous inspections — in return for civilian nuclear cooperation and sanctions relief.
To create a more conducive atmosphere for diplomatic solutions, the United States and other NPT-recognized nuclear powers must keep their own commitments to ban nuclear testing and accelerate nuclear disarmament. They should try harder to convince India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel to curb their programs, and press India and Pakistan to reach arms control agreements.
The goal for Washington and the international community should be to convince Iran that it can lose more than it gains from crossing the nuclear threshold – triggering an arms race with wealthier Arabs, for example, that sanctions-strapped Iran cannot win.
Nuclear weapons did not save the old Soviet Union and will not insure the survival of the Islamic Republic in a region undergoing massive political change. Only an Iranian government that genuinely addresses the needs and aspirations of its people can be confident of enduring.
Barbara Slavin is a nonresident senior fellow at The Atlantic Council and member of its Iran Task Force, former senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today and former Mideast correspondent for The Economist. She interviewed Muammar Qadhafi in 2000. This article originally appeared on Politico.