The Iranian Nuclear Debate: More Myths Than Facts
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Myth 1: Iran is an irrational actor.
This myth is especially popular among those pushing for immediate military action to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Their argument is that Iranian leaders are crazed, hot-headed, and messianic actors who do not respond to logic or reason; therefore, they cannot be negotiated with or trusted with weapons of mass destruction These claims are based on cultural ignorance and prejudices that would be routinely dismissed as out of bounds in virtually any context outside US policy debates on Iran. Fortunately, several senior US and Israeli officials have publicly dismissed this myth as false. America’s senior military officer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey, asserted in a television interview with Fareed Zakaria that “we are of the opinion that the [Iranian] regime is a rational actor.”8 Israel’s retired Mossad director Meir Dagan similarly opined that “the regime in Iran is a very rational one.”9 Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defense Minister, in a meeting with senior Obama administration officials elaborated on this basic point, stating “I don’t think the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, [would] drop it in the neighborhood. . . . They are radical but not totally crazy. . . . They have a quite sophisticated decision-making process, and they understand reality.”10 Moreover, the US Director of National Intelligence recently confirmed the rational nature of the regime in Tehran judging that “Iran’s nuclear decisionmaking is guided by a cost-benefit approach.”11
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Myth 2: Iran is an existential threat to Israel.
This is a claim frequently accepted at face value in many American circles, but is vigorously debated in Israel. Israel is widely assessed to have several hundred nuclear bombs with the capability to deliver them anywhere in the region, and is demonstrably the region’s strongest and most capable military power. Admitting to this basic reality, Ephraim Halevy, former Mossad Director, noted, “I think Israel is strong enough to protect itself, to take care of itself. I think ultimately it is not in the power of Iran to destroy the state of Israel.”12 Similarly, Dan Halutz, former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff, has concluded that “Iran poses a serious threat but not an existential one.”13
Busting both of these aforementioned myths allows policymakers and intelligence analysts to develop a more honest assessment of both the scale and urgency of any potential threat from Iran to either US or Israeli interests. For now, Iran is a middling regional military power with limited capability to threaten its neighbors. Furthermore, any Iranian attack on American or Israeli interests could be met quickly with a devastating blow from the superior conventional and unconventional military might of either the United States or Israel. A nuclear-armed Iran would change these calculations somewhat, but primarily by providing Iran a meaningful deterrent to a massive military intervention designed to overturn the regime in Tehran—something for which neither the American public nor the Obama administration would likely have any appetite.
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Myth 3: Iranian civilian nuclear activities are a cover for nuclear weapons program.
This charge has been repeatedly dismissed by the best available US intelligence assessments. The 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate assessed Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Then Secretary of Defense Panetta confirmed the continued validity of this assessment in February 2013 saying, “the intelligence we have is they [Iranian leaders] have not made the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon.”14 Instead, the ultimate objective for Iran’s civilian nuclear program, according to US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, may be to develop “various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so.”15 He went on, however, to emphasize that “we do not know . . . if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”16 In other words, Iran (like several other countries) may be seeking a latent nuclear capability or what is often referred to as the “Japan option”—the ability to produce a nuclear weapon on a relatively compressed timeline should the security situation warrant a nuclear deterrent. It is in this sense that repeated US and Israeli threats to attack Iran’s existing civilian nuclear facilities may well be counterproductive by underscoring the potential need for just such a deterrent. In fact, Britain’s former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently explained that the veiled military threat of keeping all options on the table “is a hindrance to negotiations, rather than a help.”17
Finally, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has formally and publicly renounced nuclear weapons in a binding religious ruling or fatwa that “considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin.” Reversing such a pledge is, of course, not impossible. However, all avail- able evidence confirms that Khamenei has thus far made good on his pledge to “never pursue nuclear weapons.”
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Myth 4: Iran has sufficient nuclear fuel to make a bomb.
This claim has been advanced by sloppy analysts and others interested in hyping the urgency of an Iranian nuclear threat. However, there is no evidence Iran has produced any weapons-grade fissile material. All publicly available evidence suggests Iran is producing low enriched uranium at roughly the 5 percent and 20 percent levels (for energy pro- duction and medical treatments), but not to the 90 percent level required for weapons-grade fissile material. Moreover, while Iran is openly increasing its capacity to produce more of this low enriched uranium with additional centrifuges, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in February and May verified Iran is simultaneously converting some of its enriched uranium to fuel stocks thereby reducing the amount of fissionable material potentially available for a nuclear bomb.18 Iran is, therefore, deliberately limiting the amount of its enriched uranium stocks below that required for a nuclear bomb.
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Myth 5: Iran is on the brink of producing a nuclear weapon.
US, Israeli, and other western intelligence agencies have been predicting an imminent Iranian nuclear bomb since 1979. A Christian Science Monitor article summarizes the lengthy history of these assessments:
Breathless predictions that the Islamic Republic will soon be at the brink of nuclear capability, or—worse—acquire an actual nuclear bomb, are not new. For more than a quarter of a century Western officials have claimed repeatedly that Iran is close to joining the nuclear club. Such a result is always declared ‘unacceptable’ and a possible reason for military action, with ‘all options on the table’ to prevent upsetting the Mideast strategic balance dominated by the U.S. and Israel. And yet, those predictions have time and again come and gone.19
This long and inconvenient trail of errant predictions is not likely to persuade those who are absolutely convinced Iran is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. After all, in Aesop’s fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the wolf is real and it does attack the shepherd’s flock. However, equally plausible explanations for the fact that Iran has thus far failed to acquire a nuclear weapons capability include: (a) Iran has no intent of doing so; or (b) existing policies, sanctions, and other activities including sus- pected covert operations (assassinating Iranian scientists and infecting Iran’s nuclear facilities with computer viruses) have effectively deterred, delayed, or prevented Iran from producing a nuclear weapon.
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Assumption # 1: A nuclear-armed Iran will lead to regional proliferation.
While it is possible that a nuclear-armed Iran could spur other regional countries to acquire nuclear weapons of their own, policymakers should not simply assume this will be the case. Recent analysis by the Center for New American Security challenges “conventional wisdom that Iranian nuclearization will spark region-wide proliferation,” observes that historical cases of reactive proliferation are “exceedingly rare,” and ultimately concludes that “neither Egypt nor Turkey, [nor Saudi Arabia] is likely to respond . . . by pursuing the bomb.”22 A recent study from the War Studies Department of King’s College London draws similar conclusions noting Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia “have little to gain and much to lose by embarking down such a route.”23 Moreover, there is ample historical evidence both inside and outside the Middle East that one nation’s possession of nuclear weapons does not necessarily lead to further proliferation among presumed competitors. For instance, China conducted its first nuclear weapons tests in 1964 and neither Japan nor South Korea have yet opted to “go-nuclear” although both countries certainly have long possessed the technical capability to do so. Ironically, the most powerful incentive for nuclear proliferation among Arab nations has been Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons capability since the late 1960s. Nevertheless, despite several Arab-Israeli wars, neither Iran nor any Arab state has developed nuclear weapons in the subsequent 50 years. Finally, there are any number of deliberate actions US policymakers could take to minimize prospects for further regional proliferation including providing friendly militaries with capable defen- sive missile systems and perhaps even extending America’s nuclear umbrella to threatened allies.
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Assumption #3: A nuclear-armed Iran will destroy the global nonproliferation regime.
There is little doubt that the immediate impact of Iran becoming a member of the nuclear club would represent a setback to global non- proliferation efforts. However, it would be a huge distortion to suggest this single event would cause the collapse of the entire nonproliferation enterprise. By any reasonable historic measure, international nonprolif- eration efforts have been successful. In his third presidential debate with Nixon in 1960, John F. Kennedy predicted that “10, 15, or 20 nations will have a nuclear capacity . . . by the end of the Presidential office in 1964.” Despite this alarming prediction, only 9 nations currently possess a nuclear weapons arsenal (Britain, China, France, Russia, United States, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea). Not a perfect record over the span of more than 50 years, but a substantial record of accomplishment nonetheless. The addition of Iran would not upset this remarkable record.
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Assumption #2: A nuclear-armed Iran will destabilize the region
As with the previous assumption, the prospect of further destabilization of the region in the wake of Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon cannot be ruled out. However, Kenneth Waltz, a prominent American international relations scholar, in a recent provocative Foreign Affairs article entitled “Why Iran Should Get the BombWhy Iran Should Get the Bomb ." Foreign Affairs. Vol. 91, No. 4 (July / August 2012): 2-5. [ More (7 quotes) ]” makes precisely the opposite argument. " Waltz argues the overwhelming preponderance of historical evidence suggests nuclear weapons have been a stabilizing influence on international politics imposing a tremendous degree of rationality and caution on the part of nuclear powers. The most obvious case in point: The US-USSR nuclear arsenals contributed to what diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis aptly dubbed The Long Peace—a period of history uniquely characterized by the absence of violent conflict between the major powers. Indeed, since the advent of nuclear weapons there has not been a single major armed confrontation between nuclear powers. The same logic would likely apply to Israel and Iran. "