Iran is pursuing latent nuclear weapons capability
The consensus opinion of the U.S. intelligence community is that Iran not diverted any resources to a military weapons program and there is no evidence that they have made the political decision to do so. However, it is clear from an examination of their past military programs and past statements that they want to preserve the technical capacity for nuclear breakout but forgoing the actuality in order to avoid international ostracism. This option holds the potential to advance Iran's security objectives without incurring the worse consequences an overt program might bring. Iran could have a program-in-being without actual weaponization, simply to create the impression it has nuclear weapons.
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It appears that Iran, unlike Iraq or Israel, does not have a dedicated crash program to build a nuclear bomb. Iran’s strategy is more cunning—and more difficult to stop. Iran seems to be following the Japanese model, trying to acquire all the capabilities necessary to build nuclear weapons should it make a decision to do so sometime in the future. The fact that the NPT allows states to acquire these duel-use capabilities is one of the greatest weaknesses of the current non-proliferation regime. Iran is now exploiting this legal loophole.Thus, Iran may not be conducting any weapon-specific research now, for fear that discovery of such activity would, as the United States hopes, bring united international condemnation, a cut-off of all nuclear assistance, and economic sanctions. But is is doing everything short of that. Now that its clandestine program has been disclosed, Iran is trying to minimize embarrassing disclosures of past weapons-related activities, persist in its fuel production activities, and force the rest of the world to accept a fait accompli.
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In the end, Iran is likely to follow the path of a latent weapons power, purposefully not constructing an explicit, fully weaponized arsenal, but rather cultivating and maintaining a hedged nuclear weapons infrastructure, much like India did from 1958 to 1998 or like Northeast Asian powers such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have done on and off at various times since the 1970s (e.g., via some mix of enrichment, reprocessing, and missile capabilities). Again, as already shown, this gray-area option historically has been the path most embraced by would-be proliferators who have felt themselves in dire security straits, from South Africa to South Asia to Northeast Asia, because it gives both the security benefit domestically and internationally of having a nuclear program without incurring the global opprobrium of clearly breaking the rules of the NPT.67 Staying within the legal limits of the allowed enrichment of materials indefinitely could create an atmosphere of constructive ambiguity that would provide Iran with international deterrent value, nationalist ideological value (in terms of revolutionary credentials at home and abroad), and a general sense of safety from acute, existential security concerns harbored by the regime. Finally, nuclear opacity would guarantee the continued flow of some im portant conventional weapons capabilities to Tehran from powers such as India, Russia, and China.
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The best explanation of why stalling is a wise strategy for Iran was provided by Rohani in his remarkable speech: if Iran is able to build any given capability, the chances are slim that it will be pressed to give that up. Confirming Rohani's analysis was the international reaction to Iran's successful start-up of its uranium conversion plant. Once that plant was working, Russia proposed that the great powers compromise with Iran by allowing Iran to convert uranium but not to enrich it. Not surprisingly, Iran's response was to rush into operation its enrichment program, whereas previously Iran had not introduced nuclear material into the centrifuges it had built. And the immediate reaction of some prominent international analysts was to say that because Iran had mastered enrichment technology, Tehran would have to be permitted to keep it; the best that could be hoped for would be to limit the number of centrifuges Iran operates.
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This report also agrees with the most recent National Intelli- gence Estimates (2007 and 2011) in finding that Iran has likely not yet made a definitive decision to acquire nuclear weapons.110 There is no evidence to suggest that Iran has turned its existing capabilities to affect a nuclear breakout. Instead, Iran’s behavior suggests it seeks to shorten the time required to build a bomb, improve the ease of doing so and the reliability and effectiveness of the resulting weapon and delivery systems, and increase the number of weapons such a breakout “dash” could produce. Iran is also likely working to improve its ability to pursue a breakout without detection, while reducing the ability of the United States and its allies to use military or other measures to stop a breakout once it is discovered. The pace of Iran’s technical prog- ress thus far suggests that the fruition of such efforts will require years of further progress. In theory, however, the Iranians could eventually reduce the time required for nuclear breakout to a matter of weeks.111
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Nonetheless, Iran may not yet have a nuclear weapons program, much less a bomb -- and Washington certainly cannot provide proof of either. The only evidence about whether Iran has an active nuclear weapons program comes from intelligence sources, and much of world opinion is, in the wake of the Iraq War, skeptical about claims based on intelligence. A better approach would be explaining that Iran cannot be permitted to complete the facilities under construction, because those facilities will allow Iran to quickly make a bomb if it so decides. The experience in Iraq demonstrates the merit of understating the problem and confining complaints to that which is known with complete certainty.
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A modification of the buying-time strategy is the "Japanese option" of demonstrating the technical proficiency for a rapid npt breakout but forgoing the actuality in order to avoid international ostracism. A Japanese option holds the potential to advance Iran's security objectives without incurring the worse consequences an overt program might bring. Iran could have a program-in-being without actual weaponization, simply to create the impression it has nuclear weapons. This approach would hold the attention of Israel (its most likely regional foe), the U.S. (its most likely strategic foe), and other Arab (particularly Sunni) states. The key for this approach would be mastering the technology, which could explain Iran's insistence on enrichment, which is considered the principal technological threshold to successful weapons development. It would also explain Iran's refusing iaea inspections, especially if Tehran is hoping to benefit early by overstating its technical capacity - gaining nuclear status before it has the actual weapons.
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Despite Iran's denials, many states suspect that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran's behaviour has triggered alarm bells. The IAEA has confirmed that, while a Party to the NPT, Iran has:
- Imported uranium hexafluoride gas to test gas centrifuges at the Kalaye Electric Company, thereby producing some enriched uranium;
- Produced uranium dioxide, uranium hexafluoride and a number of other uranium compounds using imported uranium dioxide;
- Produced uranium dioxide targets at the Esfahan Nuclear Technology Centre (ENTC) and irradiated them in the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) the targets were then processed in hot cells to separate the plutonium; and
- Imported uranium metal for use in laser enrichment.
Iran violated its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, required by the NPT, by failing to report many of these activities to the Agency. None of these activities are illegal in themselves; it is the failure to report them to the IAEA that contravenes safeguard agreements and this has fuelled suspicion over Iran's intentions.
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The Iranians also are interested in building a heavy-water reactor, which the international community considers as more of a nuclear proliferation risk than light-water reactors such as the one at Bushehr. Tehran has announced plans to build a 40-megawatt heavy-water research reactor, and it already has a heavy-water plant at Arak that could provide heavy water to the planned research reactor. Heavy water allows a heavy-water reactor to operate with natural uranium as its fuel and to produce plutonium. Spent fuel from the planned heavy-water reactor would be ideal for extracting bomb-grade plutonium. North Korea, for example, claims to have made its weapons from the plutonium-rich spent fuel of its 5-megawatt reactor. Gary Milhollin, writing in a New York Times article, puts the planned Iranian reactor in perspective by noting that it is too small for electricity and larger than needed for research, and is the type providing fuel for nuclear weapons programs in India, Israel, and Pakistan.
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Lack of Public Commitment to Nuclear Weapons: While senior Iranian officials have extolled Iran's pursuit of civilian nuclear technology, they have thus far avoided a similar, unequivocal rhetorical embrace of nuclear weapons. This is, no doubt, in large part due to Iran's status as an NPT signatory. Should Iran decide to acquire nuclear weapons, moreover, it might adopt a policy of nuclear ambiguity, to avoid an open breach of its NPT obligations and an adverse international reaction. In this way, it might remove from the table one factor that could diminish the prospects for successful roll back, should it decide to alter course. For this reason, the U.S. should avoid menacing words or actions that might cause Iran to openly embrace nuclear weapons.
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Few governments or agencies are convinced that the purpose of Iran’s large nuclear program is purely peaceful. When Iran declared to the IAEA in 2003 that it began its gas centrifuge program in 1985 during its bloody war with Iraq, it was widely assumed that this decision was part of a planned effort to make HEU for nuclear weapons. Iran claimed that the only purpose of its centrifuge program was to make fuel for the German supplied Bushehr power reactor, but by 1985 Germany had suspended all work at the reactor, at least until the war with Iraq ended. After the war, Germany did not resume construction. Ten years later, Russia signed a contract to finish the reactor. Yet throughout the decade, even when the fate of the reactor at Bushehr was uncertain, Iran accelerated its gas centrifuge program.Although no one has produced a “smoking gun” proving that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, the timing, scope, and long secrecy of the program have led many observers to conclude that Iran either had or has one. In any case, once it finished its uranium enrichment or reprocessing facilities, Iran could decide to obtain nuclear weapons and proceed quickly to produce nuclear explosive materials in these facilities. For these reasons, many governments believe Iran should be persuaded to abandon at least its activities related to uranium enrichment and reprocessing. If Iran’s current facilities were preemptively attacked, most observers believe Tehran would follow Iraq’s example after Israel attacked its sole reactor in 1981: it would pursue nuclear weapons more quickly and with greater care, independence, and discretion.
Iran now has all the technical infrastructure to produce nuclear weapons should it make the political decision to do, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wrote in a report to a Senate intelligence committee published Wednesday. However, he added, it could not break out to the bomb without being detected.
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