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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Evidence of some debate within Iran notwithstanding, the country’s willingness to compromise, or even negotiate, has decreased even as external pressure on it to do so has increased. The enrichment programme has become ingrained in Iranian national consciousness as a ‘right’ that cannot be circumscribed. Given the extraordinarily high level of popular support that the programme commands (29% of those polled in a February–March 2008 survey considered it ‘very important’ for Iran to have a full nuclear fuel cycle), it is difficult to envisage Iran accepting any solution that does not involve enrichment continuing in some form on Iranian soil. The country’s negotiating flexibility is also constrained by Ayatollah Khamenei’s entrenched view that any compromise with the US will only be met with demands for additional compromises.
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The entire history of the Iranian nuclear technology program, including previous efforts to keep the enrichment effort secret, suggests that Tehran will almost certainly continue to pursue a nuclear weapons capability despite some reassuring factors noted in the 2007 NIE. The NIE itself acknowledges the existence of a secret program, simply by noting its apparent suspension. Iran’s continuing and declared focus on nuclear enrichment is particularly disturbing since the development of a large-scale enrichment capability is the most technologically challenging aspect of the effort to construct a nuclear weapon (despite the alternative uses of this technology for peaceful purposes). Additionally, according to a variety of public sources, the Israeli intelligence agencies believe that Iran has made greater progress in moving toward a nuclear weapons capability than is reflected in the NIE or Admiral McConnell’s recent comments. British and French leaders have been sufficiently concerned by Iranian activities to issue strong warnings about potential problems from nuclear adventurism.
What is this looming crisis? A November 2011 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran has a nuclear-weapons program underway and is working on a nuclear warhead for its Shahab-3 ballistic missile — a missile with a reported range of 2,000 kilometers. Nuclear weapons and missiles are a potentially deadly combination. If deployed, they will provide the Iranian leadership with the capability to make severe coercive threats against its neighbors, and eventually against the United States. If actually employed, the combination could destroy undefended nations in a matter of hours. Everyone hopes, but nobody knows, that Iran, a state-sponsor of terrorism, will behave prudently if it acquires these deadly capabilities. Numerous statements by Iranian leaders suggest otherwise. The November IAEA report concluded that Iran is developing “an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components.” Just how close Iran is to having nuclear weapons is not precisely clear from available public information. But in early 2011, then–U.K. defense minister Liam Fox said Iran could acquire nuclear weapons in 2012. The IAEA report suggests that Iran may be only months away from nuclear weapons. If so, this crisis will emerge in full form under President Obama’s watch. This situation is alarming for the United States and may pose an immediate and existential threat to Israel and some moderate Arab states.
The United States’ intelligence community’s judgments on Iran’s nuclear program have not fundamentally changed from those revealed in its controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate. In presenting the intelligence community’s annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” to the Senate Committee on Intelligence on January 31, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper used language identical to that used in recent years on a number of critical points:
- We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.
- Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so. These [technical] advancements contribute to our judgment that Iran is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, if it so chooses.
- We judge Iran’s nuclear decision making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.
In reality, however, Iran is not doing anything that violates its legal right to develop nuclear technology. Under the NPT, it is not illegal for a member state to have a nuclear weapons capability -- or a "nuclear option." If a nation has a fully developed civilian nuclear sector -- which the NPT actually encourages -- it, by default, already has a fairly solid nuclear weapons capability. For example, like Iran, Argentina, Brazil, and Japan also maintain a "nuclear option" -- they, too, could break out of the NPT and make a nuclear device in a few months, if not less. And like Iran, Argentina and Brazil also do not permit full "Additional Protocol" IAEA inspections. The real legal red line, specified in the IAEA's "Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements," is the diversion of nuclear materials to a weapons program. However, multiple experts and official reports have affirmed over the years that they have no evidence that any such program exists. For example Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent more than a decade as the director of the IAEA, said that he had not "seen a shred of evidence" that Iran was pursuing the bomb. The latest IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program also backs up this assessment, stating that Iran's research program into nuclear weapons "was stopped rather abruptly pursuant to a ‘halt order' instruction issued in late 2003." Even U.S. officials have conceded that they have no proof that Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear bomb. Following the release of the classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in 2011, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed in a Senate hearing that he has a "high level of confidence" that Iran "has not made a decision as of this point to restart its nuclear weapons program." And earlier this month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta weighed in: "Are they [Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that's what concerns us."
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The conclusion to be drawn from this glimpse of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is one that has long been held by nonproliferation experts and the general public alike: Iran’s nuclear activities may eventually lead to nuclear weapons proliferation*or they may not. With the political leadership of the Islamic Republic lacking any major consensus about the future course of the program, Tehran clearly has a case of nuclear ambivalence. Unsurprisingly, though, the bulk of Western analysis ignores the ambivalence of nuclear power, often beginning from the assumption that Iran’s leaders are intent on developing weapons or a breakout option. As Abraham has suggested, when states like North Korea have eventually acquired nuclear weapons, nonproliferation analysts have retrospectively pointed to various signs of a latent desire for weaponization that existed throughout the lifespan of the program. "By this overdetermined logic," Abraham says, "implicit in a pragmatic decision made decades of [sic] years ago was an unconscious drive to proliferate."22 Or put another way, North Korea went nuclear because North Korea always wanted to go nuclear. But no such ‘‘logic’’ can yet be applied to Iran, because the assumed inevitability of weaponization ignores the simple historical fact that the vast majority of states with ongoing nuclear activities do not seek nuclear weapons.23 The outcome of the present crisis is therefore impossible to know in advance.
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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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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.
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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