Iran has many motivations for pusuing a nuclear weapons 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 addition, their public statements and actions point to the many factors that may be motivating them to pursue a nculear weapon.
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In the eyes of Iran, there are four justifiable reasons for its possession of nuclear weapons. First is for them to serve as a tool of self-defense. The 1980— 1988 Iran-Iraq War resulted in massive devastation. Hundreds of surface-tosurface missiles were fired at Iran, leveling cities and killing thousands of civilians. It is clear that if Iran had nuclear weapons then, such a thing would not have happened. Iran, therefore, views nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent. Second, nuclear weapons will inevitably protect the current regime and deter U.S. attempts of regime change. Third, nuclear weapons will certainly increase Iran’s prestige in the region. Because of the size of the country, its population, history, and strategic importance, Iran feels that it is the equivalent of India or Pakistan, and does not understand why it must suffer from discriminatory attitudes against nuclear weapons possession. And finally, Iran desires the capability for religious reasons. In the eyes of Iranians, everyone has nuclear weapons: Christians, Hindus (e.g., India), Buddhists (in other words, China), Jews (Israel), and even Sunni Muslims (Pakistan). Why is it just the Shi‘ites that are not allowed to have nuclear weapons?
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Although the IAEA does not have conclusive evidence that Iran’s nuclear programme has military dimensions, it has raised questions about very specific research that is not dual use but applicable only to nuclear weapons. In its reports, the IAEA refers to this work as the ‘alleged studies’.22 The IAEA has no independent intelligence-gathering capacity so the accusations come from Western, mostly US, intelligence agencies and Iranian dissident groups with contacts inside the nuclear enterprise (Oelrich and Barzashka 2010a) but the IAEA states that the ‘information, which was provided to the Agency by several Member States, appears to have been derived from multiple sources over different periods of time, is detailed in content, and appears to be generally consistent’.23 The allegations include research on converging explosive compression of uranium and spherical casting of uranium, detonators with precise timing, and a possible nuclear re-entry vehicle for Iran’s Shahab-3 missile (IAEA 2008). The Times published an undated document that laid out a programme for research on a neutron generator using explosively compressed uranium deuteride (Philip 2009). None of this research would have any plausible use except for a nuclear weapon. In addition, there have been accusations of work that might have some civilian applications but clearly would be of interest to a nuclear weapon designer, for example production of polonium-210, used for neutron triggers for weapons.
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Although the Iranian socio-political environment is complex and markedly changeable, there is a general belief in the value of advanced technology, and a perception of nuclear power as a symbol of modernity. When faced with the argument that a country so well endowed with oil and gas does not need nuclear power, the immediate reply is to point to a fifth of electricity already generated by hydro-electric power, and the argument that oil and gas are too valuable to be used for electricity generation, especially given Iran’s indigenous reserves of uranium ores. In terms of public attitudes, it is clear that a range of opinion formers from across the political and religious spectrums believe that Iran has every right to develop a nuclear fuel cycle. It is also the widespread view that Iran has the right to develop nuclear weapons should the country’s security require it.
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The evidence presented to the Iranian government by the IAEA about alleged military-related research has been based on intelligence received from IAEA member states about work at Iranian research and military organizations pointing to a possible nuclear weapons program. Among these activities are studies of high explosives (HE); conversion of uranium dioxide into uranium tetrafluoride (which might indicate work on the preparation of uranium metal for a bomb); testing of high-voltage equipment for activation of HE detonators and devices for simultaneous activation of several detonators; development of guidelines for assembling and operating a detonation system; plans for the organization of underground tests; testing of a multipoint system for initiation of an HE unit of hemispheric shape; biographical data showing the involvement of an Iranian expert in calculations of the radius of a nuclear explosion ball using the Taylor-Sedov equation, etc.
No one can prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Except Iran. The fact is that India, Pakistan, North Korea, and even Israel -- nations with both a profound sense of insecurity and entitlement -- have all developed nuclear weapons secretly. Iraq and Syria were on their way, too. Iran, under the Shah, was also committed to a nuclear program and might, over time, have tried to weaponize.
But denying Iran a weapon means more than taking away the toys; it means changing the national calculation and motivation of a power that historically has imagined itself as a great nation. Even in the unlikely event Iran became a democracy, its own regional image and ambitions might still impel it to develop a nuclear capacity. At a minimum, denying Iran nuclear weapons means fundamentally changing the mullahcracy in Tehran; a military strike by the Israelis might do just the opposite -- further legitimizing it, particularly if there were civilian casualties. There's no better way to mobilize a divided polity or bring out its nationalist and unified character than to demonize a foreign enemy. And the Israelis would be the target of a massive Iranian propaganda effort across the Arab world, an effort that would likely win a great deal of sympathy.