Iran’s Nuclear Future

in Program

By Michael Krepon – The academic Grinch of proliferation studies, Kenneth Waltz, asserts that no country that wants the Bomb has been dissuaded from having one.  But most states with serious security concerns have positioned themselves short of this threshold, and very few very few have tested nuclear weapons.  Instead, most countries that could acquire the Bomb have relied on a more powerful patron or hedged their bets.  One hedging strategy is to develop civil nuclear infrastructure and produce fissile material that could be applied to military purposes, should the perceived need arise.

Will Iran go the whole nine yards?  Much of the debate over how to respond to Tehran’s obfuscations and prevarications presumes that the Mullahs, Revolutionary Guard, and militias who now hold Iran in their sway intend to obtain the Bomb.  The tactics that Iran’s security establishment has pursued thus far certainly leads in this direction, but their end goal remains uncertain.  Enrichment to bomb-grade material could simply be a matter of time, along with the production of nuclear warheads and carrying out a test of a nuclear device.  Or Tehran could opt not to cross these thresholds.

If Iran wants to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, it could do so by kicking out the International Atomic Energy Agency’s nuclear watchdogs at declared production facilities, or by enrichment activities at underground sites where it refuses to allow inspections.  But these activities are hard to hide.  Crossing these thresholds would set off alarms far greater than Iran’s earlier nuclear steps.  Iran’s Muslim neighbors would then need to reassess whether their ties to the United States provide sufficient protection, or whether more hedging is needed.  Israel would find it very hard to sit still under these circumstances, and the Obama administration might choose the military option.  An Iranian nuclear detonation would have even more severe proliferation  

States acquire nuclear weapons for deterrence, status, leverage, and perhaps for battlefield use.  If Iran’s national leaders calculate that there are greater risks in crossing nuclear red lines than in observing them, they might stop short of acquiring nuclear weapons.  Iran’s leaders might decide not to go the whole nine yards if perceived penalties – being locked into pariah status, facing punishing economic sanctions, and having Muslim neighbors take out their own nuclear insurance policies – are considered to be sufficiently injurious.

But can Israel accept an Iran that is perched below the nuclear threshold?  Israel has never accepted a nuclear deterrence relationship with its Muslim neighbors.  Hence its air strikes against nuclear facilities in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.  Neither country was in a position to respond in ways that would damage Israel.  An attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, in contrast, would not buy much time – perhaps one to three years, at the most – and could lead to painful countermoves by Iran.  The domestic impacts of military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities must also be considered.  If air strikes solidify the grip of those currently in power, while accelerating Iran’s subterranean nuclear programs and resulting in the removal of international inspectors, good feelings about military strikes could be short lived.

Can – and should – the United States and other major powers accept an Iran below the nuclear threshold, assuming that this is Tehran’s game plan?  A structured choice, as the Obama administration seeks, between ostracism and economic penalties on the one hand, and an opening up of all Iranian nuclear facilities on the other, makes sense.  Continuous monitoring and anywhere/anytime challenge inspections can keep a lid on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, while the United States plays a long game, awaiting fundamental change in Iran’s leadership and outlook. 

A policy choice of withholding military action would be contingent upon Iran respecting red lines regarding uranium enrichment and bomb development – and our ability to monitor if and when those lines are crossed.  The key assumption in this analysis is that the Iranian leaders may talk trash, but that they will act conservatively to avoid meaningful penalties.  If this assumption is wrong, terrible consequences could result.  On the other hand, terrible consequences could also result by falsely assuming that Iran’s leaders will act as wildly as they speak. 

When instinct drives analysis, poor choices can result in extremely unwise decisions.  History can serve as a useful antidote to gut choices – as long as we find the right lessons among multiple choices.  For some, the historical lessons of Munich and the Holocaust are overriding, and ought to drive US policy in this case. 

Other historical analogies seem more applicable.  When ruthless leaders of the Soviet Union and China, Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, sought and obtained the Bomb, the United States eschewed preemptive strikes.  Instead, Washington opted for a long-game plan, employing deterrence, military containment, and diplomatic engagement, while shoring up support for friends and allies and keeping power projection capabilities nearby.  This strategy worked – and Stalin and Mao were far more formidable foes than Mahmud Ahmadinejad. 


Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center, Diplomat Scholar at the University of Virginia, and author of Better Safe than Sorry, The Ironies of Living with the Bomb (Stanford University Press, 2009). 

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