Don’t panic if the Iran nuclear negotiations fail

By Jacques E. C. Hymans | February 12, 2014

The interim diplomatic accord that has temporarily halted the most provocative activities of the Iranian nuclear program provides a period of six months for the parties to negotiate a mutually satisfactory final settlement to this long-simmering crisis. As of today, there is ample reason to hope that these negotiations will succeed. But they might fail. What then? Will there be a quick Iranian nuclear weapons breakout, followed by copycat proliferation throughout the Middle East—and perhaps even in other regions as well?

No one can say with certainty what the future may bring. But the bulk of political science specialist literature on the dynamics of nuclear proliferation indicates that the much-feared Middle Eastern proliferation nightmare scenario is just that—a bad dream. The accumulated findings of twenty years of political science research on this topic offer a generally hopeful story about the overall global trends in proliferation. The historical patterns uncovered by political science researchers also provide strong reasons to avoid becoming fixated on worst-case scenarios about the nuclear future of Iran or other Middle Eastern states (even if a minority of scholars do prefer to accentuate the negative). In particular, there are three key reasons for the United States and its allies to keep cool in the unfortunate event of a collapse of the current effort at nuclear diplomacy with Iran.

Reason 1: Even when a state appears to be heading in the direction of the bomb, do not assume that it is hell-bent on achieving that goal. Consider the case of Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s (which I discuss in my 2006 book The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation). At that time, Argentina was ruled by a brutal military dictatorship and was involved in significant territorial disputes with three countries: Brazil, Chile, and nuclear-armed Great Britain. Moreover, Argentina refused to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime. And in 1978, it started building a secret uranium enrichment plant. All of this seems very suspicious.

But we now know that the military junta in Argentina never did launch a nuclear weapons project. In fact, it did not even have a significant nuclear bomb lobby, and the idea of an Argentine bomb was viewed by most of the country's leadership as a “strategic absurdity,” in the words of Argentine Adm. Fernando A. Milia. Argentina built the secret enrichment plant to provide fuel for its beloved research reactors, the country’s only significant high-technology export product. Argentina also likely intended to use the enrichment plant to produce fuel for a projected nuclear submarine fleet, which could be a potential asset in a future campaign to retake the Falklands/Malvinas islands from the British. But its top officials had no intention to build bombs, as indicated by archival records and by the plant’s technical configuration.

The idea to build the plant in secret was sparked by the sudden decision of the United States to refuse to supply enriched uranium fuel to Argentina, due to Washington’s suspicions about the military junta’s nuclear intentions. In other words, by suspecting the worst about Argentine intentions, the United States nearly created a self-fulfilling prophecy. As George Perkovich has recently argued, the US and its allies need to keep in mind the potential for similar unintended consequences when determining their policy toward Iran.         

Reason 2: Even if a state clearly is trying for the bomb, do not assume that it is necessarily going to get there quickly. Statistics compiled by political scientists demonstrate that nuclear weapons projects around the world went into slow motion after 1970. Although one may quibble about the coding of this or that historical case, the overall trend is clear. The world is in the midst of a great proliferation slowdown.

Since the start of the nuclear age, there have been about 17 dedicated nuclear weapons projects—meaning determined efforts to build a bomb, not just tentative exploratory forays. Of those 17 cases, all seven of the projects that started in earnest before 1970 were successful: the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, and India. Their average time to the first nuclear test (or in the case of Israel, the direct stockpiling of operational weapons without a test) was about seven years. By contrast, only three of the 10 dedicated nuclear weapons projects that started since 1970 have succeeded: Pakistan, apartheid South Africa, and, arguably, North Korea. (The failures were Libya, 1970s-era South Korea, Brazil, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and, most recently, Syria; Iran remains a question mark.) Moreover, even the three successful projects needed an average of 17 years to make the bomb. In other words, they had to slave away for a full decade longer than the earlier group to reach their goal. We do not yet know how the Iran nuclear saga will turn out, but it is already clear that Iran’s pace of progress is no exception to the general trend. The Islamic Republic launched its highly suspicious nuclear project all the way back in 1985—more than a quarter century ago.   

As I argue in my recent book, Achieving Nuclear Ambitions, the most important reason for the great proliferation slowdown has been low-quality project management. This was to be expected, since bad management is rife among the poorly institutionalized developing states that have become the typical nuclear weapons aspirants in recent years. Iran’s program, for instance, has a very long record of failing to live up to expectations. Even though the Iranians have achieved the milestone of enriching uranium, overall the program has long remained stuck in first gear despite an estimated $100 billion investment by the regime. Another good example of the contemporary reality of glacially slow nuclear weapons projects is North Korea. Claims that North Korea is motivated to build the bomb because of its difficult situation since the demise of the Soviet Union may have some validity. But, thanks to the opening of the archives of Pyongyang’s erstwhile East European allies, we now know that its pursuit of nuclear weapons actually dates all the way back to the 1960s and ramped up greatly in the early 1980s, while the Cold War was still going strong. The fact that North Korea has been trying for the bomb for such a long time, but still faces serious doubts about its claimed possession of an operational nuclear arsenal, is striking proof of the inefficiency of its program. Indeed, the more North Korea has tried to show off its nuclear and missile capabilities in recent years, the less impressive those capabilities have appeared, and therefore the less successful Pyongyang’s attempts at nuclear blackmail have become.   

Reason 3: There is a crucial difference between a so-called “nuclear breakout capacity” and an actual nuclear weapons arsenal. The former may be a worry, but only the latter is a threat—and, for political as well as technical reasons, it is very hard for most states to jump suddenly from a notional breakout capacity to an actual breakout. This point is particularly relevant to the current debate over where to draw the line on Iran’s relatively advanced nuclear program. Whereas some (for instance, US President Barack Obama) would set a red line of no Iranian nuclear weapon, others (for instance, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu) wish to set an earlier red line of no Iranian nuclear weapons capability. The Netanyahu stance assumes that the acquisition of a certain number of kilograms of highly enriched uranium is essentially equivalent to a bomb, since the engineers tell us that an explosive nuclear test is not strictly technically necessary to obtain a workable nuclear weapon. Netanyahu is therefore worried that Iran could break out of the NPT and build a bomb without anyone knowing. The Netanyahu point of view is supported by the historical case of Israel itself, which built an operational nuclear arsenal in secret without conducting a nuclear test.

But a political science analysis supports Obama’s position over Netanyahu’s in the case of Iran. Not only is the typical global historical pattern to test a device first and field operational weapons second, but Iran and Israel are also dissimilar cases, facing different external and internal political challenges. The key political factors that the historian Avner Cohen has identified as leading Israel to produce its unique arsenal of untested but fully operational nuclear bombs are not present in the case of Iran. In addition, Iran’s empirical record of frequent ballistic missile testing provides yet more evidence against the idea that Iran may be gravitating toward the Israeli model of nuclear opacity. Since the present Iranian nuclear capability cannot be legitimately seen as equivalent to an Iranian nuclear threat, the United States and its allies should reject alarmist calls for preemptive strikes against it. Even if the current negotiations with Iran do not bear fruit within six months as projected, the world would still have substantial time to find a peaceful way out of the long-running Iranian nuclear crisis.

Nuclear proliferation is a serious issue for the international community, but there is no cause for panic. Moreover, unjustified and exaggerated fears of the proliferation threat lead to bad policy, as demonstrated by the unnecessary and tragic Iraq war. If we can right-size our perception of the threat, we will have much more success in achieving the nonproliferation results we want, at a price we can afford.

Editor's note: This piece is a revised and abridged version of an article in International Journal

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