For Iran, a nuclear option more trouble than it was worth

By Siegfried S. Hecker | January 18, 2016

On Saturday, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran had met its initial nuclear rollback obligations under the country’s historic agreement with six world powers. This triggered long-sought sanctions relief, the chief reason the country had accepted the onerous restrictions and intrusive inspections prescribed by the nuclear deal.

Beyond sanctions relief, however, there are other reasons Iran agreed to send the bulk of its low-enriched uranium out of the country and remove the core of its Arak reactor—actions that significantly lengthen the time it would take to build up a nuclear weapon program. Recent history suggests that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, backed by the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also decided the price of continuing to pursue a nuclear weapon outweighed the benefits.

During the presidency of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran played a cat-and-mouse game in negotiations with the EU-3 (France, Great Britain and Germany), enhancing its uranium centrifuge capabilities while claiming that it was only pursuing nuclear energy to meet civilian energy needs. I heard the regime’s pitch in August 2008 at the residence of the Iranian Ambassador to the Netherlands. Iran’s national security adviser and its ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency tried to convince our American delegation that Iran’s nuclear ambitions were strictly peaceful.

I replied by reminding them that as far back as 1946, the Acheson-Lilienthal Report (an important early document on how to control nuclear weapons) concluded that “atomic energy for peaceful purposes and for bombs are in much of their course interchangeable and interdependent.” That is to say, because nuclear energy and nuclear weapon programs require much of the same technology and infrastructure, the distance between peaceful and military nuclear pursuits is but a short leap. I was convinced that the path Iran had chosen would lead to a hairline separation rather than a wide gap. I told them that if they wanted to demonstrate that their nuclear ambitions were peaceful, they could take actions to widen the gap. But during the next five years, the Ahmadinejad administration took steps in the other direction, which managed to unite the UN Security Council to levy strict sanctions that further damaged an already struggling economy.

Fast forward to late September 2013, when several American colleagues and I had dinner with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and a delegation of diplomats and technical advisors to the recently elected Rouhani administration at the New York residence of Iran’s permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2008 to 2013, the country had apparently narrowed the gap required to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear device from several years to between one and two months—in spite of UN Security Council sanctions, the assassination of some of its nuclear scientists, and cyber attacks on its centrifuge facilities.

My ensuing discussion with Zarif proceeded very differently from my 2008 conversations at The Hague. Zarif told us that Tehran was prepared to take significant steps to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and limit the centrifuge program. In discussing the plutonium-production potential of the Arak heavy water reactor, then under construction, the technical specialists said they were prepared to take the necessary actions to convince the United States that Iran would not produce plutonium, the second path to the bomb. They also indicated some flexibility on how intrusive they might allow inspections to be, should an agreement be reached.

Less than two months later, Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States) came to the Interim Agreement, and after 18 months of intense negotiations, in July 2015, they signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. If fully implemented, the JCPOA will create a wider gap between peaceful nuclear energy and nuclear weapons development than I had thought possible. The steps Iran has taken will lengthen the so-called breakout time for a uranium bomb several-fold, and the actions at Arak will block Iran’s path to a plutonium bomb for many years. The inspection agreement will also make it much more difficult for Iran to secretly violate the terms of the JCPOA.

To understand why Tehran accepted such restrictions on its nuclear program, one must look beyond Iran’s technical capabilities to its motivations. Although Iranian leaders’ 30-year nuclear quest got them within a month or so of producing enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb, they were still a long way from having a nuclear arsenal. Even less progress had been made toward indigenous nuclear electricity. Even so, the cost to Iran was high. The manner in which it pursued its nuclear quest managed to unite the P5+1, resulting in UN Security Council sanctions that seriously crippled its already weak economy. Moreover, the development of Iran’s nuclear program was fraught with external attempts at sabotage, and left the nation vulnerable to attacks from a deeply concerned Israel.

 Iranian leaders were also aware that a successful nuclear weapons program could risk provoking adversarial neighbors, like Saudi Arabia, to pursue their own clandestine programs—an unacceptable prospect that would threaten Iran’s chief political interests in the region. Meanwhile, they saw that with the Middle East in turmoil, and Saddam Hussein’s regime having been toppled by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran was able to extend its influence in the region without nuclear weapons. I believe it was for these reasons Tehran concluded the real cost of visibly maintaining the nuclear weapon option exceeded whatever potential advantages the program could bring.

In New York back in 2013, Zarif told our group that acquiring what he called “strategic” capabilities (meaning nuclear weapons) would make Iran less safe, rather than more. Iran, he said, is now a regional powerhouse in terms of its economy, natural resources, and conventional military power. If Iran were to acquire, or even appear to attempt to acquire, strategic capabilities, it would cause outside powers to interfere and make it a target. In retrospect, he was signaling that Tehran had shifted its strategy after Rouhani’s election in 2013—from steady pursuit of a nuclear weapon in defiance of the UN Security Council, to a willingness to scale back its nuclear program and put the weapon option on the back burner in return for sanctions relief and regaining a place in the international community.

Although some in Tehran surely continue to harbor nuclear weapon ambitions, what Zarif told us in New York not only makes sense, but also challenges the prevailing rationale that weaker powers must acquire nuclear weapons to prevent encroachment upon their sovereignty and security by greater powers. During my visits to North Korea over the years, Pyongyang officials told me that history has taught them that a nuclear deterrent is necessary to keep the United States out. They told me that if Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya had had nuclear weapons, their countries would not have been at the mercy of the Americans and their regime-change tactics. Now, Tehran is taking exactly the opposite approach, namely not pursuing nuclear weapons (or at least putting the possibility on the back burner) in order to keep the Americans, and assuredly the Israelis, out.

Many have argued, justifiably, that lifting the sanctions targeted at the nuclear program and allowing Iran’s economy to recover will strengthen Iran’s hand in the Middle East and allow it to further destabilize the region while strengthening its own geopolitical ambitions. Others, of course, believe that bringing Iran in out of the cold of international opprobrium may stabilize the Middle East. We don’t know which will happen, but it is much preferable to let the issues play out without the complication of nuclear weapons or fissile material in Tehran’s hands.

The best course of action for Washington now is to follow through with the nuclear deal’s rigorous inspection regime, ensuring that Iran continues to scale back its nuclear program, while holding up the US end of the deal in terms of sanctions relief. Meanwhile, Washington will need to work with its allies in the Middle East to prevent Tehran from further destabilizing the region.

The United States should also continue to focus on reducing Tehran’s motivation to pursue the bomb over the long term. Ironically, that may involve allowing Iran’s nuclear electricity and research sector to grow, in order to increase the cost Iran would have to pay should it renege on the nuclear agreement. 

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