Is Iran Really After a Nuclear Bomb?

Western intelligence agencies may not understand the complex pressures on leaders in Tehran

Disney Aug2 p.jpg

Iranian President Ahmadinejad looks on at a foreign policy meeting / Reuters

One question has dominated the U.S. conversation regarding Iran for years: how long until they get the bomb? Intelligence analysts are constantly updating their estimates, and politicians are always asking for the latest timetables. The problem is, it's an impossible question. It might also be the wrong one to ask.

Despite the rhetoric from Iran's president, the country's nuclear program up to now has not been "like a train without brakes" moving inexorably toward the ultimate weapon.  Iran has devoted billions of dollars, a large share of its impressive scientific establishment, and nearly three decades of work toward mastering nuclear technology, yet it has no nuclear arsenal.  Compared to Pakistan, which had a far inferior technical foundation yet was able to acquire nuclear weapons capability in about a decade, Iran seems to be dragging its feet.

The really interesting question, then, is not when will Iran have the bomb, but rather why don't they already, and how can we keep it that way?

In some important ways, nuclear weapons are just like any other tool that governments might choose to acquire. Though our political systems are vastly different, Iran's decision-making process over whether to build nuclear weapons is not so unlike any decision that the U.S. government must make. There are short-term interests and long-term ones, domestic and international considerations, and the messy process of bringing personalities and institutions together to make a complicated choice with complicated ramifications. And it all occurs within a very specific political environment.

Iran's government therefore has to make an active choice to build the bomb. And in a country where the political system is neither democratic nor strictly dictatorial, that kind of decision would have to be made by a group of people often paralyzed by division.

While there is no way to know for sure, many Iran experts agree that Iran most likely does not have a nuclear weapon because there is as yet no consensus in the political leadership in favor of weaponization. This is good news, because without such consensus, there can be no Iranian weapons program. No amount of anti-Semitic, anti-American, terrorist-sponsoring, hate-filled vitriol from the mullahs in Tehran is enough to give them the bomb without their political leadership actively deciding to acquire it. An Iran with a nuclear program is different from an Iran with a nuclear weapons program, and it is the Iranian leaders, elected and appointed, who decide which way it will actually be.

Iran's motivations for pursuing nuclear technology often go unanalyzed in the U.S Much of the Washington policy establishment takes it as a given that Iran wants the bomb. And there are plenty of reasons why we in the U.S. see Iran as dangerously aggressive: Iran's leaders deny the Holocaust while sponsoring terrorist organizations, they funnel arms to America's enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they brutalize their own people.

There are also plenty of reasons why Iran might actually want to acquire the ultimate weapon. The U.S. has surrounded much of the country with a major military presence in the region, leaders in Washington and Tel Aviv frequently threaten to attack or overthrow the regime, and the world community has distrusted and squeezed the Islamic Republic since it came into existence in 1979.

Putting aside our (often correct) mistrust of the Iranian regime, what are, from Iran's perspective, the reasons not to go on a crash program for the bomb?

Nonproliferation experts believe that there are three basic reasons countries get nuclear weapons: security, prestige, and domestic politics. From the security perspective, an Iranian decision to acquire nuclear weapons would almost surely place the regime in greater short-term danger. An announcement from Tehran that it is seeking weaponization would give the green light for an American or Israeli attack, and would strengthen calls in the U.S. for an active policy of regime change. The global community would be unlikely to oppose an American or Israeli preemptive strike. Nor would Iran fare much better if it went forward with a secret program that was discovered mid-production -- a likely prospect given how many of Iran's secret activities have been exposed over the past decade.

Presented by

Patrick Disney is currently a graduate student focusing on Iran and nuclear nonproliferation at Yale University. He previously served as the Assistant Policy Director for the National Iranian American Council.

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