Is a Nuclear Iran Inevitable?

The Carnegie Endowment's Mark Hibbs on navigating the world's nuclear threats.
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Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks during a ceremony at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, on April 9, 2007. (Caren Firouz/Reuters)

Mark Hibbs is a former journalist who has been covering the more technical, and, to the general public, nearly invisible side of nuclear proliferation issues for more than 30 years. In 2006, The Atlantic's William Langewiesche wrote that Hibbs "must rank as one of the greatest reporters at work in the world today."

In the second part of our interview (see part one here), Hibbs, who is now a Bonn-based senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discusses whether he thinks Iran will get nuclear weapons, and analyzes the possible significance of what's turning into a contentious negotiation between the United States and South Korea on a nuclear cooperation agreement.

You mention that there are countries like Iran that don't necessarily pursue the path to the bomb in terms of months or years -- they pursue it in terms of slow progress that reaches a kind of momentum where it's almost irreversible. Do you think that we've reached the point with Iran where they've slowly built their capability to the point that it's inevitable that they get the bomb, unless there's something major like war, an attack or some sort of internal social breakdown that prevents them from getting there?

No, I don't believe that. I think that most analysts would conclude that between the period of around the middle of the 1980s and today, there have been forces in Iran that have led certain people in the decision-making structure to try to have a nuclear weapons capability. There are probably others in the system who didn't want that. Iran is by no means a monolithic country.

...Iran right now has a decision to make. It has acquired considerable nuclear capability which have brought them very far along down a path towards obtaining a nuclear weapons capability. There's no question about that in my mind. But right now it's up to Iran to decide whether it's going to draw a red line there, or whether it's going to cross it. And I think there's no consensus right now about which direction Iran's going to move in.

We're having another negotiation in a matter of days [note: negotiations in Almaty, Kazakhstan concluded earlier this week]. In just a couple of months there is going to be a pivotal election in Iran. And essentially it's going to be up to the Iranians to decide whether they want this capability or whether they don't want it. And it's up, of course, to the rest of us in the P5+1 that are negotiating with Iran to persuade them to back away from that choice.

A nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran is by no means inevitable.

Another country that might want nuclear weapons is South Korea. Do you think that South Korea will eventually have nukes -- and do you think that they'll leave the NPT as well?

For years, the subject of South Korea having nuclear weapons has been a taboo. There was a secret program in South Korea back in the late 1970s under president Park Chung-Hye, and the U.S. basically came in and shut it down.

At the time, the quid pro quo of that was that they made sure the Koreans understood that the United States was going to take seriously the pledges that it had made under their bilateral defense agreement [see here ] to come to the defense of South Korea in the event of an attack by North Korea.

Today, we're in a similar situation. North Korea is revving up all kinds of pressure to essentially change the calculus on the ground. They're trying to make South Korea nervous. The ultimate aim of the Kim regime has got to be to try to decouple South Korea from the United States, and to drive a stake right into the heart of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

The dynamic is the same as when Park Chung-Hye was in power in the 1970s. Park's daughter, Park Guen-Hye is the new president of South Korea, and she is basically in a similar situation to the extent that she's facing increasing threats from the North...

This escalation is happening in the middle of a negotiation that's been going on for two years, where the South has been trying to get the United States to agree to give them a blanket agreement to do things in its civilian nuclear program that look like sensitive activities, like plutonium reprocessing. [See here for more of Hibbs's analysis of the proposed U.S.-South Korean civilian nuclear cooperation agreement.]

Would they want the ability to reprocess plutonium just to send a message to the North, or because they actually want to give themselves themselves the option of launching a serious nuclear weapons program?

Neither. The primary reason the South Koreans want this capability is that it has thousands of tons of used power reactor fuel that they have to dispose of, and they want to use the technology to do that.

"The threats from North Korea have escalated, and the South Koreans have come to the U.S. and said, we want to see the U.S. do more to show that your guarantees to defend us under our bilateral agreement are reliable."

The problem is that there's a difference....about how to move forward on this issue. The U.S. has not been willing to seriously engage with the South's legitimate claim that it is a member of the NPT, that its nuclear materials are declared and verified by the [International Atomic Energy Agency] as not being for nuclear weapons, and that they have bona fide, legitimate reasons for going forward with these sensitive nuclear activities.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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