Will Iran Get a Bomb—or Be Bombed Itself—This Year?

Table 5 reminds us that in addition to building a bomb, overtly or covertly, there is a third possible path to a bomb.

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Iran could buy one. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously said, North Korea has demonstrated its readiness to "sell anything they have to anybody who has the cash to buy it." Unfortunately, North Korea has already established a precedent for such a deal. It sold Syria a plutonium-producing Yongbyon-style reactor that would by now have produced enough plutonium for Syria's first bomb -- if Israel had not bombed it in 2007. If the Iranian Supreme Leader concluded that nuclear weapons were the only way to guarantee the survival of his regime, buying a bomb for a billion dollars could be an attractive bargain.

Are such scenarios very likely in 2013? No. Are there technical reasons why either could not occur? No.

5. How has the U.S. attempted to prevent Iran's acquiring a nuclear bomb?

For the past decade, the principal strategy followed by the U.S. government under both Republican and Democratic administrations has been to declare demands: Iran must not do A; Iran will not be permitted to do B (after Iran has done A); Iran cannot do Z. Despite the limits of a "strategy" that consists essentially of repeating one's demands, this remains an American favorite.

In addition, the U.S. has led an effort to impose economic pain on Iran through sanctions. Initially, these were largely symbolic. In the past two years, however, the U.S. and key allies have begun taking actions that are actually biting (see Tables 6 and 7).

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Table 6

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Table 7

If one believes what one reads in the papers, the program of sanctions has been complemented by a series of covert actions including cyberwar or cyber-sabotage that included Stuxnet, Duqu, and Flame, assassinations of key scientists in the Iranian nuclear program, and unnatural explosions at key Iranian missile and steel plants.

6. Is a deal that stops Iran short of a bomb possible? Is it possible to identify the terms of a deal that would be better for both Iran and the United States than either attacking Iran or acquiescing in an Iranian bomb?

My answer is unambiguously yes. Having been engaged in sustained consultations with U.S. government policymakers on this issue for most of the past decade, I can identify at least two occasions on which, viewed simply from the perspective of the recognized national interests of both parties, there seems to me to have been a zone of agreement. In 2003-2004, after the U.S. had toppled Saddam in three weeks without breaking a sweat, Iran feared that it might be next and appeared eager to accept an arrangement in which its enrichment activity would be constrained to a single cascade and subject to full transparency. Since 2009, the U.S. and Iran have been circling around potential terms of an agreement that would cap all enrichment at 5 percent; stop expansion of facilities for enriching to 20 percent; swap current materials enriched to 20 percent for fuel assemblies for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR); provide maximum transparency; and include credible threats to impose catastrophic costs on Iran if the agreement were violated. Each time an agreement appeared within reach, however, one or the other inserts yet another demand or consideration that scuppers the deal.

Imagine that this issue today were given to Metternich and Talleyrand in 1815, or Kissinger and Zhou Enlai in 1972. They would find reaching agreement easier than the negotiations they concluded successfully.

7. Why then is it hard to reach an agreement?

Failure has been more a function of confusion and division within the parties than between them. In my course at Harvard, I try to help students understand that making one agreement in international relations requires three deals: first a deal within party A; then a deal within party B; and then sufficient overlap between each party's minimum requirements that diplomacy can reach agreement. When Iran was motivated to offer terms that the U.S. should have found acceptable in 2003-2004, the U.S. was unwilling to accept them. When the U.S. was prepared to make a deal in 2009, Iran was too divided to accept it.

The outcome of Iran's June election presents a new window of opportunity. Even in the constrained, semi-democratic Iranian political system, the population's decisive preference for a new approach was clear. President-elect Rouhani has stated clearly that, while "extremists on both sides are determined to maintain the state of hostility and hatred between the two states, logic says that there should be a change of direction in order to turn a new page in this unstable relationship and minimize the state of hostility and mistrust between the two countries." While the sharp partisan divide in Washington means that any compromise by the U.S. will be loudly opposed, President Obama, having won a second term, has considerable room to maneuver.

8. When will we come to the crossroad at which a president will be forced to choose between attacking and acquiescing?

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will continue to press for an early decision, arguing that sanctions are ineffective and only give Iran more time to expand its nuclear program. Expect President Obama, key members of the Israeli national security establishment, and others to continue arguing that sanctions and covert actions must be allowed more time to work, and that new sanctions and covert actions will be even more effective.

At the UN last September, Netanyahu drew a clear red line, near to but short of a nuclear bomb, and threatened that crossing it would trigger an attack on Iran. But his speech revealed his own frustration about the predicament in which he finds himself. He knows that Israel and the U.S. have been complicit in a drama in which they have repeatedly drawn red lines, asserted that Iran would never be allowed to cross them but, after watching Iran cross the line, retreated to the next operational obstacle on the path to a bomb, and declared it to be the real red line (see Table 8).

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Netanyahu himself was sounding the alarm as long ago as 1992, when he suggested Iran was "3 to 5 years" from a bomb; in 1996, he warned Congress that the "deadline for preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb is getting extremely close." Since then, Israeli politicians and officials have announced numerous "last chances" and "points of no return." In 2003, the head of Israeli military intelligence forecast that Iran would soon cross the "point of no return" at which "it would require no further outside aid to bring the program to fruition." A year later, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that Iran would cross this point if it were allowed to develop a "technical capability" for operating an enrichment facility. As Iran approached that capability, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz described the tipping point not as the capability, but as the "enrichment of uranium" itself. Simultaneously, the head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, warned that Iran would reach this technological point of no return by the end of 2005. After Iran began enriching uranium, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert drew a new line in 2006 as enrichment "beyond a limited number of cascades."

As Iran has crossed successive red lines, Israel has retreated to the next and, in effect, hit the repeat button. From conversion of uranium; to production of LEU; to a stockpile of LEU sufficient (after further enrichment) to make one nuclear bomb; to a stockpile sufficient for a half dozen bombs; to enrichment beyond LEU to MEU; to the operation of centrifuges enriching MEU at the deep underground, formerly covert facility at Fordow, that created a "zone of immunity"; to achievement of an undefined "nuclear weapons capability," Israel's warnings have grown louder -- but no more effective. That these "points of no return" have been passed is a brute fact and hard to ignore.

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Graham Allison is the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

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