Nuclear Iran

The Atlantic recently asked a group of foreign-policy authorities about Iran’s nuclear quest. Special extended Web version
Do you believe there is any set of incentives and economic sanctions that could persuade Iran to give up its quest for nuclear weapons?

“Yes. Economic pressure can have a major impact on Tehran’s calculations, given the demands of a young population. Such pressure would have to include a ban on investment in the energy sector, and possibly an oil embargo, to have the desired effect. And it would have to be coupled to a clear economic and diplomatic rewards to provide the right incentives.”

“Yes, sort of—that is, I think they would be prepared to suspend [their nuclear program], but hold on to enough capabilities to hedge against unfavorable developments and restart it.”

“Yes. Iran is likely to insist on keeping a 'research' program that preserves a small-scale, low-grade enrichment capability. But the right package can forestall Tehran's quest for nuclear weapons.”

“If the question is to persuade Iran to permanently abandon their quest, the answer is no. If the question is to persuade Iran [not to seek] nuclear weapons capability now (but with a capacity to move in that direction in the future), I think the answer is yes.”

“A grand bargain with the United States might persuade Tehran to stop just short of building the bomb. But neither [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad nor the mullahs will sign any deal that requires Iran to shut down its nuclear program. And any grand bargain will require Washington to recognize Tehran as a major regional player.”

“Yes. There is a fifty percent chance that a grand bargain that includes all carrots and sticks could persuade to postpone—not give up—[their nuclear program] for a period, say 5 years—after which [it will be] another issue.”

“Yes, but I think the important part of a package would be incentives, including some form of security guarantees. I doubt that the threat of economic sanctions is going to be all that much of a motivating force for the Iranian leaders.  The rest of the world is unlikely to be able to boycott Iranian oil with much effect.”

“Give up? No. Postpone or delay? Yes. While a few countries, [having] once embarked on the quest for nuclear weapons, have indeed decided to abandon that quest when they concluded it was not in their interests. This certainly includes Sweden, South Africa and Libya. Others have decided that circumstances made it in their present interest to delay or postpone an effort, but not to forsake forever such a quest. These countries, Japan, Brazil and a few others, have kept the option available, usually under the guise of a peaceful nuclear power program. Iran, at best, can be moved to this second category of states.”

“Yes or no answers are difficult for these questions. My 'Yes' answer for this question is very tentative. An absolutely solid set of highly restrictive economic sanctions applied by all, or nearly all, nations would over time force Iran to its knees. But it is highly unlikely that such sanctions would ever be universally agreed or applied. The threat of military action could work if it came from an alliance of nations including the US, the UK, France, Germany, and Russia (or most of the above). But the threat would have to be credible, and used if necessary. Again, the ability to put such an alliance together is nil—at least at this time.”

“No. However, a set of very strong incentives could lead Iran to slow the program considerably to avoid further provocations. Tehran would still seek nuclear weapons, but the problem would be put off for a while.”

“No, nothing to give up its quest but they may be willing to suspend indefinitely or to maintain a highly inspected and monitored research capability.”

“No, not with this regime.”

“No. I don't believe the Europeans would make sanctions credible enough to convince the Iranians that there's really an 'or else' out there.”

“No. Iran has too much invested in its nuclear program. Even if, like North Korea, it signed an accord, it would violate it.”

“Yes. (I note, however, that you have 'loaded the question' by assuming that Iran is on a 'quest for nuclear weapons'. There are other possible explanations for what is going on, including prestige, regional influence, a belief in the 'right' to be scientifically advanced, and getting our goat—although you may indeed be right. Making that assumption at this point necessarily pushes analysis in particular directions). The incentives? In addition to the prospect of a lifting of all sanctions and re-admission into the league of civilized nations, incentives should focus on a U.S. offer of security guarantees for Iranian good behavior, the latter defined in terms of a) no bomb; 2) open inspections; and 3) no more support for Hezbollah or other terrorist groups. The fact that we will not make such an offer (and ignored credible Iranian feelers on a 'grand bargain' in 2003—an event only marginally covered in the US press and dismissed out of hand by the Administration) has dismayed the Europeans, who have set as a key goal getting us to make this offer. Would it work? Who can tell until we try; and if it does not, then we will be better able to build genuine support among the Europeans for sanctions, etc. Indeed, the fact that we will not put the security issue on the table only plays into the hands of those in the Iranian leadership who would like to get the bomb, if only for deterrence purposes. Economic sanctions? That would just arm those in Teheran who would like Iran to thumb its nose at the West and go hell-bent for a bomb.”

If Iran were to build nuclear weapons, do you think it would likely do any of the following:
A. Support terrorism more aggressively, from behind a nuclear shield, with the goal of further spreading the Islamic revolution?
58% Yes
42% No

“No. Iran’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons is driven principally by a defensive need to deter attack and secondarily by the desire to be recognized as a major regional power.”

“No. I think they will make that calculation whether or not they have nuclear weapons.”

“No. They are already supporters of terrorism. Possession of nuclear weapons is unlikely to give them an added ability to do so.”

“Doubtful, that is, 'no.' The Islamic Revolution is pretty much played out, and you don't spread revolution through the barrel of a (nuclear) gun. It doesn't work. And opponents can use counter techniques that stay below the level at which an Iranian bomb could rationally be employed.”

“We need to find them an excuse to NOT pursue nuclear weapons [using] diplomatic, security, economic, and energy incentives!”

“Yes. However, Iran's goals would range from reducing U.S. influence to engaging in a strategic rivalry with Saudi Arabia. Spreading the revolution would be one goal of many, and not the most important one.”

B. Seek to drive up oil prices by bullying other OPEC members, closing the Strait of Hormuz, or taking other actions for its economic gain?
65% No
35% Yes

“No. They are unlikely to be able to 'bully' enough other OPEC members to have significant influence on oil prices.”

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