Is Iran Really After a Nuclear Bomb?

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

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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.

On the other hand, perhaps the greatest security argument in favor of a bomb is the prospect of creating a deterrent against outside attack -- call it the North Korean model. It's not hard to see how some in Iran might take a lesson from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who gave up his nuclear program and is now facing a NATO campaign that threatens his rule.  This might lead Iranian leaders to believe acquiring a bomb is their best shot at long-term survival. But such a plan could also backfire. If Iran were to succeed in building a bomb, its strategic position could be placed in greater danger by a nuclear arms race in the region, with Saudi Arabia the most likely to move for a weapon of its own. Plus, the West's strategic calculus would shift dramatically, potentially escalating the greatest external threat facing Tehran from one of limited surgical strikes to a much larger military attack or even a nuclear standoff. That is why Iran's nuclear envoy says it would be a "strategic mistake" to build a bomb, and it is likely why Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is said by Western intelligence agencies to feel the same way.

An Iranian bomb could also greatly add to the country's enemies list and significantly reduce its international support. To date, Russia and China have only been willing to put pressure on Tehran up to a point, supporting lesser sanctions and opposing the harshest measures. Both have justified their decisions by pointing to the ostensibly peaceful nature of Iran's program -- a rationale that would dry up the minute Iran's nuclear rhetoric turned more militaristic. Russia and China also play crucial roles in Iran's economy. At a time when increased unemployment is fueling popular opposition, that support is something the Iranian leadership can't afford to lose. Khamenei appears to have taken notice that his country's floundering economy is a grave long-term threat to the regime's survival, something from which no nuclear bomb could protect him.

Finally, there is the question of domestic politics. Iran's religious leaders have declared over and over again that they are opposed to nuclear weapons for religious reasons. Though they might seize on some pretext to change positions -- an Israeli or American airstrike, for example -- it would be difficult for the clerical elite to justify reversing three decades of consistent religious edicts. To do so would undermine the fabric of religious legitimacy that Tehran's leaders see as essential. Going against their earlier condemnation of nuclear arms would risk revealing themselves as the thugs that many of their people already think they are.  Bombs may be able to deter a foreign country , but nuclear weapons are incapable of protecting against the single greatest threat to the regime's existence: the Iranian people themselves.

The often-overlooked reality is that gaining the capacity to build a nuclear bomb is one thing, but building a nuclear bomb is quite another. Western intelligence agencies seem to believe that, for now, Iran's leaders want to gain just enough bomb-making ability to create a deterrent without actually having to build a weapon. By most accounts, Iran has already met its goal, and has spent the last two years treading water. There is no way to know for sure which arguments are most compelling in the eyes of the Iranian leadership, but whatever the reason, it seems that Tehran has chosen not to cross the nuclear threshold. Yet.