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Members of the nuclear club watch Iran carefully these days. It hardly needs stating that the danger of nuclear weapon proliferation in Iran is potentially among the most critical problems facing the world today. In this extended consideration of the question, the author makes clear some of the factors that must be considered. – Ed.

Assessing Tehran's Nuclear Potential

“There is no reason for the United States, the international community, or Iran to simply accept the fact that conflict. . . is unavoidable.”

by Daniel Canalety

Over the course of recent years, concerns surrounding the construction and proliferation of nuclear weapons technology in Iran have forced the international community to scramble their efforts to address and defuse the potential crisis at hand. Recent reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indicate the rapid advancement of multiple nuclear production activities in Iran, including but not limited to the enrichment of uranium, the construction of heavy-water nuclear plants designed for the production of weapons-grade plutonium, and the creation of polonium-210, an initiator used for the detonation of nuclear weapons.1 In addition to these developments, Iran has threatened to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) unless the international community — particularly the United States and its allies — were to adjust their approach and adequately address Iranian concerns. Coupled with the increasing sophistication of Iranian ballistic missile capabilities, the move toward nuclear realization in Iran may intensify the various political conflicts and concerns throughout the Middle East, and beyond.

Among the various implications of Iranian nuclear proliferation, perhaps the most immediate and destabilizing exists within the realm of a potential Israeli-Iranian conflict resulting from pre-emptive military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. Israeli officials at the highest levels have indicated their intentions to launch air strikes against such facilities if the situation warranted such use. Predictably, retaliatory rhetoric from Tehran promises that Iran would react “most severely” in the event of an Israeli strike.2

The implicative nature of nuclear development in Iran should be enough to alarm even the most secure of states. Regional Arab states, still concerned with Khomeini’s revolutionary legacy, would likely respond to unchecked Iranian proliferation with counter-proliferation efforts of their own. Such efforts would not only spark a regional arms race — straining the legitimacy of the NPT and IAEA — but could prolong the presence of American troops in the Gulf as a precautionary measure. If nuclear proliferation extends beyond the boundaries of Iran and into the Arab Middle East, the crisis placed upon international non-proliferation regimes could threaten the very viability and legitimacy of such measures. In an age in which the United States and the world community stresses the containment of the development and advancement of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), counter-proliferation efforts on the part of Iran’s regional rivals could realistically hamper the NPT’s ability to successfully function.

Internally, Iran stands much to lose through a reckless proliferation campaign. Although former President Muhammad Khatami assured the international community that “we have the right to use this [nuclear] knowledge and you [the IAEA] have the right to be assured that it would be channeled in the right way”3, the June election of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency solidifies the position of the ultraconservatives throughout the governing establishment. Unless the international community accommodates the demands of the Iranian clerics, it’s quite possible that a commitment to nuclear development will further isolate Iran from various political and economic organizations and cooperative alliances. Despite the growing internal opposition to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council, the firm entrenchment of the hard-liners seems to suggest that a voluntary unilateral relinquishment of Iran’s nuclear weapons development is all but impossible. With Tehran’s intentional failure to display transparency in their nuclear ventures, and their insistence on limiting public discourse within Iran, it’s unlikely that the reformist movement will take hold as long as the hard-liners are willing to take the necessary steps to retain and project their power forcefully. In that sense, development of a nuclear weapons capability will only serve to darken the political landscape within Iran, and to cultivate isolation and a sense of “pariahness” internationally.

Despite the mounting prospect of Iranian nuclear armament within the next few years, the international community possesses multiple options that would allow world leaders to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the current crisis. Recent weeks have shown the effectiveness of diplomatic engagement, as particular member states of the European Union have reached a tentative agreement with Iran to cease uranium enrichment in exchange for political and economic benefits and guarantees. Previous agreements made by Iran have been broken in the past, so complacency in light of the recent EU-Iranian negotiations would be unwise and miscalculating. However, it is important to note the plausibility involved with bringing Iran back from the brink of unfortunate circumstances. First and foremost, the international community — and in particular, the United States — must recognize the underlying motivations for Iranian nuclear development, and address these issues accordingly. Like any other nation, Iran hosts a variety of security concerns. A flourishing Israeli nuclear arsenal, an increasingly hostile attitude from the United States, and concerns surrounding the future stability of Iraq all serve to provide a degree of legitimacy — in the eyes of the Iranians — for nuclear development within Iran. Certainly, the possession of such weapons can be seen as a symbol of power and nationalistic accomplishment, but as a matter of pragmatism, weapons proliferation has sprung as a response to regional political developments. Without addressing such considerations in an adequately fair and unbiased manner, the probability of a peaceful settlement to this issue seems quite bleak.

In addition to properly analyzing security considerations, the international community must work with Iran to provide an attractive compensation for their abandonment of their nuclear weapons program. Unless realistic alternatives are given, Iran may decide to accept the possible drawbacks of an illegal weapons program in favor of the benefits that would be derived. Despite perceptions of many in the west that the Iranian regime is bent on subverting the Middle East and waging an indirect war against the United States, the pragmatic conservatives in Iran have come to realize the utility of international integration — politically and economically. Whether or not Iran has made the decision to complete and deploy a nuclear weapons program is integral in this process. Appealing directly to the pragmatic conservatives by offering incentives and warning of the consequences of uncooperative Iranian policy, the international community stands a chance to convince Iran that the costs of a weapons program far outweigh the benefits, and in fact, the benefits of peaceful cooperation are existentially numerous and lucrative.

Iranian Nuclear Development
In the summer of 2002, an Iranian dissident organization — the National Council of Resistance — presented the international community with evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran, specifically focused on plutonium production at the heavy-water plant at Arak, and uranium enrichment at Natanz. These revelations confirmed the fears of many throughout the arms control community, and as a measured response, the IAEA demanded unfettered access rights to the aforementioned facilities and elsewhere.4 Since that time, it has become apparent that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability is far more serious than had originally been thought, and the infrastructure in place was significantly more advanced than that of neighboring Iraq.

In February of 2003, IAEA inspectors began their evaluation of facilities at Arak and Natanz in order to corroborate the claims of the National Council of Resistance. At Arak, Iranian officials declared the production of heavy water as material for export, yet only a few months later, claimed that such materials were to be used as a coolant and moderator at the Arak reactor. Plans to launch a full and comprehensive construction of the Arak reactor began in May 2003, but assurances were handed down from Tehran that the production of nuclear materials was intended solely for medical and industrial purposes. Despite these assurances, it has been estimated that once fully operative, the heavy-water reactor at Arak would be capable of producing enough weapons grade plutonium for 1 to 2 nuclear weapons annually.5

IAEA findings at Natanz were even more troublesome. Environmental samples taken by the IAEA during the spring of 2003 revealed traces of highly-enriched uranium, and not surprisingly, Iran attributed such findings to accidental contamination of centrifuge components imported from overseas. However, centrifuge testing at the Natanz plant has successfully produced materials compatible with the construction of nuclear weapons, and by the time the plant is completed and fully operative, upwards to 1,000 P-1 centrifuges will be capable of producing 10-12 kilograms of highly enriched, weapons grade uranium annually. Currently, the larger commercial plant in Natanz — separate from the Natanz plant investigated by the IAEA – has been prepared for the acceptance of up to 50,000 P-1 centrifuges capable of producing 400-500 kilograms of highly-enriched, weapons grade uranium annually, enough to construct 15-20 nuclear weapons during that time span. Most importantly, the facilities of this particular site are completely underground, demonstrating the level of sophistication and secrecy of Iran’s current nuclear program.6 These findings took the IAEA and the international community by surprise, invoking a continuation of weapons inspections and an intensification of IAEA demands.

Upon discovery of the plutonium and uranium enrichment capabilities at Arak and Natanz, the IAEA immediately called for Iran to cease production of such weapons-grade materials and adhere to international guidelines as stated by the IAEA and Non-Proliferation Treaty. In addition to this, the IAEA Board of Governor’s required Iran to display full transparency with all nuclear facilities, activities, and materials as specified by the safeguards obligations put in place. By September of 2003, arms inspectors had reported back to the IAEA that not only had Iran failed to cease the enrichment of uranium — two unique samples were found at Natanz — but previous Iranian claims and statements had been modified over time to meet new developments. In light of these modifications, and combined with the fact that Iranian officials were often uncooperative and unresponsive to the wishes of IAEA arms inspectors, the IAEA handed down several demands. Among them, Iran was ordered to provide full disclosure of all nuclear-related activities and facilities, adhere to the requests of IAEA arms inspectors, provide a complete declaration of all imported materials relevant to the nuclear program, and cease all unauthorized enrichment activities.7 Despite promises from Tehran to comply with the will of the IAEA and international non-proliferation regimes, further IAEA citations of non-compliance and obstruction were levied upon Iran, magnifying the increasing danger of nuclear realization.

Shortly after the IAEA report of September 2003, the three key member states of the European Union — Great Britain, Germany, and France — met with Iran on a bilateral basis to encourage a peaceful solution to the ensuing crisis. These states, collectively called the European Union-3 or EU-3, proposed a deal which would open the door for increased economic and political cooperation between the two entities in exchange for compliance with IAEA protocol, particularly the disruption of all weapons-grade uranium enrichment. At the time, it appeared that Iranian compliance was only a step way, yet in November of 2003, the IAEA released a report expressing “with deep concern that Iran has failed in a number of instances over an extended period of time to meet its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement with respect to reporting of nuclear material, and its processing and use, as well as the declaration of facilities where such material has been processed and stored.”8 The report when on to condemn Iranian ignorance of protocol in favor of advancing their weapons program, a move seen as detrimental to Iran’s position within the IAEA arms negotiations process.

Since the November 2003 report, IAEA reports on Iran’s implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement have shown mixed results. On one hand, the IAEA expressed deep concern and displeasure with Iran’s decision to reverse its previous agreement to halt the enrichment of uranium. Not only did Iran fall well short of NPT protocol and the expectations of the IAEA, but enrichment activities were resumed altogether in certain circumstances without the necessary IAEA observation team in place. As well, the IAEA condemned Iran’s failure to report the existence of a laser enrichment facility at Lashkar Ab’ad and a pilot enrichment facility at the Kalaye Electric Company, both of which are capable of contributing to Iran’s weapons program.9Also of concern to non-proliferation officials has been Iran’s repeated failure to fully cooperate with inspectors since November of 2003. Although the inspection regime has yet to encounter the sorts of problems that the UN teams encountered in Iraq, the lack of transparency and the deception involved has been widespread enough to raise considerable doubts among the IAEA about Iran’s intention to address the nuclear issue with clarity and honesty.

On the other hand, the IAEA report of November 2004 detailed Iran’s cooperation with inspectors thus far, applauding Iranian efforts to provide more transparency and to adhere to the requests of IAEA officials regarding enrichment activities. The Additional Protocol to the NPT, an expansion of the original boundaries in which Iran was to follow, was accepted and signed by Tehran. Despite the fact that ratification of the protocol has yet to take place, the IAEA reported a general sense of optimism in Iran’s increasing respect for the non-proliferation laws in effect. The November report did, however, call upon Iranian leaders to further their cooperation by ratifying the Additional Protocol and complying with repeated demands to fully disclose uranium and plutonium enrichment activities.10 As it stands now, Iran seems to be cooperating just enough to evade serious international repercussions, but only time will tell if such cooperation continues. Even if Iran were to maintain its strategy of limited cooperation and occasional misdirection, the IAEA must address the issue of how Iran obtained the centrifuge technology that has made uranium enrichment possible. In all likelihood, the probability of Iran producing such a capability indigenously is quite low, and the IAEA — acting as the watchdog of the NPT — must magnify its efforts to bolster the effectiveness of the export regime to ensure that the prospect of Iranian weapons development doesn’t continue into the coming decades.

If the IAEA intends to tighten export controls to limit the operation of uranium-enriching gas centrifuges in Iran, then ultimately the international microscope must focus on the proliferation of nuclear technology from Iran’s eastern neighbor, Pakistan. Within the past year, Pakistani nuclear experts have informed Pakistani government officials that in fact, centrifuge components were sold to Iran, as well as Libya and North Korea.11Although the Pakistani government denies any official role in the transfer of sensitive information or vital materials, evidence seems to suggest that the Pakistanis were not as unknowing as Islamabad insists.

Pakistan’s involvement with Iran’s development of nuclear weapons can best be identified by the centrifuge designs of the two states. Under close examination, it has been concluded that the designs of Pakistani facilities — built during the 1980s — closely resemble the facilities that have been constructed in Iran during the past decade.12 This conclusion seems valid when considering the manner in which Pakistan phased its initial centrifuge design — the unique P-1 gas centrifuge — from existence. During the early 1990s, Pakistan began to replace their P-1 centrifuge machines with the more advanced P-2 design, allowing optimization in the production capacity of Pakistani uranium. Around this same time, it was revealed that Iran’s centrifuge stockpile, practically negligible before 1995, had risen to nearly 500, an increase unexplainable by indigenous development alone. Interestingly enough, the Iranian centrifuge components mirrored that of the Pakistani P-1, a linkage that not even Tehran could dismiss.13 To further implicate Pakistani involvement, A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear program, admitted to providing Iran with sensitive centrifuge design information as early as 1989. Khan claimed that although the transactions were limited to the course of a few years, they were far more comprehensive than had originally been thought. Materials and outdated hardware were shipped to Iran in exchange for currency, and on at least one occasion, Khan met with Iranian nuclear scientists in Karachi to discuss cooperation and details relevant to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Islamabad has responded to these claims by isolating Khan and his proliferation network, labeling such Iranian-Pakistani cooperation as the work of “rogue” scientists acting independently from the Pakistani chain of command. According to Khan, however, the orders to assist the Iranian cause were handed down from the highest levels of the civilian and military establishment, including orders from Dr. Niazi (an aide to Prime Minister Bhutto), General Imtiaz (former defense advisor to Bhutto), and General Mirza Aslam Beg (Chief of the Pakistani Army).14

The implications of Pakistani assistance to the Iranian nuclear cause, regardless of whether or not A.Q. Khan’s assertions are completely factual, are strikingly clear and relevant to the future of Iranian proliferation. As it is, the IAEA has struggled to adequately contain nuclear development in Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere. If an avowed nuclear state such as Pakistan were to fully cooperate in aiding an NPT signatory in acquiring weapons material and information, the strain placed upon nonproliferation regimes may exceed the tolerance for such activities. As will be explained later, the IAEA must take a proactive approach in addressing the export of materials and information deemed fundamental to the construction of an illegal nuclear device. Any unchecked intervention on Pakistan’s part, whether under the jurisdiction of Islamabad or the initiative of independent proliferators such as Khan, will place an increasing burden upon the IAEA to intercept and neutralize the flow of sensitive hardware. If the IAEA fails to meet such demands, Iran will certainly realize its full nuclear potential, despite the safeguards put in place within Iran by the international community.

Implications of an Iranian Nuclear Capability
Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons may serve the perceived purposes of the hard-liners in Tehran, but in reality, Iranian miscalculations may result in a variety of unfortunate circumstances. Surrounded by states that see Iran as the belligerent standard bearer of Islamist revolution, Iranian nuclear development would likely provoke serious confrontation between regional actors, both militarily and politically. In addition to this, Iranian proliferation threatens the very legitimacy of non-proliferation regimes, particularly the protocol of the IAEA and the Non-Proliferation Treaty. By reducing the effectiveness of such measures, the international community will continue to struggle to dissuade states from pursuing a nuclear capability of their own. This is precisely what the United States and the west should avoid in the post 9/11 world.

Israeli Pre-emption
Israel is no stranger to pre-emptive warfare. The Israeli attack on Egyptian ground and air forces in June of 1967 demonstrated its resolve to minimize the exposure of conflict within Israeli borders, even at the expense of international condemnation. In a more relevant tone, Israel demonstrated its intentions to monopolize the nuclear market in the Middle East by attacking the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak in 1981, a move that set the Iraqi program back indefinitely.15 Israel was able to successfully maneuver in 1981, however, thanks in large part to regional preoccupation with the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Lebanese Civil War. Given these circumstances, the consequences of the strike on the Osirak reactor complex were minimal, as Iraq had the majority of its resources invested in an ongoing conflict with Iran. Such circumstances are not as favorable to Israel at the current time, and an Israeli attack on Iranian facilities would provoke a tremendous response not only from Iran, but from the Arab world in general.

However, Israel appears committed to moving forward with military engagement if the conditions in Iran fail to materialize in accordance to Israeli wishes. Despite rumblings from within Israel rejecting the notion of an Israeli pre-emptive assault on Iran, statements from the highest levels of Israel’s defense community indicate otherwise. As early as November of 2003, Israeli external intelligence has been touting the nuclear developments in Iran as “the biggest threat to the existence of the Jewish state since its creation in 1948”, setting the stage for a possible attempt at justifying military pre-emption.16 Israeli intelligence has exerted significant time and energy into identifying Iranian nuclear facilities, presumably for possible targeting purposes. Although the prospect of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is a legitimate security concern for Israel, Jerusalem’s solution to the issue relies entirely on military retaliation rather than a political solution. The Israeli approach to the growing Iranian crisis is testament to this fact.

Unlike Iraq in 1981, Iran does not appear to be backing down from a potential showdown with Israel. A recent comment by Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, confirmed this when he stated bluntly that “any action by Israel will be reacted by us most severely”17. Additionally, even former President Khatami has repeatedly warned against a pre-emptive attack on Iranian facilities. Known by the international community as a pragmatic liberal in the midst of ultraconservative Islamism, Khatami represents the overwhelming sentiment in Iran that Israeli aggression is inherently unacceptable, and any unauthorized intrusions on Iranian sovereignty require a harsh and authoritative response by those trusted with the defense of the Iranian state. It’s unlikely that any segment of the Iranian political spectrum would be willing to accept Israeli hostility against interests perceived by Iranians to be of vital importance to the survival of their autonomy. Despite all of the divisions within Iranian society today, an Israeli attack would serve as nothing less than an all encompassing unifier.

As it now stands, the greater Muslim world sees Israel as an obstacle to peace, not only in Palestine but in Iraq, Iran, and Syria. The continued military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, combined with the US occupation of Iraq has exacerbated the sense of instability regionally, bringing the level of frustration and anger of those in the Middle East to a boiling point. Given the perception among many Muslims that Israel serves as an imperial outpost for the greater powers of the west, particularly the United States, a conflict with Iran would certainly be viewed through a prism that reflects such a dimension of sentiment. An Israeli attack against any Muslim regime — whether Arab or Persian —would further enflame the passions of rebellion against Israel and those regimes friendly with Jerusalem, particularly Egypt.

When considering the human devastation resulting from an exchange of conventional or unconventional weapons between Israel and Iran, the benefits of military intervention seem quite ambiguous. Likewise, there is no guarantee that Israeli air strikes would adequately cripple Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, as the Iranians may possess secret military facilities outside of Israeli reach. Given these possibilities, an Israeli pre-emptive assault on Iranian nuclear facilities would reap terrible costs and widen the ongoing conflict between the Israeli-American alliance, and the greater Islamic world.

Arab Counter-Proliferation
Since Khomeini’s return to Tehran in 1979, the single greatest fear among the Gulf States — particularly the Sunni monarchies — has been the exportation of the predominantly Shi’ite Islamic revolution, carried out by subversive means backed with the threat of military force. Iran’s preoccupation with Iraq during the better part of the 1980s alleviated the immediate security concerns of the Arab petrol-states, but with the weakening of Iraq subsequent to its unsuccessful occupation and eviction from Kuwait, these concerns rapidly rematerialized. The presence of US troops and the construction of permanent American military bases throughout the Gulf after the Iraq war addressed many of these concerns. Contrary to the understanding of many in the west, the long-term deployment of US forces was not simply aimed at containing Iraq. Rather, with growing fears of a military rejuvenation in Iran swirling around Riyadh and Doha, these troop allocations served as a deterrent against direct Iranian belligerence. With no answer from Tehran for the numerical and technological superiority of American forces in the region, the Arab states comfortably rested under the blanket of western security without seriously contemplating a scramble to develop indigenous nuclear or missile programs of their own.18 These conditions were prominent throughout much of the following decade. As long as American troops provided a security guarantee for the Arab Gulf States, the prospect of Arab weapons proliferation seemed minimal, assuming that Iran’s defense posture presented little threat to the stability of the regional monarchies.

In Saudi Arabia, the general sense of security from an Iranian threat has waned significantly in the past few years. Since 9/11, revelations surrounding Saudi involvement in the financing and ideological sponsorship of Wahhabi terrorist groups and militant organizations have taken a considerable toll among the American public, so much so that the Saudi royal family may no longer trust the full backing of the United States in the event of conflict involving the Saudi kingdom. Although these fears do not accurately reflect the longstanding relationship between the current Bush Administration and the al-Saud, the growing anti-Saudi attitude, in addition to the rapid development of an Iranian nuclear capability, has convinced many in Riyadh to consider taking defense issues into their own hands.19 The paranoia gripping the Saudi royal family signifies not only its fear of being abandoned by the United States, but a sense of vulnerability to subversive elements under the control of the Islamic Republic. What the Saudis fail to accept is that the rising tide of discontent within the kingdom is a direct consequence of Saudi corruption and addiction to western petroleum investment. Rather, the perceived antagonist of the inevitable rebellion remains Iran, and the counter-proliferation policies of the al-Saud reflect this.

As early as 1986, Saudi Arabia has pursued a sophisticated ballistic missile program by purchasing several Chinese CSS-2 intermediate range ballistic missiles — with a range of nearly 3,000 kilometers — and within the next few years, the kingdom expects to receive state-of-the-art Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles with a 5,000 kilometer range. To complement their missile capabilities, several reports have implicated Pakistan in assisting Saudi Arabia to develop a nuclear weapons program. Given the non-existence of a complex technological infrastructure within the kingdom, Saudi leaders have sought the aid of Pakistan to create a nuclear program able to successfully yield multiple devices. Allegations surrounding then-Crown Prince Abdullah’s October 2003 visit to Pakistan focus on a secret deal struck between the two states, giving Pakistan access to cheap oil in exchange for assistance in the Saudi nuclear department. Once again, A.Q. Khan and his proliferation network have been implicated in several similar allegations, in spite of vehement denials from Riyadh.20 The linkage between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan appears conceivable, considering Pakistan’s desire for cheap oil in the midst of its growing economic turmoil, and Saudi Arabia’s quest for nuclear weapons to deter Iran. Beyond the scope of simple economics, the two states have shared very close relations since Pakistani independence in 1947. Saudi charitable organizations, both private and government-sponsored, prevail as the predominant benefactor of Sunni indoctrination and religious education of Pakistani youth, and the Musharraf regime has failed to retract Pakistan’s dangerous relationship with the Saudi Wahhabi establishment. Therefore, in light of Iranian proliferation and the perceived roll-back of American military protection, Pakistani assistance for a Saudi nuclear capability seems more and more likely.

Aside from Saudi Arabia, Iraq presents the international community with perhaps the largest proliferation challenge in response to events unfolding in Iran. Saddam Hussein’s removal from power dramatically alters the dynamics of polity in Baghdad, but certain fears and concerns are consistent with those of 1980. The newly established Iraqi government must recognize that once American forces withdraw, Iraq must provide for its own security immediately and effectively.

The contrast between the potentially threatening scenario facing Saudi Arabia, and that facing Iraq with regards to Iran are geographically apparent. Infiltration and subversion of the Iraqi political process from their troublesome neighbor to the east involves a crossing of a rather porous border, whereas such subversion requires an indigenous element elsewhere. Iraqi leaders, aware of the significance of their majority Shi’ite population living under the shadow of the revolutionaries in Iran, rightly fear the consequences of covert Iranian intervention to exploit the chaos left in the wake of the American invasion and subsequent occupation. If Iran were to advance its revolutionary cause with a nuclear deterrent forbidding Iraqi retaliation, Iraq may then conclude that the only credible response may be a significant military build-up of its own.21 Iraq must certainly expect Iran to use nuclear weapons as a means of coercion and instigation among the Shi’ites in Iraq, and unless the United States and the international community were to provide a convincing security guarantee for the vulnerable Iraqi state, the revitalization of Iraq’s robust military infrastructure may be a potential option available in the minds of Iraqi policymakers.

Recent developments between the two states provide reason for optimism, but the precise nature of Iranian strategic intent vis-à-vis Iraq may not be clear until US forces have left. In fact, Iran stands much to gain by assisting in the cause for Iraqi stability — and there are indications that Iran is cooperating in this venture— and whether Iran pursues an aggressive course of sub-version and intervention is as of yet inconclusive.

Arab counter-proliferation not only strains the Non-Proliferation Treaty and diverts the IAEA from more pressing matters, but provides terrorist groups with the opportunity to seize control of a nuclear weapon for the first time. The challenge to the Saudi state comes from both the population at large, and a variety of militant organizations associated with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qa’ida network. If the al-Saud were to collapse under the weight of an indigenous uprising, the distinct possibility exists in which those who seize power would inherit whatever weapons systems were already in place. Notwithstanding the fact that such a scenario is unlikely in the near term, the consequences of a nuclear acquisition are unimaginable. Implications of Iranian nuclear realization would also extend to Turkey, Syria, and Egypt, exacerbating the nuclear issue beyond reasonable control.

Delegitimization of Non-Proliferation Regimes
Regional conflict and destabilization are not the only implications of Iranian nuclear weapons proliferation. In the post 9/11 world, the United States and the international community have stressed the vitality of arms control and non-proliferation activity, and thus far, the enforcement of this policy lies at the head of western strategic posture.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) establishes certain provisions and protocol for the advancement of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. All signatories to the treaty are expected to alert the NPT’s enforcement agency, the IAEA, of all nuclear activities, and all nuclear facilities should be left available for inspection at the discretion of IAEA officials.22 The treaty strictly prohibits any state — other than the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, and France — from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, and in the event in which nuclear proliferation becomes evident, the necessary consequences are to be imposed by the IAEA. The letter of the law clearly prescribes the “dos” and “don’ts” of nuclear development, and the maintenance of the NPT relies heavily upon proper enforcement of both the letter and spirit of the law.

If Iran were to move forward with its nuclear weapons program in spite of persistent declarations and IAEA resolutions condemning Iranian actions, then the international community must react to enforce the law — as Iran is a signatory to the NPT. However, the Iranian situation is particularly capricious, given the potential calculations that Tehran might make. If the international response was perceived as heavy-handed and biased, then in all likelihood, Iran would withdraw completely from the NPT and openly manufacture nuclear weapons at its own discretion. Such an attempt to defy non-proliferation regimes by simply walking away would have disastrous consequences, particularly if the international community failed to respond in kind. In the event that Iran withdrew from its obligations and pursued weapons at will, other signatories of the NPT interested in a similar pursuit may test the efficiency of the IAEA and the resolve of the international community by breaking away from their respective obligations. On the flip-side, if the international response failed to adequately punish Iran for its incompliance with NPT protocol, opting instead to pursue an endless course of weapons inspections backed by empty threats, then Iran would defy the NPT not by withdrawing, but by defeating the system internally. Prospective proliferators may see the fact that Iran managed to successfully produce nuclear weapons without ever withdrawing from the NPT or incurring international punishment, and then decide to follow suit. Either way, Iranian nuclear development in the absence of an equitable and calculating international response would render the NPT obsolete and illegitimate.

Indian, Pakistani, and Israeli proliferation efforts failed to render the sorts of consequences previously explained, yet one must take into account the fact that none of these states are or ever were signatories to the NPT.23 Despite Israel’s unfortunate manipulation of international arms control norms by abstaining from non-proliferation treaties, Iran must understand that countering such manipulation by ignoring international law will ultimately solicit a punishment. Without a requisite punishment or an evaluation of methods to disarm non-signatories, trans-national proliferation control will suffer a tremendous defeat at the hands of lawbreakers, manipulators, and absent enforcers.

Non-Proliferation Strategies
At the root of every conflict lies a justification and explanation of some sort. In Iran’s case, the pursuit of nuclear weapons is based in large part on security concerns stemming from previous or potential conflicts and rivalries. Nationalistic pride, a centerpiece of Persian tradition for thousands of years, contributes largely to Iran’s defense policy, but such nationalism must be taken within the proper context. Iranians aren’t nationalistic because of any particular sense of superiority or ethnic supremacy. Rather, this sense of nationalism has been fomented over time in response to the imperialist influence exerted upon the Persian people, and the legacies of the imperialistic age are alive and well today. For the international community to have any conceivable prospect of success in persuading Iran to disavow a nuclear capability, the world must first and foremost address the factors that have led Iran down this road, many of which possess the very imperialistic concerns that confronted Iranian leaders fifty years ago. In conjunction with this approach, the international community must offer Iran a variety of incentives to fully and satisfactorily comply with international arms control standards, as dictated by the NPT. By doing so, entities on both sides of the divide stand much to gain.

Address Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal
As far as Iran’s security posture is concerned, Israel’s possession of an expansive and sophisticated nuclear weapons arsenal stands among the primary motivations for Tehran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability. Particularly since Israel’s occupation of Lebanon in the early 1980s, the Iranian-Israeli relationship has centered solely on confrontation, animosity, and distrust. Notwithstanding their geographical separation, the two states have stood eye-to-eye for the better part of the latter 20 years, and any significant military advantage enjoyed by either party will naturally invoke a retaliatory response from the other.

Any serious attempt to soothe the nuclear tensions between Iran and Israel must first engage the issue of Israel’s failure to abide by the non-proliferation standards expected of the rest of the world. The difficulty encountered by holding Israel accountable to the provisions of the NPT deals with the undeniable fact that Israel is not a signatory, and therefore not responsible for compliance with NPT regulations.24 Addressing and closing this loophole must be the first step in successfully bringing Iran and Israel to the negotiations table with a realistic possibility of a settlement. By maintaining a position of complacency, the United States sends a terribly hypocritical message to Iran: “Disarm now, or face the consequences….and by the way, Israel, because of their non-signatory status, can retain their arsenal”. This hypocritical message essentially has been the official policy of American administrations for the past several decades, and if it continues, the prospect for a peaceful resolution to the Iranian-Israeli nuclear crisis will be all but lost.

Shortly after 9/11, former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani made clear his frustration with America’s preferential treatment of Israel, claiming that the United States has supplied Israel with “vast quantities of weapons of mass destruction and unconventional weapons”, and successive United States government have essentially “shut their eyes to what is going on [in Israel]”.25 Although Rafsanjani, a conservative pragmatist among the Iranian elite, didn’t necessarily call for outright nuclear proliferation, he did deplore the United States for openly challenging Iran’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons without a concurrent challenge for Israel. The United States has long since accepted Israel’s nuclear weapons program, and the sentiment in Washington seems to suggest “don’t ask, don’t tell”. However, a dramatic shift in American strategy must compensate for the inequities of the non-signatory status that Israel currently enjoys. To persuade Israel to sign the NPT and adhere to its doctrine should be among the most integral tasks of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Doing so would help to mitigate Iranian suspicions of irreversible American favoritism of Israel, and eliminating such outright favoritism would pressure Israel to make a decision between international integration and desperate isolation.

Once the United States successfully implants the realistic idea of negotiation into the minds of Israeli policymakers, a series of demands would then be put in place to convince Iran of Israel’s commitment to peace. The demands would be similar to the IAEA protocol established in Iran, particularly the issues of full disclosure of nuclear facilities, comprehensive detail of all enrichment activities, and a full compliance with IAEA regulations as established by the NPT. At this point, any expectations for Israel to abandon nuclear weapons already within their possession would be unrealistic and damagingly hasty. The initial objective would be to introduce Israel to the arms control processes implemented in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere, thereby peeling away its status as a secretive and fully protected nuclear state. Only then can further negotiations move forward.

Upon successfully integrating Israel into the arms control process, an evaluation of Israeli grievances must be taken into consideration. The idea of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East has been one in which Israel has considered in the past, but any considerations were and still are predicated by the prior success of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Historically, Israel has demanded that Arab states relinquish their control of weapons of mass destruction and move toward normalization of relations between the entities.26 Currently, the only state of interest for Israel in this regard is Syria, and Syria has repeatedly hinted at disarmament in exchange for Israeli disarmament. In Iran’s case, the likely Israeli condition for nuclear repudiation would be a cease in the logistical support for Palestinian Islamist groups, particularly Hamas and Islamic Jihad.27 Iran sees these organizations not as a way to advance the Islamic revolution, but as a counter to Israeli military superiority in the region and an opportunity to engage Israel militarily by proxy. By moving toward nuclear disarmament, Israel can dispel these concerns, but only if disarmament appears genuine and sincere. To further the understanding between Israel and Iran, the United States must make a serious effort at formalizing the Middle East peace process as soon as possible. Although the details of this process are for another discussion, the conclusion of an unprejudiced two-state solution would accomplish much by attacking some of the particular motivations for anti-Israeli aggression. Doing so could only enhance the prospects of peace and stability.

Finally, the United States would do well to consider extending NATO security guarantees to Israel in exchange for a full and comprehensive disarmament of nuclear weaponry. With NATO expansion reaching deep into the former Soviet bloc — including Turkey — an extension of certain defense benefits for Israel could be considered. This would not only provide Israel the opportunity to flourish within a community of nations, but would dissolve any fears of an Arab or Iranian attack on a non-nuclear armed Israeli state.28

The conditions created by the phased elimination of the Israeli nuclear stockpile would go a long way to address Iranian security concerns. Despite the fact that Israel never intended its nuclear weapons as a first-strike tool against Iran, their very existence threatens regional balance and stability, particularly given the perceived, if not actual, favoritism and hypocrisy displayed by the United States. Evening the scorecard in the Middle East by engaging the Israeli nuclear arsenal diplomatically is critical in establishing parity. Israel and Iran must both identify and recognize the costs of non-compliance, and act accordingly.

Alleviate Fears of American Aggression
Unlike North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a significant degree of public discourse exists in Iran, and the population at large eagerly anticipates eventual integration with the international community. In light of this, the United States must welcome the possibility of rapprochement with its long-time Iranian adversary, with the caveat that Iran fully comply with international non-proliferation standards and act responsibly as a member of the international community. Unfortunately, many in Iran believe that even if the Iranian government were to fully comply with the requests and demands placed before them, the United States — specifically the Bush Administration — and their Israeli allies would press forward with their plans to remove the current regime, by force if necessary.

A 2003 poll taken in Iran showed that approximately 70% of Iranians favored normalization of relations with the United States and engagement with the international community as a whole. Quite dissimilar from Ayatollah Khamenei and his Guardian Council, the Iranian street seeks legitimacy and acceptance from the world through integration and cooperation, rather than military confrontation.29 During President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address in which he implicated Iran as being part of an “Axis of Evil,” the repercussions on the very same Iranian street were disastrous. Notwithstanding the overwhelming unpopularity of Khamenei and the “fatwa-hurling” Iranian ayatollahs, a deep sense of anger and dissatisfaction directed at the United States poured forth from the Iranian street immediately after Bush’s declaration. Seen as an ultimate display of arrogance and ignorance, Iranian’s received the “Axis of Evil” speech “as a deep insult to their national dignity,” and many in Iran shared the belief in the idea that “any US strategy that even remotely raises the specter of foreign interference in Iran is doomed to fail.”30 Interestingly enough, Iran was the only Muslim Middle Eastern state to hold candlelight vigils en masse for the victims of the 9/11 attacks. In a period of about 30 seconds, President Bush’s rhetoric dissolved this incredible sense of sympathy almost immediately. Once again, the Iranian people were begrudgingly reunited with the corrupt and antagonistic leadership in Tehran.

Admittedly, the hard-liners in Iran will not likely accept the United States as an ally no matter how cooperative Washington appears. Fortunately, the two states do not require an alliance to successfully address Iran’s nuclear weapons issues. What is required, however, is an American willingness to accept Iranian cooperation and respect Iran’s right to existence if cooperation is satisfactorily demonstrated. The belligerence of the Bush Administration in the recent past indicates that regardless of the path chosen by those in Tehran, the United States will seek ways to breed conflict with Iran in the hopes of disrupting stability and threatening the survival of the current regime. Obviously, the people of Iran and those in surrounding nations would do well to replace Khamenei and the Guardian Council in favor of the reformist movement. Nonetheless, the United States doesn’t possess the luxury of negotiating real policy with Khatami or Rafsanjani in place of the hard-liners in power, and therefore must be careful not to threaten Iran unnecessarily. Even with a resolution to the Israeli nuclear issue, Iran would likely remain skeptical of American intentions in the region — alliances with Saudi Arabia and Iraq, for instance — and the need for a nuclear deterrent would play very well not only among the political elite, but also among the Iranian masses marginalized by President Bush’s spiteful rhetoric. The United States must convince Iran that American troops in Iraq pose absolutely no threat to the security of the Iranian state, and American interests regionally are not necessarily in stark opposition to the interests of Iran.

The United States need not appease Iran in any way. If Iran fails to meet its obligations under the NPT, as declared by the IAEA, then the United States and the international community reserves the right to send the matter directly to the United Nations Security Council for the implementation of comprehensive economic sanctions. If these actions fail to deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear capability, then the United States must consider the possible — although unlikely — use of limited force to roll back Iranian nuclear advances. However, this will not be necessary if the United States can dissuade Iran from taking those steps by assuring Tehran of Washington’s intentions to honor Iranian cooperation. The United States must refrain from continual talk of “regime change,” and focus more on appealing both to the Iranian people and to the Iranian government. Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons can no longer be justified by citing the need for a deterrent against the United States, if the United States is willing to sufficiently address many of Iran’s concerns. It has yet to be proven whether or not the United States is ready to take that step, and whether or not Iran would cooperate honestly if given the opportunity.

Provide Economic and Technological Incentives to Disarm
Nuclear acquisition in Iran is seen not only as a security detail, but as a source of nationalistic and ethnic pride, a sort of “bragging rights” as leverage against Sunni Arab neighbors. After decades of external intervention and imperial control — both directly and indirectly — Iranians yearn for the opportunity to claim power and ascendancy as their own, and the possession of nuclear weapons can satisfy just that. However, this isn’t necessarily a fatalistic observation. In fact, Iranians may be willing to part with their nationalistic pride in exchange for full integration into the international community and global economy. After all, these characteristics were painfully absent during imperial control — at least as a sovereign entity — such control that helped to shape Iranian nationalism in the first place.

Economically, the hard-line clerics have failed miserably to deliver on their fiscal promises throughout the years. Unemployment currently stands at above 16% with an inflation rate equally high. The influx of new labor into the job market has severely strained Iran’s employment capacity, and the situation will only get worse in the absence of lucrative reform.31 Despite their ideological presuppositions, the hard-liners realize that sooner or later, they’ll have to deliver economically. A failure to do so not only jeopardizes Iran’s nuclear and conventional military budget, but strains the relationship between the central government and the governed. Therefore, the Iranian clerics may be more susceptible to negotiating now than ever.

Firstly, the international community must offer Iran a variety of enticing trade packages, including potential entry into the World Trade Organization. For this to be successful, the United States must be willing to enter into these negotiations, as Iran would otherwise suspect ill intentions from the United States. Iran must be put into a position in which the fear of military reprisals against its nuclear facilities are alleviated, as long as Iran abides by the stipulations put forth by the United States and Europe. If the United States comes across as heavy-handed and confrontational, the likelihood of any sustained success diminishes greatly. On the other hand, if Europe fails to enforce definitively NPT protocol or the provisions of particular economic agreements, then the international community runs of risk of allowing Iran to proliferate at will. Both the United States and Europe must agree that Iranian non-compliance must be considered for reference to the UN Security Council, but both sides must agree on the timing of such a decision.

Secondly, the United States and Europe must work with Russia to arrange for the transfer of peaceful nuclear materials to Iran in exchange for absolute compliance with NPT protocol. Although Iran sits atop one of the world’s largest gas reserves — in fact, it’s believed that Iran flares enough gas annually to operate four Bushehr reactors32 — a ban on peaceful nuclear energy for Iran wouldn’t be necessary. Although the current American administration favors a complete ban on Iranian nuclear production, this position should be open to change in the event that Iran agrees to negotiate a weapons-for-energy deal. Given Iran’s previous deception, however, the IAEA must pay particular attention to an Iranian nuclear energy infrastructure, and Iran must willingly accept and comply with the demands of IAEA officials at any given time. A deal of this sort not only saves Iran considerable annual capital, but saves Iran the trouble of dealing with persistent demands from the IAEA to comply with NPT protocol at once.

The late-2004 deal struck between the three prominent powers of the European Union —Great Britain, Germany, and France — and Iran should serve as a potential model for future negotiations.33 The combination of trade and energy incentives, in and of itself, will not likely suffice to conclude Iran’s nuclear chapter for certain, but negotiations of that sort will assist western efforts to persuade Iran to choose integration and the eventual conformity to international norms of all sorts.

There is no reason for the United States, the international community, or Iran to simply accept the fact that conflict between the entities is unavoidable. In fact, much common ground can be established through proper and equitable negotiations aimed at eliminating the motivations for nuclear proliferation in the first place. In order for the two sides to reach an understanding, Iran must do more to demonstrate to the world that it is willing to enter the global political and economic market as a law abiding, peace-seeking nation state with a willingness to negotiate and a propensity to cooperate. Iran must quickly recognize the costs of acquiring nuclear weapons: the probability of attack increases as nuclear realization becomes clearer, political rivalries will continue to fracture the already unstable landscape across the Middle East, and economic isolation will further destroy and erode the financial fabrics of Iranian society.

The United States must also take the proper steps to prove to the world that it is willing to pursue non-proliferation peacefully, with the possibility of political concessions on both sides close at hand. Both political parties in the United States must disavow their continued hypocrisy of supporting Israeli nuclear development while condemning development elsewhere. Leaders from both sides of the aisle must be willing to do what no American thought was plausible in 1979; negotiate face to face with the Iranian hard-liners. In particular, Bush Administration officials must refrain from exercising their hawkish demeanor in critical and highly sensitive circumstances such as this. American cooperation in defusing the Iranian nuclear crisis is absolutely necessary in every aspect, and a failure to meet the challenges ahead and pursue the policies required of Washington — regardless of how popular they may or may not be — would mean nothing less than total failure. 

End Notes
1. Taken from the 24 June 2004 Congressional testimony of John R. Bolton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations, “Iran’s Continuing Pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction”.

2. “Iran Warns Israel Against Strike”, BBC News Online.

3. Shahram Chubin and Robert Litwak, “Debating Iran’s Nuclear Aspirations”. The Washington Quarterly, Autumn 2003. Page 105.

4. Michael A. Levi, “Enabler: The IAEA Must Be Careful With Iran”. The New Republic, 6 October 2003. The Brookings Institution Online.

5. Revati Prasad, “Iran’s Programs to Produce Plutonium and Enriched Uranium”. Carnegie Fact Sheet, 14 October 2004. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Online.

6. Revati Prasad, “Iran’s Programs to Produce Plutonium and Enriched Uranium”. Carnegie Fact Sheet, 14 October 2004. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Online.

7. Taken from the 24 June 2004 Congressional testimony of John R. Bolton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations, “Iran’s Continuing Pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction”.

8. Taken from the 24 June 2004 Congressional testimony of John R. Bolton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations, “Iran’s Continuing Pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction”.

9. International Atomic Energy Resolution GOV/2004/83, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran”. 15 November 2004. Pages 1, 19-20.

10. International Atomic Energy Resolution GOV/2004/83, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran”. 15 November 2004. Pages 20-21.

11. David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, “The Centrifuge Connection”. Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March/April 2004. Pages 61-66.

12. George Perkovich, “Dealing with Iran’s Nuclear Challenge”. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28 April 2003. Page 5.

13. David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, “The Centrifuge Connection”. Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March/April 2004. Pages 61-66.

14. “AQ Khan and Iran”.,

15. Michael Donovan, “Iran, Israel, and Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East”. Center for Defense Information, 14 February 2002.

16. Miranda Eeles, “Iran Warns Against Israeli Strike”. BBC News Online, 22 December 2003.

17. “Iran Warns Israel Against Strike”, BBC News Online.

18. Richard Russell, “Peering over the Horizon: Arab Threat Perception and Security Responses to a Nuclear-Ready Iran”. Non-proliferation Policy Education Center, 15 March 2004. Pages 3-4.

19. Wyn Q. Bowen and Joanna Kid, “The Nuclear Capabilities and Ambitions of Iran’s Neighbours”. Non-proliferation Policy Education Center, February 2004. Page 3.

20. Wyn Q. Bowen and Joanna Kid, “The Nuclear Capabilities and Ambitions of Iran’s Neighbours”. Non-proliferation Policy Education Center, February 2004. Pages 2-7.

21. Richard Russell, “Peering over the Horizon: Arab Threat Perception and Security Responses to a Nuclear-Ready Iran”. Non-proliferation Policy Education Center, 15 March 2004. Page 7.

22. “Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty”. Federation of American Scientists Online.

23. George Perkovich and Silvia Manzanero, “The Global Consequences of Iran’s Acquisition of Nuclear Weapons”. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Page 2.

24. Avner Cohen and Thomas Graham Jr., “Disarmament Diplomacy”. The Acronym Institute, Issue No. 76. March/April 2004.

25. George Perkovich, “Dealing with Iran’s Nuclear Challenge”. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28 April 2003. Page 6.

26. Avner Cohen and Thomas Graham Jr., “Disarmament Diplomacy”. The Acronym Institute, Issue No. 76. March/April 2004.

27. Michael Donovan, “Iran, Israel, and Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East”. Center for Defense Information, 14 February 2002.

28. Bennett Ramberg, “Defusing the Nuclear Middle East”. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 2004. Pages 45-51.

29. Shahram Chubin and Robert Litwak, “Debating Iran’s Nuclear Aspirations”. The Washington Quarterly, Autumn 2003. Page 102.

30. George Perkovich, “Dealing with Iran’s Nuclear Challenge”. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28 April 2003. Page 9.

31. George Perkovich, “Dealing with Iran’s Nuclear Challenge”. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28 April 2003. Page 12.

32. Taken from the 24 June 2004 Congressional testimony of John R. Bolton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations, “Iran’s Continuing Pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction”.

33. “Agreement in Iran Nuclear Talks”. BBC News Online, 7 November 2004.


Daniel Canalety, currently a graduate student in international affairs at Marquette University, holds a B.A. in political science from the University of Illinois. Pursuing his interest in the Islamic world, he has traveled in the Middle East and Africa.


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