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IAEA Iran Nuclear Report: A Skeptic's Primer

Monday, Nov. 7, 2011

With Israel, the U.S. and Great Britain ramping up psy-ops against Tehran in the form of leaked strike planning, the IAEA is set to release its latest and most unambiguous report on the Iranian nuclear program to date. According to advanced word, the IAEA report offers new and convincing evidence of Iranian weaponization intentions. It is a mistake to dismiss such intelligence out of hand, as has become the habit in the post-Iraq WMD environment. After all, despite serious doubts at the time, the consensus of serious observers seems to be that the Syrian site attacked by Israel in 2007 was in fact an undeclared nuclear reactor under construction, as U.S. and Israeli intelligence services maintained.

Still, intelligence can be instrumentalized or just plain wrong. What's more, the disagreements over the Iranian nuclear program are exceptionally complex and opaque, and all the various sides of the policy debate have in the past used exaggerated and hyperbolic arguments to make their case. So in the interests of keeping things anchored to reality, I thought I'd offer the following as a sort of "skeptic's primer" of the arguments you're likely to hear from all sides of the debate that will inevitably unfold in the next few weeks:

- An Iranian bomb is imminent. For now, the Iranian nuclear program seems to be following an "inching toward the threshold" model, whereby all the various technical components required for a nuclear weapon are mastered, leaving only a final "breakout" effort to assemble them once the window of opportunity has closed for the international community to prevent it. That has created a widespread but not-uncontested consensus that Iran has at least the intention of being able to assemble a nuclear weapon if it feels the need to, which in itself would effectively offer Tehran a nuclear deterrent even in the absence of an actual bomb. Nevertheless, the Iranian uranium-enrichment effort is uneven and continues to be plagued by technical obstacles. Its delivery systems are far from reliable enough to create a credible deterrent. And the bomb designs that have been identified in previous intelligence reports are crude and unwieldy. It bears noting, too, that the timeline for an "imminent" Iranian nuclear weapon has been locked in at between two to four years for more than a decade, meaning that alarmists have been both consistent and wrong for that time.

- Sanctions don't work, so the only way to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon is with a military strike. There is increasing evidence that international sanctions, especially the latest rounds of targeted U.N. and U.S. sanctions, are having an increasing impact on Iran's ability to pursue its uranium enrichment program. That, combined with technical obstacles -- including those possibly caused by the Stuxnet cyber attack as well as by an alleged covert assassination campaign targeting Iranian nuclear scientists -- means that the international community continues to enjoy a wide range of options for constraining Iran's efforts to achieve a weapons breakout capability, regardless of Tehran's current intentions.

- Given the time left before Iran achieves a weapons capability, the window of opportunity for a military strike is not closing. The window of opportunity for a military strike is not determined by the time it will take the Iranians to develop a weapon, but by the time it will take them to harden the various components of their nuclear program to a degree that makes it invulnerable to a military strike. The known Iranian uranium enrichment facilities are already hardened and relatively robust in terms of their ability to withstand an airstrike. What's more, the Iranians have been working at developing additional enrichment facilities that are even more hardened and that have so far been off-limits to IAEA inspectors, making them even more difficult targets. The timeline for the international community's ability to intervene militarily -- which is to say, Israel and America's ability to intervene militarily -- is not indefinite and is growing shorter.

- A military strike on Iran's nuclear program would trigger war, accompanied by Iranian retaliations against Israel (via its Hezbollah and Hamas proxies), the U.S. (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and global trade (by targeting traffic in the Persian Gulf). The same predictions could have been made regarding an Israeli strike against Syria prior to the lightning strike against the suspicious Syrian site in 2007. Yet, that attack was met with deafening silence, both from Damascus and the international community. That does not mean we should assume a similar outcome in the event of an attack on Iran's sites, but neither should we uncritically take at face value Iranian threats to escalate such a strike into a full-blown war. To begin with, Tehran might find itself with limited options for such an escalation. Even before the Arab Spring, Iran's proxies exercised tactical and strategic autonomy from Tehran. They are likely to be even more hesitant to upset the current status quo given the degree to which the past year of regional turmoil has weakened Iran and especially Syria, their two major benefactors. Meanwhile, U.S. vulnerability in Iraq is winding down, and though Iran could damage efforts toward an orderly retreat from Afghanistan, it can only do so at great cost to its own objectives there. As for Iran's ability to close the Persian Gulf to commercial traffic, it has been exaggerated, as demonstrated by the limited impact of its previous efforts to do so during the Iran-Iraq War.

Finally, it's important to consider the potential impact of a nuclear-capable Iran, both on U.S. interests and on regional stability. Although it is not true that an Iranian nuclear bomb would represent an existential threat to Israel, it is very likely that Iran would be emboldened by the possession of a nuclear deterrent. That would have implications, not only for Israel, but also for all the Sunni states that have quietly allowed the U.S. and Israel to spearhead what is in fact a regional effort to contain Iran's ambitions. It is likely that an Iranian bomb would inspire copy-cat efforts by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as Egypt once it has emerged from its current instability. What would a multipolar nuclear Middle East look like? We have the model of a stable but volatile arrangement along those lines in South Asia. But even assuming that Iran will continue to be a pragmatic and rational actor in the international arena, there is no guarantee that the Middle East would follow that course.

There is a real and growing possibility that Iran will become a nuclear power. The question that the U.S. and its allies must consider is whether that risk is an acceptable and manageable one or not, and whether the current approach of coercive diplomacy is sufficient to prevent it.

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