Parchin military facility in Iran
Satellite image received from the Institute for Science and International Security, shows the Parchin military facility in Iran. UN inspectors were previously denied access to the Parchin military site, where warhead research allegedly took place. © AFP/DigitalGlobe/File
Parchin military facility in Iran
Last updated: April 29, 2013

The state and future of nuclear Iran

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With 10,000 centrifuges spinning, 7,000kg of uranium enriched to 3.5% and 190kg to a much more dangerous 20%, Iran is getting closer to a nuclear weapon. At the same time, the regime is in a state of flux with internal division ahead of next year's elections. But how big is really the Iranian nuclear threat?

In a recent publication for the Conservative Middle East Council, Shashank Joshi, a Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) explores the future of nuclear Iran. These are his conclusions:

Does Iran really want nuclear weapons?
According to a 2007 US intelligence assessment, Iran had a fully-fledged nuclear weapons programme until 2003, when severe pressure from the international community forced its suspension. Critics voice numerous concerns over this ‘suspension’: why, for example, Iran would be continuing to enrich uranium, when it is not cost-effective to do so, if it did not plan to build a weapon? However, even Iran’s most bitter adversaries do not accuse it of having decided to build a bomb at any cost. More likely is that Iran is eager to engage in “nuclear hedging” – retaining the option to acquire nuclear weapons, rather than actually doing so - and given the debacle over Iraq, anyone seeking to make stronger claims should be wary.

How long would it take Iran to acquire nuclear weapons?
Allowing for the complex steps involved in acquiring nuclear weapons, US Defense Secretary and former CIA director Leon Panetta stated in January 2012, “the consensus is that, if decided to do it, it would probably take them about a year to produce a bomb and then possibly another one or two years in order to deliver that weapon.” Iran is not inches away from a nuclear bomb.

Would we know if Iran was actively building nuclear weapons?
Shashank outlines three choices facing Iran in terms of building nuclear weapons. Firstly, it could conduct breakout “in plain sight”. Given the likelihood that inspectors would detect such a breakout, this is highly unlikely. Secondly, Iran could expel inspectors, but this would immediately set off alarm bells amongst the international community. Thirdly, Iran could attempt to bypass weapons inspectors all together by diverting its nuclear materials to a hidden site and producing weapons-grade uranium there. However, there is no evidence that such a site exists. Moreover, such a course of action would probably require an order be given by the Supreme Leader; given the success of multiple international intelligence services against Iran’s nuclear programme, this would likely be detected.

How dangerous is a nuclear Iran to the Western world?
The claim that Iran’s leadership is characterised by an unprecedented degree of irrational behaviour, making it immune to ordinary deterrence, should not be taken seriously. History has demonstrated a Western tendency to overestimate the nuclear threat from ‘irrational’ leaders, most notably Stalin and Mao Zedong. A potentially more realistic concern is that possession of nuclear weapons would make it more rational for Iran to take risks in its foreign policy. Even were this the case, Iran would still face a powerful and hostile coalition of powers led by the United States. Iran’s adversaries would retain a range of conventional military options to use against possible Iranian aggression.

Would a nuclear Iran set in motion further nuclear proliferation?
Historically, nuclear weapons do not necessarily beget nuclear weapons. In the Middle East, even those powers tempted to follow suit would have strong interests not to do so. Egypt is likely to remain a major beneficiary of American financial and military support for a number of years to come. Turkey remains firmly tied to NATO (and hosts US nuclear weapons on its soil) despite charting an independent and populist stance in the region. Only Saudi Arabia, with its relationship with Pakistan, should be considered a serious proliferation risk – but even here nuclearisation is not a foregone conclusion.

Are the sanctions working?
It is clear that sanctions are having a significant impact on Iran’s economy. Unemployment levels are high and the currency has collapsed. This would appear to suggest that the West simply needs to hold tight until the constraints imposed on Iran have their desired impact. Nevertheless, a distinction must be drawn between economic impact and political effect. Iranian leaders repeatedly and publicly articulate that their right to enrich is a red line in negotiations and, regardless of who is elected next spring, there is no significant political group within Iran in favour of abandoning Iran’s enrichment programme on pain of sanctions. We cannot afford for sanctions to be seen as a long-term solution to the impasse with Iran.

Is military action a solution?
Military action against Iran is highly undesirable and unlikely to succeed. An Israeli attack would set the Iranian nuclear programme back by no more than a couple of years. A strike by the United States would be more effective militarily, but would incur huge human and political costs – regional instability and the expulsion of the impressive web of international weapons monitors. Indeed, preventative military action would be the best way to ensure that Iran did resume its nuclear programme, and that it did so in secret – just as Iraq did after the strike against its Osirak reactor in 1981.

The full report by Shashank Joshi is available via the Conservative Middle East Council. This summary was written by Georgianna Vaughan, who is a Policy and Research Officer at CMEC.

Shashank Joshi
Shashank is a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a doctoral student at Harvard University
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