»Good piece« (Parag Khanna)
A sober analysis of Tehran’s intentions suggests the Islamic republic has little to gain from acquiring the bomb
The latest report on Iran’s nuclear programme by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has spurred alarmist speculation about the whereabouts of the “mullahs’ bomb” just when hopes for a US–Iran rapprochement are at an all-time high.
The UN’s nuclear watchdog says Iran has only slowly increased the number of centrifuges in the last four months, with now almost 4,000 centrifuges spinning and enriching uranium at a low level (under 5%). Iran has reportedly accumulated about 1,000kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU). To produce weapons-grade material, roughly 30kg of LEU are needed for about 1kg of HEU (high-enriched uranium). A typical uranium bomb has 25 kg or more of HEU material, so Iran would theoretically be able to yield enough HEU for a nuclear device. This is what western diplomats refer to as the country’s “latent bombmaking ability”.
But from that stage to the making of a bomb, considerable technical and technological hurdles have to be overcome. Thus the head of the IAEA asserted earlier this month that there is “ample time to engage the country”. However, what is crucially important – and still rarely mentioned – is that any effort towards weaponisation would immediately be detected by the IAEA under whose close surveillance the Iranian nuclear programme is placed.
In the shadow of discussion about the alleged threat posed by Iran’s nuclear programme, a sober analysis about Tehran’s intentions and ambitions is missing. As Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, stated in his recent book on Iran (p113): “It can be argued that a strategic decision on the final aim of the Iranian nuclear programme has not been made.”
Adopting a realistic assessment, his predecessor, Christoph Bertram, also asserts there is no danger emanating from the programme. Bertram, a former director of the International Institute for Security Studies (IISS) clarifies in a report written for the main EU thinktank that a “nuclear Iran” would not be in Tehran’s strategic interest; on the contrary, a nuclear Iran would jeopardise the strenuously-gained political capital that it has earned since the end of the Iran-Iraq war.
Citing Israeli military strategists, Perthes writes (p61) that Iran must be understood as a “rational and ‘logically’ behaving actor”. Therefore one could argue that if Obama rejects taking the military option off the table and Israel openly threatens Iran with an attack, such menaces could provoke a militarisation of Iran’s programme for deterrence purposes. A considerable reduction of Iran’s security dilemma – such as a WMD-free zone – is thus the best way to repel the alleged nuclear ambitions of Iran.
To date there is still no evidence for an Iranian nuclear weapons programme, which was reiterated by the US’s new intelligence chief, Dennis Blair, earlier this month. A way forward would be for Tehran to implement the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which would allow for more intrusive inspections. Iran has signalled its willingness to do so only when its nuclear dossier is returned from the UN security council to the Vienna-based IAEA – a step that would correct its groundless referral there in the first place.
Fathollah-Nejad, Ali (2009) “Playing Nuclear Politics: The Islamic republic has little to gain from acquiring the bomb“, guardian.co.uk, 20 February;
▪ republished as Playing Nuclear Politics with Iran, The Brunei Times, 22/02.