Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Would We Know if Iran Decides to Build a Bomb?

by Micah Zenko
August 2, 2012

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a meeting in Tehran (Handout/Courtesy Reuters). Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a meeting in Tehran (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).


The most important unanswered question about the heightened U.S.-Israel confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program is whether Iran’s political leadership will decide to pursue a nuclear weapon. The key judgments in the last declassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian nuclear program found with “high confidence” that “Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” in the fall of 2003, and this conviction remained with “moderate confidence” through mid-2007.

U.S. officials believe that only one person holds the power to decide whether or not to pursue a bomb—meaning to enrich enough uranium to bomb-grade level that can be formed into sphere that could be compressed into a critical mass—the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Testifying before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in late January, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated: “Iran’s technical advances, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthen our assessment that Iran is well-capable of producing enough highly-enriched uranium for a weapon if its political leaders, specifically the supreme leader himself, choose to do so.”

Shortly thereafter, Clapper echoed this statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee:

That is the intelligence community’s assessment, that that is an option that is still held out by the Iranians. And we believe the decision would be made by the supreme leader himself, and he would base that on a cost-benefit analysis in terms of — I don’t think you want a nuclear weapon at any price.

One month later, James Risen reported in the New York Times: “American intelligence analysts still believe that the Iranians have not gotten the go-ahead from Ayatollah Khamenei to revive the program. ‘That assessment,’ said one American official, ‘holds up really well.’”

On Monday, however, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak introduced a new observation that upends the previous understanding of this particular redline: “[Israel and the U.S.] both know that Khamenei did not yet ordered, actually, to give a weapon, but that he is determined to deceit and defy the whole world.” When asked, “What does that mean, that the ayatollah has not given the order to build a nuclear bomb?” Barak replied:

“It’s something technical. He did not tell his people start and build it—a weapon—an explodable device. We think that we understand why he does not give this order. He believes that he is penetrated through our intelligence and he strongly feels that if he tries to order, we will know it, we and you and some other intelligence services will know about it and it might end up with a physical action against it.

So he prefers to, first of all, make sure that through redundancy, through an accumulation of more lowly enriched uranium, more medium level enriched uranium and more centrifuges and more sites, better protection, that he can reach a point, which I call the zone of immunity, beyond which Israel might not be technically capable of launching a surgical operation.”

If the United States accepts this logic—that the Supreme Leader would never issue the formal order to pursue a nuclear weapon for fear of foreign detection—then what was once a distinct and identifiable redline for U.S. intelligence no longer exists. In other words, any U.S. or Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear program will target a latent capability that might eventually lead to a weapon protected by Barak’s ill-defined zone of immunity, but not an actual nuclear weapons program.

This is a tremendous shift by Israel over how we would know if Iran decides to pursue the bomb. Before the Obama administration decides to go to war, Congress, journalists, and U.S. citizens should demand answers to the following questions:

  1. Are violations of the NPT, UN Security Council resolutions, and ongoing inadequate cooperation with the IAEA sufficient grounds for suspecting that Iran will soon achieve nuclear weapons capability?
  2. Does the Obama administration accept Barak’s new principle, contradicting Clapper’s earlier assessment that the supreme leader’s decision is paramount?
  3. It is unlikely that Iran would needlessly test a nuclear weapon, since it would not be required to verify that it worked. What sort of credible information will the Obama administration declassify and make public that would justify a preventive attack on Iran?

Post a Comment 11 Comments

  • Posted by Esther Haman

    From Iran’s actions on the world scene in the last 35 years or so, this is very easily answered. Iranian is a signatory to NPT and IAEA has had presence in Iran for almost 20 years now, the longest time for that agency to be in any country and inspecting their nuclear program. But They have not found any evidence that would stand up in any court of law and no smoking gun has ever been found by the IAEA.

    So, Iran has shown to the world that she is a logical and responsible player on the world scene and will not break the NPT by exploding a A-bomb while she is a signatory. There is no history of such actions by Iran.

    So. the questions should be asked from Jews as why they are creating such a phobia and why they are distracting our views and the the world view from their own 250+ nuclear bombs!!

    Get real.

  • Posted by Amin San

    The answer is very simple. In order for Iran to produce a nuclear weapon, it would either have to divert some enriched uranium which are under 24 hour IAEA review or opt out of the NPT and throw the inspectors out. Both these actions will leave enough time for the US to act. So let us stop harping on Barak’s zone of immunity. He has been crying wolf for the last 10 years with multiple deadlines that have come and gone.
    Best thing would be is for the US to accept Iran’s offer to cap enrichment below 20 percent in return for lifting sanctions. I for the life of me can’t understand why the US will not negotiate. What is the real objective, regime change or nuclear weapons?

  • Posted by Gregg

    Ahmadinejad has again called for the destruction of Israel. Even with the alleged weaponry, Israel is not constantly asking for the world to destroy Iran.

  • Posted by Cyrus

    First of all Iran is not now nor ever in “violation of the NPT”. Whatever safeguard breaches occured in Iran have since been resolved in Iran’s favor, the IAEA said they involved no transfer of fissile material to non-peaceful uses (the legal definition of a violation of the NPT) and the breaches were not part of a weapons program.

    Secondly, about 40 countries already have a “latent nuclear weapons capability” and this an inherent and inevitable part of simply being technologically developed. Iran has in fact allowed more inspections of its enrichment program than have Brazil or Argentina, for example.

    Third, the ENTIRE PURPOSE of the IAEA safeguards system is to verify that there is no “non-peaceful” nuclear program in countries. So if the NPT is not good enough, then what is? Note that Iran has voluntarily and regularly exceeded the requirements of the NPT in allowing inspections of non-nuclear facilities such as at Parchin (which was inspected in 2005 – – twice– and nothing was found.)

    Fourth, note that Iran would not have had to enrich uranium to 20% in the first place had the US not prevented Iran from simply buying the fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor as it has done in the past — a reactor, by the way, which is NOT a weapons threat since it is far too small, and which makes isotopes for Iran’s cancer patients.

    So stop with the scaremongering about Iranian nukes already. If anything, it is the Iranians who should be wary of the intentions of the WEST considering how the US and Europe armed Saddam with chemical weapons responsible for the deaths of over 60,000 Iranians and go knows how many Kurds.
    Enough with the scaremon

  • Posted by lizzi

    Would We Know if __(INSERT COUNTRY)__Decides to Build a Bomb?

  • Posted by Javed Mir

    In fact it is not USA which is worried about Iran’s atom bomb. It is Israel that keeps on harping on this propaganda. Nobody in the West is worried about Israel’s possession of plus 250 nuclear weapons.

    In this age of high technology it has become impossible to control this weaponisation except reconciling the differences. So long as Palestinian dispute is not settled equitably, America will become helpless sooner or later and there will be many more candidates to have nuclear technology.

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    Just to be clear:
    1. Iran has not violated the NPT, and no responsible person has accused Iran of doing so.

    2. The UNSC resolutions violate Iran’s NPT rights.
    NPT: “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty.”

    3. Iran is under no obligation to cooperate with the IAEA regarding specious claims planted in IAEA reports that originated with Iran’s enemies. The IAEA is not some super-powerful super-snooper agency with vast authority. The EXCLUSIVE purpose of the IAEA is to ensure that uranium fuel is not diverted to weapons programs, and the IAEA has consistently reported no diversion in Iran.
    NPT: “Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes to accept safeguards, as set forth in an agreement to be negotiated and concluded with the International Atomic Energy Agency in accordance with the Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Agencys safeguards system, for the exclusive purpose of verification of the fulfillment of its obligations assumed under this Treaty with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    Gregg is wrong– Ahmadinejad has never called for the destruction of Israel. That’s Zionist propaganda and has no foundation in fact and no evidence to support it.

  • Posted by Aaron Brett

    Military hostilities with Iran should start on September the 19th

  • Posted by EMPCover.com

    Iran getting nuclear weapons creates a variety of problems. One of the key nuclear threats politicians mention is the risk of an EMP attack, either on Israel or on the United States. This issue is sometimes hyped or misunderstood. In particular, people afraid of the issue may refer to coast-to-coast EMP attacks using a single nuclear weapon.

    We would like to invite readers to look at the EMP simulator we created for our site. It will help you understand the risk for when this comes up in discussions. In particular, please change the size of the weapon. You will see how this changes the range of the attack.

    The pattern is also different that what you may have heard. It is NOT a uniform pulse. Unlike a radio signal, an EMP pulse has a bit of a horseshoe shape. This means that the threat areas are different than people may expect.

    We created our maps and info based on the test results from the EMP commission, public testimony in multiple Congressional hearings, and unclassified military documents on the topic.

    Please take a look at our EMP simulator. A coast-to-coast EMP attack requires a multi-megaton bomb. Only the major powers have those, so that kind of attack would be most likely as part of a global thermonuclear war.

    The more likely scenario is some sort of regional attack. You can see the EMP range of small nuclear bombs by looking at our EMP simulator. The pattern may seem odd, but it is real. There is also the possibility of local attacks using non-nuclear EMPs, which are a growing threat.

    It is also helpful to know some odds. Our current estimates are:

    –The chance of a solar super-storm is about double the risk of a house fire.
    –The chance of a nuclear EMP is about the same as the risk of a fire at your house.
    –The chance of terrorists using a non-nuclear EMP for a local EMP attack is about the same as the house fire risk, but the odds are growing as the devices become easier to build and smaller.

    The pictures and and graphics on our site help explain this much better than words. For example, we have pictures of EMP devices built into the back of truck trailers. The US Military uses these for testing. (Real stuff, not some crazy ranting. Click on the link and you can read the US military brochure that explains the test systems.)

  • Posted by Divest from War

    Obama could just announce to the world that US arms cannot be used for an illegal war, or all military aid to Israel will stop.

    Oops, I forgot that he will be impeached if he tries to pull that off, because the US Congre$$, bless their hearts, are in the back pocket of AIPAC.

    I guess we citizens are on our own, since our so-called “leaders” are bought and paid for. One way that we as individual citizens can make our voices heard (forget writing to your member of Congre$$ on this issue) is for all of us to pledge to BOYCOTT ISRAEL IF IT ATTACKS IRAN. Please sign the pledge at


    and spread the world. Let us (nonviolently) increase the cost to Israel of starting Middle East War III. Maybe we can help to avert one this time, instead of just protesting it after the fact.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required