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.

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Putting Iran’s Nuclear Program in Context

by Micah Zenko
March 31, 2015

U.S. officials including Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, and Robert Malley of the National Security Council, and European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, Head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation Ali Akbar Salehi, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and others wait for a meeting in Switzerland to continue negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program. (Smialowski/Courtesy Reuters) U.S. officials including Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, and Robert Malley of the National Security Council, and European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, Head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation Ali Akbar Salehi, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and others wait for a meeting in Switzerland to continue negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program. (Smialowski/Courtesy Reuters)

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The April 24, 1984, edition of the British defense publication Jane’s Defence Weekly informed its readers: “Iran is engaged in the production of an atomic bomb, likely to be ready within two years, according to press reports in the Persian Gulf last week.” Subsequent warnings from U.S. and foreign sources about Iran’s imminent acquisition of a nuclear weapon have been offered over the past four decades. These false guesses are worth bearing in mind as news from the P5+1 nuclear negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland emerges.

More technical “breakout” estimates—the time it would take Iran to compile enough highly-enriched uranium (HEU) to fuel one nuclear weapon—continue to be published, with slightly varying timelines. Setting aside logic, wisdom, and a huge range of assumptions, if you average these five estimates, Iran would require 89.8 days, or three months, if it made a hypothetical rush for one bombs-worth of HEU.

• 1.9-2.2 months (Institute for Science and International Security, October 24, 2013)

• 6 months (Arms Control, September 29, 2014)

• 1.7 months (Iran Watch, February 24, 2015)

• 45-87 days (Bipartisan Policy Center February 23, 2015)

• 3 months (Washington Institute, March 28, 2015)

It is essential to recognize that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons program, nor does it possess a nuclear weapon. On February 26, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Ayatollah Khomenei, the supreme leader of Iran, ended his country’s nuclear weapons program in 2003 and “as far as we know, he’s not made the decision to go for a nuclear weapon.” This repeats the “high-confidence” judgement of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) that was first made in November 2007. Clapper added that Iran “wants to preserve options across the capabilities it would take to build [a nuclear weapon], but right now they don’t have one, and have not made that decision.”

To repeat: Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons program, nor does it possess a nuclear weapon. So when a politician, analyst, or pundit mentions an Iranian “nuclear weapons program” they are referring to a program that the IC is not aware of. Moreover, if possible, tell them to contact the Central Intelligence Agency through its “report threats” website to let the agency’s nonproliferation analysts know about whatever secret information they are basing their judgment upon.

Iran signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) on July 1, 1968. Under the NPT, Iran agreed that it was a non-nuclear weapon state party, which prohibits Iran from receiving, manufacturing, or otherwise acquiring nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices. Furthermore, like most other non-nuclear weapons, states parties to the treaty, Iran entered into a NPT Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which it did in May 1974.  The crux of the twelve-year dispute between Tehran and the IAEA is whether and to what extent Iran is in violation of its NPT obligations and UN Security Council resolution demands. As IAEA director generals have repeated, most recently last week by Yuki Amano, the inspection agency has never received adequate clarifying information about the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program.

While Iran has no bomb or nuclear weapons program, nine other countries do, including five that also signed the NPT. Under the treaty, the five signatories pledge to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating…to nuclear disarmament.” So while the world is focused on the nonproliferation requirements of a country with zero bombs, keep in mind the promises that remain unfulfilled from those countries with 9,835 of bombs, as well as the four countries that are nuclear outliers.

Nuclear Capabilities Comparison

Post a Comment 13 Comments

  • Posted by Brian Cohen

    The author makes a serious error when he claims “It is essential to recognize that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons program”

    The correct statement is “It is essential to recognize that Iran does not currently have a declared nuclear weapons program, but Iran has refused to cooperate with the IAEA to allow the international organization to confirm that it does not have a military nuclear weapons program.”

    Zenko does a disservice by trying to deflect reality. Iran is ranked among the world’s biggest offenders for human rights violations. Iran has an imperialist, expansionist policy. Iran has a known history of lying and cheating when it comes to its nuclear program, and Iran has refused to cooperate to allay fears that it does indeed have a nuclear weapons program.

    So with Iran refusing to cooperate with the IAEA and maintaining top secret military bases that were known to have nuclear activities, it is simply impossible to conclude, as the author does, that Iran “does not currently have a nuclear weapons program.” Iran is also signatory to other treaties under which they obligate themselves to respect human rights. They don’t, of course, so why should we believe Iran about its nuclear program when the Iranians have previously lied about it?

  • Posted by Bane

    The P5+1 deal seeks to ensure Iran could not assemble a nuclear weapon in less than a year. Twelve years of negotiations to buy a years time!.

  • Posted by Richard Steven Hack

    Brian Cohen’s comment above is composed of almost complete misinformation on every point. Iran has never “lied” about any aspect of its program, it has never been proven to have conducted any military nuclear studies beyond perhaps some “paper studies” (as noted by the Defense Intelligence Agency in the run-up to the 2011 National Intelligence Estimate – which by the way is STILL the considered estimate of all 16 US intelligence agencies AND the intelligence agencies of Israel), and Iran has extensively cooperated with the IAEA, up to and including adhering to the Additional Protocol for two years or more despite not officially ratifying that effort. Iran is the most carefully monitored nuclear energy program in history and the IAEA has found ZERO evidence of any clandestine nuclear work and ZERO evidence of any nuclear weapons design and development program.

    Finally Iran’s leadership has made it very clear that Iran has no use case for nuclear weapons (which is completely correct) and regards nuclear weapons as forbidden for Muslims. Iran has a history of rejecting the use of weapons of mass destruction as when it refused to use chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war.

    Anyone wishing correct information on Iran is advised to go to http://www.goingtotehran.com, a site run by Iran and foreign policy experts Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett.

  • Posted by Cyrus Safdari

    Actually Iran has allowed all the inspections that the NPT legally requires of Iran, plus much more, so there is no evidence to suggest that there is an undeclared nuclear program in Iran — and not even the US accuses Iran of that (rather the US accuses Iran of having engaged in some weapons-related studies until 2003 and of seeking to use a civilian nuclear program to obtain the “capability” of making nukes at some indefinite point in the future, something that 40 other nations can do right now. Such a capability is inevitable in having a nuclear program and is not illegal.

    As for the “alleged studies” — the former IAEA director dismissed them as hype, and pointed out that they involved no nuclear material. Thus, even if true, it would not be a violation of the NPT to have engaged in such studies. In reality, the US has refused to provide the documentation to Iran or the IAEA, and what is known about these alleged studies makes them very suspicious.

  • Posted by Richard Huber

    Wonderful! A great achievement.
    Now let’s see if we can get Israel to agree to limit itself to 5,060 centrifuges & submit its own vast nuclear facilities to the exact same degree of international inspection as Iran has now agreed to. And while we are at it, maybe we can convince Israel to join the IAEA, sign the NPT and come out of the closet with its sizable atomic weapons arsenal.
    Then we would really be on the way to establishing a lasting peace in the Middle East.

  • Posted by KAC

    What we don’t know are Iran’s intentions.
    What we do know are Iran’s capabilities.
    What we don’t know are the agreed-upon “tripwires” for the P5+1 and how these will be verified and by whom.
    What we don’t know is what sorts of violation(s) might trigger what type(s) of action and the response(s) to them.
    What we do know is that the time-line for deciding upon and implementing any international response is, if the past is any indicator, going to be very, very long.
    What we do know is that many Sunni states are most unhappy with the agreement.
    What we don’t know is what they will do about it.
    What we do know is that, for whatever reason(s), Iran is viewed by many as provocative and hegemonic.
    What we don’t know is whether the successful agreement will ameliorate any of these actions.
    In short, there are many more unknowns than knowns and both contain dangerous elements.

  • Posted by markjuliansmith

    The author makes a serious error when he excludes “It is essential to recognize that Iran does retain the exact same Cultural codex construct of Other as is found in Mein Kampf and is one of the only cultures which explicitly in this same codex justifies and authorises misleading and lying to Other.”

    Determining the Islamic/Muslim culture anywhere in time and space which enables the burning of Other in cages, Other shot in the back of the head in cafes, blown to bits at transport hubs, …., can be trusted without draconian oversight is a terrible mistake for it has to be understood the same Islamic/Muslim codex enables its adherents as individuals to determine their fellow adherents are not sticking to the Islamic/Muslim ‘truth’ and act accordingly to circumvent any such agreement.

    So even if the Iranian politicians position can be (which in my view is a terrible mistake) taken at face value it has to be assumed based upon the beliefs, ethics, values contained within the Islamic/Muslim codex these persons can now be determined as Other and their agreement treated accordingly.

    What may appear as sufficient oversight with a Western based culture is not I repeat is not sufficient for a Islamic/Muslim political cultural construct unless they get rid of the genocide construct of Other contained in their codex – have they?

  • Posted by Priya Sibal Sawhney

    There has been much speculation about Iran’s nuclear program. Micah Zenko is right in noting that Iran does not have a bomb yet but its nuclear ambitions are surely apparent. In fact, there have been reports about nuclear technology exchanges between Pakistan, North Korea and Iran under the supervision of Pakistan’s Abdul Qadeer Khan. Iran’s own foreign policy agenda and a need to have a deterrent against Israel seem to have driven its pursuit of nukes.

    The P5+1 nuclear deal, although looked upon by many with great trepidation, is a remarkable victory for the Us and its western allies. It heralds a paradigm shift in the Middle East. Lifting of sanctions against Iran will probably strengthen the country enabling it to further consolidate its position in the region. Certainly, an increase in Iran’s oil exports will boost its floundering economy. But Iran’s new found status and power may unleash a different set of problems for Israel and the Sunni Arab nations. Even though both Iran with its Shi’a allies as well as Saudi Arabia with its Sunni allies are conceptually opposed to Israel, there is a trust deficit between them. Unless Iran’s hostility towards its neighbors is toned down, this will continue to create tensions with unforeseeable consequences. Yemen may be a sign of larger things to come.

    I disagree with Brian Cohen’s claims that Iran is lying about its nuclear program. In fact, it has cried out loud about advancing its nuclear technology even though it is far from having a bomb. There are countries that have lied about their nuclear programs, notably Pakistan and North Korea. Others have been more transparent – India tested in 1998 and has publicly declared a “no first use” policy as a responsible state should do. The task of international diplomacy such as the P5+1/Iran deal perhaps, is to push nations towards more transparency thereby reducing the dangers in clandestine activities.

  • Posted by rakesh

    The million dollar question is why doest US enter into an agreement with Iran if there r no gains fm it to take the sweet revenge of its humiliating exit fm Iran after the fall of Shah…

  • Posted by John Moore

    The author’s contention is refuted by the simple fact that Iran has no rational need for enriched uranium, and no need for IRBM’s which are pretty much useless without nuclear warheads.

    Hence, from Iran’s activities, we can reliably infer that they have a nuclear weapons program. Whether that includes, at the moment, anything beyond enrichment of uranium and procurement of plutonium is less clear. Development of nuclear warheads does not require the large, and thus sometimes detectable infrastructure needed for acquiring fissi8le material. The construction of containers, fuses and detonators takes little space.

    We can have little confidence in assertions that such development is not taking place.

  • Posted by David

    John Moore:

    Enriched uranium is also a critical component of civil nuclear power generation, which is permitted under the IAEA for signees to the NPT treaty.

    Hence, having “enriched uranium” in civil facilities doesn’t constitute evidence of a weapons program, by itself. Civil nuclear facilities are capable of producing weapons, that’s why declared non-nuclear weapons states under the NPT treaty are required by the IAEA to have regular inspections of their facilities.

    To my knowledge, Iran has been very co-operative in this manner. But the US has historically refused to return the favor with Iran.
    ———

    What I don’t understand is that these accusations about Iran have a thirty-year history. Nuclear weapons by themselves aren’t hard to obtain. The delivery capabilities are a bit harder to achieve. But any sufficiently advanced country who wants nuclear weapons, could have them in a fairly short time period. Canada, where I live, could build some in a few weeks.

    We are led to believe that an impoverished nation, North Korea, could build & test nuclear weapons and yet Iran, much more capable than North Korea, has been struggling for thirty years to have a bomb built within…”two years”?

    Add to that the fact that current US intelligence estimates admit that Iran has no nuclear weapons program, and that fact has been verified by IAEA since 2003. Iran has the most extensively monitored nuclear facilities in the world, and has been by far the most co-operative in the inspection of those facilities. It has actually went beyond its obligations several times to comply with IAEA regulations.

    Further, a nuclear weapons program is concurrent with development of delivery capabilities. Iran, to my knowledge, has no mid-range or long-range bombers capable of launching nuclear strikes on Israel. Ditto for ICBMs.

    What we /do/ have is speculation about its nuclear capacity from “enriched uranium” repeated by government officials, whose own statements are contradicted by US intelligence.

    If Iran is developing warheads…why is it taking so long? Why is it so compliant with IAEA regulations? Why haven’t regular inspections found anything? Why have both the US & Iran confirmed that Iran neither has, nor is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program?

    The main source of statements to the contrary are from Israel.

  • Posted by Shams uz zaman (@shamsZaman_72)

    Almost all the estimates on Iranian capability to produce nuclear weapon remains a matter of speculation and assumption. Since last three decades Iranian nuclear program has remained at the center stage of global politics and yet no tangible proof exist that if Iran is actually in violations of NPT or it is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. History dictates that all those states which clandestinely sought for nuclear weapons, and had possessed the capability to do so, did it in a matter of just few years. Israeli, Indian, Pakistani and North Korean examples are illustrative of that fact.
    Even if Iran had some hidden aspirations deep inside their heart, these remains wishful thinking now at least for 15 – 20 years after the conclusion of Iran – P 5+1 comprehensive nuclear agreement.
    Hypothetically even if Iran had the bomb what it would have done with it?? Dropping on Israel and killing hundreds and thousands of Palestinians along with Israelis??
    These are of course unrealistic and unwise thinking!!

  • Posted by Shams uz zaman (@shamsZaman_72)

    Almost all the estimates on Iranian capability to produce nuclear weapon remains a matter of speculation and assumption. Since last three decades Iranian nuclear program has remained at the center stage of global politics and yet no tangible proof exist that if Iran is actually in violations of NPT or it is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. History dictates that all those states which clandestinely sought for nuclear weapons, and had possessed the capability to do so, did it in a matter of just few years. Israeli, Indian, Pakistani and North Korean examples are illustrative of that fact.
    Even if Iran had some hidden aspirations deep inside their heart, these remains wishful thinking now at least for 15 – 20 years after the conclusion of Iran – P 5+1 comprehensive nuclear agreement.
    Hypothetically even if Iran had the bomb what it would have done with it?? Dropping on Israel and killing hundreds and thousands of Palestinians along with Israelis??
    These are of course unrealistic and unwise thoughts!!

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