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NPT 101: Will the US accept a nuclear-capable Iran?

Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad restated his opposition to nuclear weapons at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) conference this week. But analysts say that an Iran capable of building a nuclear bomb is something that the US may have to get used to.

By Staff writer / May 5, 2010

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers a news conference as he arrives in Tehran Wednesday after a trip to attend the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

Morteza Nikoubazl/REUTERS


Istanbul, Turkey

Former President George W. Bush declared that even the “knowledge” in Iran of how to build a nuclear weapon could lead to “World War III.” President Obama has vowed that a nuclear weapon in the Islamic Republic is “unacceptable.”

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Yet as Iran has advanced its declared nuclear energy program, it has also drawn closer to being a “nuclear-capable” nation – one with the technical expertise and raw materials to move at short notice, should it decide, toward a nuclear weapon.

The US already lives with some 40 states that have similar capabilities, and Iran has consistently and emphatically rejected the claim that they have nuclear weapons. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – speaking on Monday at the five-year review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – called them “disgusting and shameful.”

But despite all the strident declarations and posturing from Washington, is living with a nuclear-capable Iran inevitable?

“I would draw a big distinction between being nuclear-capable, and having nuclear weapons,” says Jim Walsh at MIT’s Security Studies Program in Boston. “Japan is nuclear-capable; any country that has some stock of high-enriched uranium or recyclable plutonium in theory could make a bomb…. We can live with a country that may have the technical capability, but demonstrates in its political commitments and behavior … that it will not cross that line.”

“That’s what we should be shooting for with Iran,” says Mr. Walsh. “Iran knows how to build a centrifuge. It knows how to enrich uranium. And it’s unlikely that anything we do right now will change that.”

For many in Washington, Iran could not be a worse global nuclear citizen, and is the target of US diplomacy to impose a fourth set of UN Security Council sanctions. Inspectors of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) say Iran’s “full cooperation” is needed to clarify remaining questions about possible weapons work.

Double game

“American officials are playing a double game right now. They are doing their best to prevent a fully nuclear Iran, while trying to figure out what they are going to do if it happens,” says Natalie Goldring at Georgetown’s Center for Peace and Security Studies.