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.”
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.
“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.
“The question of what the US can live with is directly related to what the US is willing to do,” says Ms. Goldring. Iran “may simply decide that the best situation ... is to move as quickly as possible to develop a nuclear capability, and then people might leave them alone.”
The next year, US troops invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. North Korea pulled out of the NPT and declared two nuclear tests. Since, no one has talked about launching military strikes against Pyongyang – an option that the US explicitly states remains on the table regarding Tehran.
“The Iranians looked at that situation…looked at what happened to both countries, and decided that they would rather look more like North Korea than Iraq,” says Goldring. “One of the hopeful signs is that Iran has not been full speed ahead for the entire process. That gives hope that it might be possible to convince them to slow down, if not stop entirely.”
But the to-and-fro of recent diplomacy, and uncompromising rhetoric from both sides, has helped undermine Mr. Obama’s initial limited bid for engagement.
“There are dangers to an open-ended threat of force approach,” writes Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and senior advisor to three presidents, at the Bitter Lemons website. “Saying we will not tolerate a nuclear Iran and will use force to prevent it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and box in decisions. There is a better way: sanctions, deterrence and containment.”
Another nuclear armed state in the Mideast “will be very bad for regional security,” writes Mr. Riedel. “But it would hardly embolden Iran to take suicidal actions like attacking an American ally in the region, especially one like Israel that has a formidable nuclear arsenal of its own.”
Calling for cold war techniques that worked to contain the Soviet Union, Riedel argues: “Washington should now structure a sanctions regime designed to evolve into containment of an Iranian regime with a nuclear arsenal.”
Obama’s singling out of Iran as the one “exception” to America’s new vow not to use nuclear weapons against states that do not have them was a “huge gift for the ultra-conservatives” in Iran, wrote Mr. Javedanfar, co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran. “After Obama’s declaration, many of them could now say that their country is under nuclear threat, and the best way to prevent this from happening is through the acquisition of nuclear weapons.”
“At any point, Iran could withdraw from the treaty and build nuclear weapons [while] saying everything is peaceful,” says Mr. Albright. “We’ll see intelligence agencies testify before Congress that they just don’t know if Iran has built them. We just can’t live with this situation. So whatever Iran does, the US has to continue to demand that Iran get rid of its capabilities. It’s not just enough to safeguard them better, but work to get rid of them.”
On the Pakistani path?
He points to the example of Pakistan, which today is not a member of the NPT and is a nuclear-armed nation facing chronic political instability and Islamic militancy.
“Pakistan is a case where – and this is what I fear [for Iran] – there was an acceptance,” says Albright. “In the early 1980s, the US government just accepted that Pakistan had a nuclear weapons program, was smuggling all kinds of stuff from Europe, and just accepted it. And look what we’re facing now.”
Other analysts believe that a solution can be found in more stringent IAEA monitoring and an array of other confidence-building measures, which Iran has at times said it would agree to, to demonstrate the peaceful nature of its program.
“In this new world, it’s not just enough to technically comply [with NPT safeguards], we want to see affirmative compliance,” say MIT’s Walsh, who has argued for a multi-national enrichment facility on Iranian soil. “It’s partly what rules you abide by, and also – what’s your style and attitude about adhering to those rules? Do you do it in the most begrudging manner possible?”
“We probably have to live with at least a theoretically capable nuclear Iran – if you define this as having knowledge,” says Walsh. “But we’ve done that before, and other states have toyed with having nuclear weapons and turned back. So I don’t think it’s all gloom and doom here.”