Though the Iranian nuclear program has been in the headlines for much of the last decade, the past year has witnessed a deluge of contradictory information on the matter in the public domain. While the tone of the latest IAEA report released in November 2011, lent an air of legitimacy to the doom and gloom scenarios associated with the “possible military dimensions” of Tehran’s nuclear efforts, it specifically stated, as had multiple previous reports, that “the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at [Iran’s] nuclear facilities and LOFs declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement.”

While in typical fashion, those advocating for a more militant approach to Iran, seized upon the tenor of the report to push for more stringent sanctions and for preparation of a military option on Iran, others were more skeptical. Robert Kelly, formerly director of the IAEA and a member of the Iraq Action Team, cautioned against the politicization of the report, expressed concern that the evidence in the IAEA report was “sketchy,” and stated that “the way the data has been presented produces a sickly sense of déjà vu” (referring to the Agency’s misgivings on Iraq).

The American approach to the nuclear issue, which attempts to balance varying contradictory currents, has only created more confusion. Washington’s strategy toward Iran involves pursuing the following objectives: building maximum international pressure on Tehran while keeping military action a viable option should sanctions fail, preventing an impatient Israel from launching a unilateral strike on Iran, which would invariably draw in the United States, and sending amorphous signals to Tehran about the possibilities for a peaceful solution.

The uncertainty created by these contradictory approaches has noticeably eroded the unity of purpose and coherence behind U.S. strategy toward Iran. For example, while Administration officials have constantly claimed that Iran is intent on building nuclear weapons, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has stated that Iran has still not made the decision to build nuclear weapons. In prepared testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that while “we [believe] Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons,” “we do not know . . . if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” This whirlwind of ambiguities is happening in an increasingly militarized atmosphere and amid war rhetoric to which all sides have contributed.

In such an environment, a sober picture of Iran’s nuclear efforts is badly needed. In circumstances where Israel sees the Iranian nuclear program as solely intended for weaponization, while the United States fears Iranian weaponization but openly admits that no apparent decision has been made to weaponize, and while Iran denies all attempts to weaponize but claims its nuclear efforts are solely intended for peaceful purposes, the only way to truly understand Iran’s nuclear program is to clinically examine Iran’s behavior based upon the known facts. To do this, five critical, preliminary questions need to be sketched out.

1. What Is the Nature of Iran’s Nuclear Program?

Mainstream Western thinking on the Iranian nuclear program equates Iran’s nuclear efforts with an unrelenting determination to acquire nuclear weapons. The evidence for this is, however, short on facts and long on speculation, particularly with regard to Iran’s intentions. The reason for this centers on the fact that Iran not only has a nuclear program but more importantly, a nuclear industry. The difference between the two is quite stark. For example, the nuclear programs of Pakistan, India, and Israel, from their inception, were decidedly directed at nuclear weaponization. These countries took advantage of the Atoms for Peace program, a precursor to the more formalized Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was meant to facilitate an exchange of nuclear know-how between nuclear-weapon states and the rest of the world and to halt the proliferation of nuclear weaponization at the-then current levels. However, once these states reached the point where they could produce their own nuclear weaponry indigenously, they chose to forgo the NPT and made the strategic decision to militarize their programs. In virtually every case where a state has acquired nuclear weapons, its nuclear program had little to no civilian usage. Only after weapons acquisition did some of these countries possessing atomic weapons mainstream nuclear technology for civilian use.

By contrast, in Iran’s case, a nuclear industry existed both before and after the 1979 Revolution, which has been primarily economic in nature. Having signed the NPT in 1968 and ratified it in 1970, Iran has been building an indigenous nuclear industry that includes all the technological accouterments involved in such an enterprise – from indigenous enrichment of nuclear fuel to in-country total control. The purpose of Iran’s nuclear industry has been, and continues to be, diversion of its domestic energy needs away from fossil fuels to nuclear energy.

The Iranian nuclear industry currently employs thousands of engineers, scientists, and international law experts, and is embedded within Iranian academic institutions across the country. The Revolution of 1979 and the massive social, political, technological, and industrial changes and setbacks it brought to Iran, impeded the program for roughly a generation. However, once the industry restarted, the Islamic Republic pursued the same goal, namely the total exploitation of nuclear technology for development purposes.

When one compares Iran with a country of similar population size, such as France, the economic sensibility of its nuclear goals becomes clear. According to the World Nuclear Association, France derives over 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy of which 17% comes from recycled nuclear fuel. Although Iran is a major player in the global energy sector, holding the third largest oil reserves and the second largest natural gas reserves, it has monumental problems with energy efficiency and public energy consumption. As the U.S. Energy Information Agency has stated, even though Iran is a “net exporter of electricity, increasing domestic demand has created shortfalls in supply during times of peak energy demand.”

University of Southern California Professor Muhammad Sahimi, one of the foremost experts on Iran’s nuclear program, has determined that Iran currently obtains its electricity needs from the following sources: 75% from natural gas, 7% from hydroelectric plants, and 18% from oil-fired plants. In other words, with the demand for electricity “growing at an annual rate of 8%”, Iran relies on hydrocarbons for well over 90% of its electricity needs. In conjunction with conflicting pressures from subsidizing domestic consumption of gasoline and stringent Western sanctions, it is unsurprising that Iran would look to alternative energy supplies to meet its domestic demand and improve efficiency at home, while at the same time diverting fossil fuels for export.

As sanctions tighten on the country, Iran must look to the East and South for trading partners, to whom it must offer deep discounts to thwart Western attempts to dissuade these buyers and isolate Iran economically. Yet if Iran can exploit even half of what France obtains from nuclear energy, costs associated with sanctions, subsidies, and discounts would be more than offset. The nuclear fuel enriched in Iran has other domestic purposes as well, including for use in the Tehran Research Reactor, which develops cancer treatments for Iranian chemotherapy patients.

It is, nevertheless, a reality that top-to-bottom control over the nuclear cycle creates the potential for weaponization, should the Iranian government ever decide to move in this direction, and it this possibility that the West fears.

2. Why Is Control Over the Nuclear Cycle So Important to Iran? Why Can’t Iran  Abandon Nuclear Enrichment on Its Territory and Import Nuclear Fuel?

The simple answer to this question is trust. Iran does not trust the United States or the West more generally. During the Iran-Iraq war, the Unite States, in collaboration mostly with European countries, supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, leading a multinational effort to cut Iran off from virtually every aspect of the global economy. This experience was traumatizing for the Islamic Republic, which was in its early days, and affected how Tehran’s new decision-makers viewed the West and its attitude toward Iran.

On the nuclear front, as analyzed by Geoff Forden, “Iran has experienced a history of being denied access to the nuclear infrastructure it bought into in the West.” During Iran’s reformist era, under President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), the country stopped enrichment for two years and focused on finding trust-building mechanisms with the West that would allow it to pursue its nuclear aims free from U.S.-driven pressure. However, at the end of the two-year period, Iran was unable to offer anything concrete to the West that could overcome the trust deficit. As a result, suspicions in Tehran toward the West only hardened.

While Iran’s critics accuse it of failing to be transparent on the nuclear issue, Iran believes (rightly or wrongly) that transparency will not create the space for confidence-building with its counterparts or solve its problems with the West, but rather will weaken its position. From the Iranian vantage point, they have been forced to be as minimally transparent as possible, not because their intention is to weaponize, but because U.S. efforts to economically and industrially weaken the country are now playing out on the nuclear field. Iran views full transparency not as a way to break the impasse with the West, but as a method for the West to weaken and stymie Iran’s technological and industrial development goals.

Recently, Iran accused the IAEA of indirect complicity in murdering individuals connected with the Iranian nuclear program. Mohammad Javad Larijani, a high ranking Iranian official, stated last year, that there is no “confidentiality” within the Agency, suggesting that the IAEA has shared its intelligence on Iran with the U.S., European, and Israeli intelligence, placing Iran in a weaker position as it deals with the sabotage and assassinations that have occurred.

During the Obama Administration, several important developments on the nuclear front exacerbated the trust deficit between Iran and the West. These included the breakdown of the October 2009 agreement between Iran and the IAEA/United States/France/Russia under which Iran would have sent out a little more than 50% of its stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) in exchange for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. The October 2009 agreement was not intended to be a solution to the nuclear impasse, but rather was formulated as a trust-building measure. It, failed because of the complete lack of trust on both sides. Iran agreed to the swap, but stipulated that the exchange happen in phases and within Iranian territory, qualifications that the West would not accept.

Other events which further eroded trust between Iran and the West were U.S. rejection of the Tehran Declaration brokered by Brazil and Turkey (which was intended to revive the October 2009 agreement), the rebuff of the offer from Fereydoun Abbasi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, in which Iran agreed to five-years full supervision by the U.N. Atomic Energy Agency of all its nuclear related matters in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, and the continued assassination of people who are connected, how ever tangentially, to Iran’s nuclear industry.

U.S. rejection of the Tehran Declaration and the U.N. Security Council’s approval of sanctions on Iran shortly thereafter significantly deteriorated any hopes of a de-escalation in tensions between the United States and Iran in Obama’s first term. Because the Tehran Research Reactor needed fuel rods to continue operating and serving 700,000 cancer patients in Iran and because sanctions prevented Iran from purchasing these rods on the global market, Iran’s indigenous civilian nuclear efforts continued, as exemplified by its successful production of home-grown nuclear fuel rods for the reactor. Subsequent dismissal of the Abbasi offer only hardened Tehran’s belief that its nuclear program had become a convenient tool for the United States to pressure the country. For these reasons as well as Iran’s partial isolation from the global economy and deep-seeded mistrust of the West, total control of the nuclear fuel cycle within Iranian territory has become a red line for Iran’s decision-makers.

3. Why Has Iran Yet to Obtain Nuclear Weapons ?

To varying degrees, the Israelis (since 1990) and the Americans (over the last decade) have steadily warned about the imminent production of an Iranian bomb. Officials from both countries regularly prophesize that within 1-3 years, Iran will have an arsenal of atomic weapons, ready to wreak havoc on the region and the global economy. Yet as time goes on, the facts demonstrate that Iran has not weaponized. While IAEA reports varyingly express concern about Iran’s nuclear program, every report essentially reaffirms that the program has not been “diverted” toward military purposes.

Considering Western anxieties on nuclear developments in Iran and the belief among U.S. officials that Iran possesses the technological know-how to develop nuclear weapons, a capability the country has possessed according to Hossein Mousavian, Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, since 2002, the question remains as to why Iran has not crossed the threshold. What is it waiting for?

To understand why Iran has not decided to weaponize, one needs to look at the complexities and intricacies of Iran’s strategic calculations. For Iran, crossing the nuclear threshold to military use is not ‘black and white’, but rather part and parcel of a larger, complex calculation in which nuclear weapons acquisition is more than a zero-sum game. For Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea, and even China, atomic weapons acquisition was the product of a more primitive strategic profile, which calculated in a simple and rudimentary way that nuclear weapons were essential for their survival because of their inherent deterrent capacity. For these countries, this deterrence was directed at another state or small number of states (i.e. Israel vis-à-vis Egypt and Syria, Pakistan vis-à-vis India, India vis-à-vis China and Pakistan, and China vis-à-vis the United States, and possibly India). The proliferation risks that resulted from acquisition were either ignored, improperly understood, objectively minimal, or deemed to be minor compared to the state’s security interests.

For Iran, vastly different dynamics are at play. At the time of acquisition, the geopolitical importance of the aforementioned countries paled in comparison to that of Iran. Iran is a fault line state. With its location at the heart of the Persian Gulf, the hydrocarbon center of the world, what happens in Iran, what happens to Iran, and what Iran does has massive systemic effects upon geopolitics as a whole. Even its bilateral relations with individual states are fundamentally multilateral in nature, invariably drawing in great powers and other important actors. As Mohiaddin Mesbahi has aptly noted:

There is no single important regional critical “global/systemic issue” that either directly or by default does not go through Iran and the Iranian factor, be it great power competition, great power interventions and major regional wars, access to energy, Islamic radicalism, clash of civilizations, the Palestinian issue, terrorism, revolutions or nuclear proliferation. The major wars of the last two decades–wars with system wide impact and implications including the 1980 Iran-Iraq war, the U.S.-Iraq war in 1991, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and even the war in Afghanistan (both by the Soviets and the Americans), the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006, the Palestinian-Israeli encounters, the continuous shadow of the further use of force in the region, and the greatest military deployment in the post war history by a superpower and its alliance, the dynamics of nuclear proliferation and the future of the NPT regime–all have their roots directly or indirectly in the systemic reverberation of the Iranian revolution and Iran’s role in international politics, and their strategic consequences.

Thus, those who argue, regardless of objective or agenda-driven analysis, that an Iranian bomb has the potential to generate immense geopolitical repercussions are essentially correct in their assessments. It is here that systemic impact and nuclear proliferation intersect in the case of Iran.

While comparisons have their limits, the states most analogous to Iran and the paradoxical tension created by its systemic importance and systemic confinement, are Germany and Japan. From 1945 onward, Germany (in its smaller West German form and its larger united incarnation) and Japan had legitimate security reasons to develop nuclear weapons, but chose not to do so. It is true that their security relationships with the United States relieved some of the pressures on these states, but the larger regional and systemic constraints on the two countries were even more important and influential. Decision-makers in Berlin (earlier Bonn) and Tokyo viewed their traditional rivals as potential threats against which nuclear weapons would have deterrent value. At the same time, these decision-makers also had to consider the region’s larger strategic environment.

For Germany, acquiring nuclear weapons would have impacted the calculus not just of their traditional Soviet (Russian) rivals, but also of the UK, France, Poland, Italy, Spain, Greece, and possibly relations with the United States. For Japanese decision-makers, reactions from their traditional Chinese and Soviet (Russian) rivals would only be compounded by apprehensions from their South Korean, North Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Philippine neighbors. These systemic constraints and the fear of reciprocal proliferation eventually caused the Germans and Japanese to choose the nuclear latency option, meaning they maintained the capacity to build nuclear weapons but refrained from doing so.

For Iran, these dynamics are also at play. Tehran is fully aware that acquiring nuclear weapons may cause decision-makers in Riyadh, Ankara, Berlin, Athens, Cairo, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City, Muscat, and Doha to seek reciprocal capability out of fear of a nuclear-armed Iran. This classic security dilemma would be further exacerbated should nuclear-armed states such as Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel, the United States, the UK, and France, decide to revamp their nuclear postures against Iran.

In these circumstances, possessing nuclear weapons is far more of a liability than an asset for Iran. In addition to its strategic costs, acquiring these weapons would place Iran in breach of the NPT, rendering it an international outlaw and pariah. Nuclear latency is, therefore, the optimal option, giving Iran the maximum level of deterrence with the minimum level of cost and keeping it in compliance with the NPT. While strategic constraints make nuclear latency an attractive option, the NPT also protects Iran’s nuclear latent posture.

4. What Can Change Iran’s Strategic Rationale? Under What Circumstances May Iran Cross the Threshold from Nuclear Latency to Actual Possession?

The nuances within Iran’s strategic profile have demonstrated remarkable continuity from Monarchial Iran through the Revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the reconstruction era of 1989-1997, the rise and fall of reformist politics to the present time in which the Iranian right has consolidated its power. However, because Iran’s strategic profile is, by and large, a product of systemic constraints, any systemic change that is forced upon the country, such as a great power war on Iran, would alter Iran’s strategic profile and inspire the same zero-sum calculations that have driven other states to acquire nuclear weapons. In the case of Iran, this systemic change is most likely to occur as a result of an attack by the United States or Israel (which would drag in the United States).

In this way, such a war would have a decidedly different impact from the past conflicts in which Iran has been involved. For example, the Iran-Iraq war did not change Iran’s strategic profile on nuclear weapons. While most Western states supported Iraq during the war, the conflict eventually left Iraq financially bankrupt, strategically irrational, shorn from the international community because of its invasion of Kuwait, disintegrated politically and socially, and ultimately led to its militarily occupation in 2003. By the mid-late 1990s, the cumulative effect of severe sanctions, no-fly zones, and de-industrialization caused Baathist Iraq to stop functioning as a viable, unitary political entity, rendering it unnecessary for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons to deter Baghdad.

More importantly, Iran’s strategic calculations have continued to evolve since the war’s end. In the early 1990s, Iran entered into a period of diplomatic normalization under the stewardship of the right-leaning pragmatist government of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, for the primary purpose of war reconstruction and the re-introduction of Iran into the global political economy. While normalization attempts with the United States failed, it was successful in Europe. Trade linkages were re-established and strengthened, while commerce with the Far East and Latin America became more robust than ever before.

With the rise of the reformists in 1997, Iran entered the Thermidorian phase of its revolution, during which domestic policy was openly questioned. Under President Mohammad Khatami, Iran embarked on a “Dialogue of Civilizations” with the West, for the specific purpose of lowering tensions and possibly reconfiguring relations with the United States.  It was during this time that Iran suspended uranium enrichment in the hopes of building trust with the West.

As Trita Parsi has catalogued in A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, it was at this moment that collaboration with the United States on Afghanistan was taking shape. While these efforts were frustrated by the 2003 Iraq War, the assault by Iran’s traditional right on the reformists, and the rise of the neo-right under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran still held out hope that a reconfiguration of its relationship with the United States was still possible. Even near the end of the George W. Bush Administration, Iran and the United States were making visible attempts at diplomatic outreach on the issue of Iraq.

With the election of Barack Obama, hopes were raised that U.S. behavior towards Iran would improve even further. However, as Parsi notes, the toxic mix of institutionalized enmity within the domestic politics of the United States and Iran, the fallout from the June 2009 Iranian presidential elections, and the enormous, sustained pressure from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and a few Persian Gulf states to keep the Iran-U.S. relationship in a sort of “Cold War” state, ultimately led to inertia on both sides. With the arrival of the Arab Spring, and the disintegration of the regional status quo, the United States and Iran have resumed and even reinforced traditional enmity toward each other, increasing the possibility of confrontation.

Should an Iran-U.S. war occur, it would be the first great power war waged on Iran since the dawn of the nuclear age. Iranian decision-makers would interpret any belligerent act as the ultimate sign of U.S. unwillingness to accept the Islamic Republic. They would view the choice before them as one between existence as a dependent client state indirectly controlled by the United States and attainment of nuclear capabilities that would obviate the former outcome. The Iranian strategic profile would lose its sense of nuance and transform into a primitive, zero-sum calculation, mirroring Israeli, Pakistani, North Korean, and Indian security assessments.

A great power war against Iran would also generate at least some empathy for Iran in the non-Western world, and would facilitate an Iranian exodus from the NPT, leaving it ‘free’ to rush toward weaponization. Nuclear weaponization would not only become state policy, but also a national priority. It is important to note that if North Korea, India, and Pakistan, resource-poor countries with significant internal and external challenges, obtained nuclear arms, then Iran, a far richer country, could certainly replicate their behavior, most likely on an accelerated and expanded basis.

5. How Can Iran be Kept at Nuclear Latency?

Keeping Iran at nuclear latency depends upon Iran’s threat assessments. As mentioned previously, under the current international political climate, Iran’s strategic profile is confined to a latent nuclear posture. Even as tensions with the United States have exacerbated over the past year, Iran will not risk the crushing weight of international isolation for the sake of a few crude nuclear devices, assuming, that is, the United States or Israel does not attack.

Being primarily a trade-oriented society with a developing and partially diversified economy, Iran does not wish to follow the path of Iraq, North Korea, or Libya before it normalized relations with the United States in the early 2000s. Yet, what happened to Libya in 2011 is going to make future Iran-U.S. negotiations on the nuclear issue as well as other matters more problematic. The fate that befell Qaddafi may have been good for humanitarian intervention but it was a significant setback for U.S. counter-proliferation strategy. Tehran must be assured that the West sympathizes with its apprehensions regarding attempts at regime change. Only then can Iran set a new example for other countries about the benefits of eschewing nuclear weapons acquisition. As Richard Hass and Michael Levi have proposed, a solid mechanism to reverse the current sanctions regime and reward good deeds, while publicizing Iran-U.S. negotiations and offers made between the two sides, could set the stage for a breakthrough on the Iran nuclear impasse.

Keeping Iran at latency would also require educating it on the modes and codes of rhetoric and behavior in the nuclear world. This is what the United States did with the USSR and later with China, something which helped tremendously in stabilizing these countries’ deterrence behaviors. Iran’s understanding of nuclear discourse is embryonic and the West has done little to address this problem. For example, Iran’s foreign policy rhetoric has not developed in parallel with advancements in its nuclear capabilities. Part of the blame for this should be placed on the West and its laser-focused effort to excommunicate Iran from the international community and exclude Iran from larger multinational efforts toward non-proliferation. Western outreach that is devoid of threats can impress upon Iran that, if it desires to follow the Japanese model, as its strategists have explicitly stated, then Iran will be expected to behave like Japan.


In the long-term, ‘locking’ Iran into a latent nuclear posture will depend upon the degree to which Iran is given a stake in the current international order. Ultimately, this will require normalization of ties with the United States as well as the international community’s willingness to treat Iran as a ‘normal’ country. The United States is the only nation that has the normative capacity to achieve these two requirements. This will require that the U.S. government change its strategic bottom-line from regime change to regime stability. Can Washington realistically take such a leap of faith and imagination and affect such a change of heart? This is where the domestic political scenes of the United States and Iran become consequential, particularly in their demonstrated ability to take these countries’ foreign policy agendas hostage.

There are also outside regional players that represent a major stumbling block to resolving tension between Iran and the United States. More than three decades of enmity between the United States and Iran has created a regional and global phenomenon where many actors have shaped their strategic, security, economic, societal, and political behaviors around the divisions between Tehran and Washington. Certain patterns of behavior from a whole host of actors will be profoundly impacted by the resumption of relations or a descent into open hostility between the two countries. The question is raised as to whether Tehran and Washington can overcome pressures from those actors who have vested interests in maintaining the inimical relationship between them.

The impasse over the Iranian nuclear program is fundamentally embedded in the malignant nature of the Iran-U.S. relationship. This standoff can only be resolved if the nuclear issue is explicitly delinked from regime change. This will require the United States to publicly commit to giving Tehran security guarantees. While this is a hugely complicated task, the cases of China and Vietnam, post-revolutionary and post-war governments that when fully integrated into the global political economy normalized their international behaviors, provide useful templates about the expected outcome with Iran. Indeed, this process had stated to occur with Iran until the re-militarization of the Persian Gulf in the post-9/11 security environment.

In order for the Iranian state to completely normalize, it must be allowed to enjoy the normative aspects of security that international law and global norms provide. A critical factor in this effort is healing the rift that occurred between the United States and Iran after the 1979 Revolution in a way that would lower the walls excluding Iran from full membership in the international community, and provide it with the ‘private space’ for internal domestic evolution.

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