The Iran Case: Addressing Why Countries Want Nuclear Weapons

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Iran's possible development of nuclear weapons has now come front and center in U.S. foreign policy, as well as in consideration overall of preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. It has assumed particular importance because of its potential to reshape the security and politics of an already turbulent and critical region. In the middle of the Middle East, such a capability would at the very least lead to a basic reassessment by countries near and far of a full range of security, political, and other issues. As the saga of a widely presumed but not admitted Iranian nuclear weapons program unfolds, with its on-again, off-again character, something else is happening: the need for a reassessment of nonproliferation-both how to prevent proliferation and what to do if prevention fails. There is dwindling confidence that a country bent on developing nuclear weapons can forever be prevented from doing so by the now-traditional technological safeguards. In particular, it appears less possible to block the indigenous development of either plutonium or highly enriched uranium, the essential materials for nuclear weapons. Talent and knowledge are not a constraint, and access to fissionable materials may be an ever decreasing one to a country's nuclear ambitions.

Of course, monitored agreements regarding the point, purpose, and conduct of an Iranian civil nuclear power development program, coupled with intrusive inspections, can have a significant impact. Can this approach be relied on? This is one of the questions now under review and the focus of intense political debate regarding negotiations between the Iranian government and a Western troika of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. (See page 25.) Perhaps the outcome of these negotiations will be sufficient, but perhaps not. For some observers, if Iran were truly determined to get nuclear weapons, it would find a means either to conduct a covert program or at some point to renounce the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), expel inspectors, and work to break out of any restrictive regime.

If there is decreasing confidence that technical means can suffice to prevent a determined and scientifically advanced society from getting "the bomb" and if questions remain about the efficacy of agreements, limitations, and inspection regimes, then other considerations come into play, and other questions must be posed. Most importantly, we need to ask why Iran or any other country would want to acquire nuclear weapons in the first place. Then we must see whether and, within appropriate limits, how the country in question can be dissuaded from developing those weapons. The recent Iranian pause in its enrichment activities allows the West, particularly the United States, the opportunity to explore this possibility before either resorting to military force or merely fretting that Iran is on the path to the destabilizing development of nuclear weapons.

Addressing the Demand

Addressing the demand side of proliferation is not a trivial or secondary approach. Indeed, it should be at the heart of nonproliferation analysis and strategy. Unfortunately, it is often downplayed, especially in the United States, where for many years the emphasis has been either on technical means of limiting the spread of nuclear weapons or, in cases where that appears likely to fail, considering military means to destroy a weapons capability or bringing about a change in regime. Yet, this technical/military approach, which has largely ignored the political and security context within which weapons decisions are taken, has often blinded both analysts and policymakers to other possibilities. After all, a wide range of countries capable of building nuclear weapons, including many living in actual or potential security "conflict zones," have elected not to pursue this option, including Japan and South Korea. Countries such as South Africa and Ukraine have also dismantled existing arsenals. …