In 2001, the Institute for national strategic studies (INSS) published The Strategic Implications of a Nuclear-Armed Iran by Kori Schake and Judith Yaphe, both then INSS Senior Fellows. (5) The study, which drew on open sources, postulated that Iran was determined to acquire nuclear weapons and the long-range missile systems needed for their delivery and, in fact, was well on its way to achieving those objectives. The study then examined why Iran wanted nuclear weapons, the threats it perceived, and how it was pursuing its goals. The study also addressed questions that had only sketchy answers, such as who was in charge of Iran's nuclear weapons programs, what was the doctrine of usage, who would decide on weapons use, would they share their new knowledge or capabilities with others (including terrorists), and how could suppliers be persuaded to stop aiding Iranian nuclear development. Finally, the study speculated about the impact of Iran's shifting political dynamic--reform-minded candidates had won control of the Majles (parliament) and in 1997 and 2001 elected one of their own, Ayatollah Khatami, as president--on its strategic planning for a nuclear weapon. Would these political changes prompt Iran to change course?
The answer in 2001 was no. Iran did not appear to be halting its march toward nuclear weapons capability. There was little sign of domestic debate. Rather, Iranians--regardless of their place as conservatives or liberals, hard-liners or reformists on the political spectrum--appeared to agree that when it came to threats to national security, Iran should have the means to defend itself. Specialists consulted for the 2001 study, like their counterparts in 2005, agreed that Iran sought nuclear capability but were divided on whether Iran had decided conclusively that it would enter the nuclear club or had reached the point of no return in its decision-making or technology. (6) The 2001 study noted that for Iran, the benefits of being able to deal with perceived security threats from Saddam Husayn's Iraq, Israel, and the United States and emerge as the preeminent leader of the Persian Gulf and Islamic world far outweighed the disincentives, which were considerable. The 2001 study concluded that a nuclear-armed Iran would raise the stakes for American engagement in the Middle east and Persian Gulf region. The distinction between U.S. foreign policy goals, regional interests, and homeland security would be obliterated, the Gulf region would become far more dangerous, and U.S. relations with Russia, China, and perhaps Europe would be at risk.
To what degree have new information and the passage of time altered our understanding of the issue? Without question, much has changed since the 2001 assessment was written. Al Qaeda terrorists attacked the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001. The United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, the former because al Qaeda terrorists used it to shelter their organization and prepare for operations, and the latter because of Saddam Husayn's failure to comply with United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions on giving up his weapons of mass destruction programs and his alleged support to terrorist organizations, in particular al Qaeda. Beyond 9/11 and its aftermath, other developments have loomed large. On the political side, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat died in 2004, the Palestinians held elections in January 2005, and after nearly 5 years of confrontation, Israelis and Palestinians may be on the road to negotiations. In Iran, conservatives won the majority seats in Majles elections in 2004 and also won the presidential election in 2005, giving them control of all branches of the government.
None of these changes, in our estimation and that of the experts we consulted, have diverted Iran from its systematic pursuit of nuclear technology that could contribute to a weapons …