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A nation must think before it acts.
The thinking behind the much-discussed Iran nuclear deal reflects broad foreign policy considerations — the expectation that better relations with Iran will reduce the threat of war in the Middle East, contribute to the fight against ISIS, and advance a peace settlement in Afghanistan. But how good is the deal as a nuclear agreement? Will it really prevent Iran, now defined as a nuclear threshold state, from getting a nuclear bomb, as the Administration claims? Or might Iran already, in some measurable sense, have crossed that threshold, and — if so — is the international inspection regime contemplated under the agreement adequate to uncover evidence to this effect?
Negotiations leading up to the deal have focused on limiting Iran’s own production, including covert production, of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and weapons-grade plutonium, as well as activities related to the design and fabrication of a nuclear device. These are legitimate objectives, and the stipulations of the agreement will severely crimp Iranian ambitions to develop a sizable nuclear arsenal (comparable to, say, Israel’s or Pakistan’s). But while supporting and complementing its indigenous nuclear materials production, Iran has made wide-ranging forays into the international marketplace to obtain nuclear weapons-related goods and services — an effort encompassing Pakistan in the 1980s and (more consequentially) the states of the former Soviet Union in the early and mid-1990s. A vitally important task before the IAEA inspectors is to clarify issues regarding the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program — which could reveal weaponization activities incompatible with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran belongs.
The inspectors have their work cut out for them. The (stated) baseline justification for the Iran deal seems to reflect the conclusion of a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran had halted aspects of its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The NIE also judged with moderate to high confidence that Iran did not have a nuclear weapon. But the NIE may have underestimated the scope, stealth, and sophistication of Iran’s external procurement programs, as well as important contextual factors such as the conditions that existed in the newly independent states of the former USSR and their newly insecure nuclear complexes — certainly a potential supply-side bonanza for an aspiring nuclear power. Iran, in fact, may have crossed the nuclear threshold some years before its program was allegedly halted. In a June 2002 news conference, Russian general Yury Baluyevsky reportedly acknowledged that “Iran does have nuclear weapons. Of course, these are non-strategic nuclear weapons; I mean they are not ICBMs within a range of more than 5,500 kilometers and more.” He went on to say that he saw no danger of aggression against Russia by Iran, not exactly a comfort for Iran’s regional adversaries. Baluyevsky, then Deputy Chief of Staff (and later Chief) of the Russian Armed Forces hardly qualifies as your average CIA walk-in. To be sure, the general might have been pulling our chain — perhaps to deter a US-Israeli strike on Iran. Yet he could well have been referring to some tactical nukes that had strayed from Soviet or Russian control as the USSR unwound, and been sold by unscrupulous persons or entities to third parties, including Iran. (If Iran’s military lacked the launch codes needed to activate the weapons, they probably would try to extract the component uranium or plutonium cores to fashion weapons of their own design.)
Alternatively, the Iranians might have assembled a weapon from stolen and smuggled fissile materials. The end of the Cold War and Soviet communism as well as the loss of state orders for nuclear goods ushered in a period of crisis in much of Russia’s vast nuclear archipelago — one that persisted more or less to the end of the 1990s. Soviet-era controls evaporated, workers went for long periods without pay, and security barriers such as perimeter fences and alarm systems were left untended or simply disintegrated. A manifestation of the general malaise was a massive leakage of nuclear and radiological materials from Soviet legacy enterprises and the emergence of a black market of sorts for such substances. Much of this flow was radioactive junk, useless for making a weapon, but the desperation that it symbolized presented an important opportunity for the Islamic Republic’s military procurement networks. Iranian front organizations could have relied on trusted intermediaries to bid for weapons-quality HEU and plutonium or other WMD components, or sent representatives to liaise directly with corrupt Russian managers and officials who had access to the materials Iran wanted. Unlike other aspiring nuclear states at the time, such as Iraq, Iran enjoyed wide-ranging nuclear-technical-commercial relations with Russia, which in the turbulent post-Soviet years, may have provided a convenient cover and justification for deal-making applicable to a nuclear weapons program.
In any event, the IAEA and its inspectors shouldn’t exclude the possibility that by the end of the 1990s Iran had stockpiled enough fissile material to produce one or more bombs, and perhaps a small number of fractional-yield nuclear charges — so-called battlefield weapons. Such weapons would suit a deterrence strategy against an invading army, but might also be configured (with additional design work) to fit onto a medium-range ballistic missile (like Iran’s Shahab-3) capable of reaching almost anywhere in the Middle East. Naturally, such a possibility or scenario imposes a huge burden on the inspection regime. The agreement, in theory, subjects Iran’s past and present work toward a bomb to an unprecedented degree of intrusive monitoring, and this includes access to sites of suspected “undeclared nuclear materials and activities.”
Yet, even with unimpeded access to rogue sites and a full range of verification procedures, it would be hard to detect the existence of a finished nuclear device or the fissile components of one — unlike, say, a covert enrichment facility, which would leave more obvious signatures. (Reliable and timely human intelligence supported by national technical means will need to complement the evolving inspection-verification process.) Also, the IAEA is obligated to provide a final report on “the resolution of past and present outstanding issues” by mid-December of this year, an amazingly short time in which to expose whatever post-threshold capability the Islamic Republic might have developed over the years. On a more positive note, the implied prospect of a US-Iranian détente might work in favor of the implementation of what is not a particularly good agreement. The Iranian authorities — anticipating the end of punishing sanctions, a reviving economy, and a conditional restoration of international legitimacy— could decide to roll back their weapons program even before IAEA inspectors and other international monitors descend upon them. Ultimately, the hope of a change in Iran’s behavior as it re-engages the international community may be the best argument for proceeding with the deal, though major risks remain.