Five myths about Iran's nuclear program

'Recall that the country's nuclear program began with the shah, a U.S. ally who had plans to build 20 nuclear reactors, similar to the plans the mullahs promote today. The shah also started covert work on nuclear weapons. The U.S. government knew about this research but looked the other way, going as far as selling Iran its first nuclear reactor.'

By Joseph Cirincione
The Washington Post

Joseph Cirincione is president of the Ploughshares Fund and the author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons. He is an expert adviser to the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States.

Iran's expanding nuclear program poses one of the Obama administration's most vexing foreign policy challenges. Fortunately, the conditions for containing Tehran's efforts may be better today than they have been in years. The recent disclosure of a secret nuclear facility in Iran has led to an apparent agreement to allow in U.N. weapons inspectors and to ship some uranium out of the country, and the United States and Europe seem to be closing ranks on the need for sanctions and engagement.

Of course, the matter is far from resolved; Russia and China are sending mixed signals on their position, while even a weakened Iranian regime remains duplicitous. But the prospects for developing a strategy with a solid chance of success improve if we dispose of five persistent myths about Iran's nuclear program:

1. Iran is on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon.

For years we've heard conflicting accounts on this issue. There have been claims since the 1990s that Iran was a few years away from a bomb. Then, two years ago, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Iran had discontinued its dedicated nuclear weapon efforts in 2003. Today, the consensus among experts is that Iran has the technical ability to make a crude nuclear device within one to three years — but there is no evidence that its leaders have decided to do so.

The regime's most likely path to the bomb begins in Natanz, in central Iran, the site of the nuclear facility where over the past three years about 1,500 kilograms of uranium gas has been enriched to low levels. Iran could kick out U.N. inspectors, abandon the Non-Proliferation Treaty and reprocess the gas into highly enriched uranium in about six months; it would take at least six more months to convert that uranium into the metal form required for one bomb. Technical problems with both processes could stretch this period to three years. Finally, Iran would need perhaps five additional years — and several explosive tests — to develop a Hiroshima-yield bomb that could be fitted onto a ballistic missile.

Of course, the United States and others would see Tehran moving in this direction, and exposure or inspection of suspected facilities would complicate Iranian objectives. We can further lengthen this timeline by ridding Iran of the essential ingredient for a bomb: low-enriched uranium. On Oct. 1, Iran agreed to ship most of this uranium to Russia for fabrication into reactor fuel; we will know in the next few weeks if it will keep that pledge. If it does, Iran's "break-out" capability — the ability to produce a bomb quickly — would be eliminated, at least for the two years it takes to enrich more uranium.

2. A military strike would knock out Iran's program.

Actually, a military attack would only increase the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear bomb.

"There is no military option that does anything more than buy time," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month. "The estimates are one to three years or so." And that's if the United States struck hundreds of targets. A less powerful Israeli attack could only damage, not destroy, Iran's facilities.

Worse, after such a bombing, the Iranian population — now skeptical of its leadership — would probably rally around the regime, ending any internal debates on whether to build a bomb. Iran would put its nuclear program on fast-forward to create weapons to defend itself. It could also counterattack against Israel or other U.S. allies. This month, a top official of Iran's Revolutionary Guard threatened to "blow up the heart of Israel" if the United States or Israel attacks first.

On the merits of a U.S. strike, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said he worries about "the possible unintended consequences of a strike like that ... having an impact throughout the region that would be difficult to predict."

Attacking Iran would not end the problem; it could start a third U.S. war in the region.

3. We can cripple Iran with sanctions.

Sanctions rarely, if ever, work on their own. There is no silver bullet that can coerce Iran into compliance or collapse.

Some mix of sanctions — whether restricting travel, making it harder for Iranian banks to do business, further limiting foreign investment or even denying Iranian citizens basic needs, such as gas — may be necessary if Tehran does not restrain its nuclear program or live up to its pledges. But the key is to couple such pressure with a face-saving way out for the Iranian leadership. As the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran put it, a sanctions strategy must feature "opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways." These could include Iran's inclusion in regional security talks, the suspension of sanctions and a secure supply of reactor fuel, leading up to normalized relations with the West.

No nation has ever been forced to give up nuclear programs, but many have been persuaded to do so, including Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Iraq and, most recently, Libya.

4. A new government in Iran would abandon the nuclear program.

Some believe that an irrational, apocalyptic government now rules Iran and that regime change is the only solution. But there is broad support across Iran's political spectrum for the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Recall that the country's nuclear program began with the shah, a U.S. ally who had plans to build 20 nuclear reactors, similar to the plans the mullahs promote today. The shah also started covert work on nuclear weapons. The U.S. government knew about this research but looked the other way, going as far as selling Iran its first nuclear reactor.

Even with a reformist government, it is unlikely that Iran would quickly end its nuclear program. But its leaders might be persuaded to limit the program's nuclear weapons capabilities. "Tehran's decisions," according to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, "are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs."

5. Iran is the main nuclear threat in the Middle East.

The real threat posed by Iran's nuclear program is that other states in the region feel they must match it. The race has already begun.

While Israel's possession of nuclear weapons has not spurred other countries in the area to develop their own, over the past three years a dozen states in the Middle East, including Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Libya (again), have begun civilian nuclear programs. These programs, alas, are not about reducing the countries' carbon footprint — they are a hedge against Iran. These states have begun the decades-long process of developing the technical, commercial and engineering capabilities to build nuclear weapons, should they decide to do so. At this point, it is not clear that stopping Iran would stop these programs.

The real danger is not a nuclear-armed Iran but a Middle East with more nuclear-armed nations and unresolved territorial, economic and political disputes. That is a recipe for disaster, and that is why there is no country-specific solution; we cannot play nuclear whack-a-mole.

A comprehensive plan must build barriers against acquiring nuclear weapons and must reduce the motivation to do so. This means dealing with the regional security and prestige issues that motivate most countries to start nuclear programs. It requires a global approach that deals with both sides of the nuclear coin: disarmament and proliferation. Reducing existing nuclear stockpiles creates the support needed to stop the spread of the weapons; stopping the spread creates the security needed to continue reductions. We must keep flipping that coin over. Each flip, each step, makes us a little safer.

October 18, 2009 — Return to cover.