The Odds of a Secret Iranian Nuke

Policy makers in the West have ignored the possibility that Tehran could choose to develop a tacit nuclear-weapons capability.

The debate over whether or not the Islamic Republic of Iran seeks nuclear weapons has been raging for years. In fact, this past Tuesday marked a full decade from the day that the National Resistance Council of Iran revealed the existence of Tehran’s clandestinely built nuclear-fuel-enrichment facilities.

And for most of that time, international actions on the issue have centered on determining which of three possible outcomes is most likely. Might Iran be successfully diverted from nuclear development? Will the international community fail to prevent a bomb from being built? Or will the country pull up short of proliferation, likely avoiding global condemnation but still benefiting from influence that comes from possessing near-nuclear military capabilities?

Since 2002, the international community has focused primarily on reaching the first of these outcomes, leading countries like Israel and the United States to continually state a nuclear-armed Iran is not an option.

More recently, the rhetoric has begun to change, with a variety of indicators hinting that the advanced nature of Tehran’s nuclear complex is making Western strategic planners consider a Middle East that includes either a nuclear-armed or breakout-capable Iran.

But what if Iran’s proliferation is not the public affair that most commentators have assumed it eventually would be? There is a fourth potential outcome for nuclear development that the international community must consider. Tehran could choose to develop a tacit nuclear-weapons capability while still operating under the auspices of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

After all, the development of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and enrichment complex to date has followed what international relations theorists call a “salami tactic” path—by pushing the bounds of what is allowed under the NPT and by keeping back-end development of nuclear technologies under wraps, the country has been able to build a full-cycle nuclear infrastructure slice by slice without ever clearly pushing the proliferation envelope. Tehran may very well continue that trend and avoid the potential firestorm of economic and military consequences that a public acknowledgement of nuclear-weapons capabilities could bring.

The incentives for Iran to continue its slice-by-slice approach under the NPT are clear. A nuclear capability, suspected to be fact by international intelligence agencies and militaries, would do a lot to guarantee sovereign integrity from external threats in the short term. At the same time, an Israel-like policy of opacity could be valuable in stalling the condemnation of international neighbors, giving Tehran time to fully develop viable delivery systems.

As for methods for achieving a clandestine nuclear status, Iran is well set up to keep trial explosions secret—or at least secret enough that proving otherwise would be difficult. Deep testing ranges in the mountains would go a long way to effectively preventing detection of postexplosion radionuclides, and seismic activity in Iran is common enough that a fabricated rural earthquake could be a feasible cover for testing trigger mechanisms or low-yield devices. Moreover, past propensities for using clandestine facilities to produce nuclear fuel indicates that diverting materials to a bomb program could easily go undetected.

Some may look at this potential outcome and say that an unofficial bomb would still be a bomb. And sure enough, it is difficult to see how short-term reactions to an Iranian nuke, announced or otherwise, would inspire anything other than reactionary policies of containment and wariness from neighboring states.

But a nuclear nonbreakout could profoundly impact the future of the international nonproliferation regime. With near-universal membership, states under the NPT have agreed to either forswear nuclear-weapons development or to disarm. And though Article IV has clouded matters of proliferation in recent years by guaranteeing the right to civilian nuclear programs, it is commonly thought that a nuclear breakout would, in addition to triggering proliferation elsewhere in the region, fuel a universal campaign to shore up those loopholes that allowed it to happen.

An Iranian bomb sans the breakout, however, would not do that. A nuclear capability might not change the geostrategic reality of the situation for regional military planners in continuing to balance against Tehran, but the ensuing uncertainty over the outcome of Iran’s program could stymie effective international nonproliferation efforts for years to come.

States would put less faith in the NPT. Both nonproliferation enforcers and security-conscious nonweapons countries alike would become more risk averse and likely to either toe the line of weapons development or, worse, liberally act to reverse threatening development trends. That kind of inclination would, as former Israeli intelligence chief Amos Yadlin pointed out recently, diminish the effectiveness of coordinated sanctions regimes and other diplomatic efforts in the future.

Steps must be taken to affect changes in the structure of the nonproliferation regime. Policy makers in the United States and elsewhere around the world cannot reliably assume that a clear, explosive ending to the Iranian standoff will become the rally call for change. Because that end point may never come.

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