Averting a Nuclear-Armed Iran

October 1, 2003

Averting a Nuclear-Armed Iran

 Recent reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggest that Iran is still seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.

 Recent reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggest that Iran is still seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. The United States can pursue several possible strategies to deal with this problem. First, the Bush administration can decide that it could live with a nuclear-armed Iran. On the one hand, allowing Iran a nuclear deterrence against the United States might so reassure Tehran's leaders about their external security that they would become more willing to improve ties with Washington and introduce domestic reforms. More likely, however, the regime would only hide behind its nuclear shield and intensify its support for terrorism and its other anti-American policies. Though a containment strategy might see the collapse of the authoritarian mullah regime and its replacement by pro-Western reformers, such an approach has failed in North Korea, however, and the military, political, and other incentives Iran now has for acquiring nuclear weapons would likely persist.

Second, the Bush Administration could apply its doctrine of preemption to Iran. But the intelligence failures regarding Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction cast doubts on the reliability of any surgical military strike aimed only against suspected WMD sites.  Thus, occupying the entire country through an "Operation Iranian Freedom" would appear to exceed even America's defense capabilities at the moment, and no other country, not even Britain, would likely participate in such a campaign.

Given the problems with both containment and combat, the best approach would be a multilateral one involving a U.S.-led international effort to prevent Iran's nuclearization. Without the assistance of Russia, China, Pakistan, the EU and other foreign countries, Iran would not be able to develop a viable nuclear arsenal for years, even if it could continue to collaborate with North Korea and other states operating outside the framework of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

The problem at present is that many of these governments would be satisfied with Iran's signing an IAEA Strengthened Safeguards Additional Protocol to govern its plutonium-based nuclear plant in Bushehr and the reprocessing of the plant's spent fuel. Although the Protocol would facilitate "snap" inspections, such a step would not address Iran's suspect and undeclared facilities located elsewhere. It would, however, likely reduce international pressure on Iran and encourage other states to cooperate with its civilian nuclear program. Iran's continued NPT membership, despite its proven violations of the Treaty's provisions and spirit, already has made dealing with its nuclear weapons program much harder than in the case of North Korea, which has flagrantly denounced its membership and proclaimed its intention to become a nuclear weapons state.

The Bush Administration's Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) could play an essential role here. Launched in May, the participating states have agreed to jointly employ their national capabilities to develop a broad range of legal, diplomatic, economic, military and other tools to interdict planes, ships, and other vehicles suspected of carrying WMD, missiles and their related equipment and technologies. Unlike existing national export controls, the PSI aims to impede WMD trafficking directly between countries of proliferation concern. Applied to Iran, the policy would involve the United States, France, Germany and other countries monitoring and, if necessary, interdicting suspect shipments to that country's harbors and airports.

In permitting Iran to continue constructing the Bushehr reactor but intensifying efforts to deny Tehran uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing, the administration would pursue a realistic strategy for Iran's impeding acquisition of nuclear weapons. Since Iran's most technologically advanced trading partners, Russia and China (which currently are not formal PSI participants) have gone on record opposing its acquisition of nuclear weapons, they would find it extremely difficult not to agree to intensify efforts to prevent Tehran from acquiring illicit nuclear capabilities. Such an approach would have the additional benefit of not depending on the IAEA or other international entities. PSI enforcement would be a national mission undertaken within a multilateral framework-the best of both worlds.


Richard Weitz is a Senior Staff Member at the Institute of Foreign Policy Analysis.