If news reports are correct, then Iran wants to build a bomb. But in the two months since its muted response to the American strike that killed Iran’s Maj. Gen Qassim Suleimani and the country seems intent on signaling rather than proliferating. In January, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, threatened to withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). But has made no further indication to do so since then. Last week, Tehran invited the IAEA to observe that it had tripled its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, an initial step toward restarting a nuclear weapons program but a move short of qualifying as a renewed weapons program.
At first glance, Iran’s hesitance flies in the face of conventional wisdom. North Korea, Putin, and American neo-realist scholars alike assert that enemies of the United States pursue nuclear weapons because it’s the obvious and rational choice to make. Just look at Muammar el-Qaddafi, they say. He gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003, and within a decade fell victim to a Western-backed revolution that left him at the mercy of his own people and to the wrong side of a gun. But Iran may understand the lessons of Libya and the Arab Spring far better than the Russians, the North Koreans, or many U.S. academics.
The last decade has taught Tehran that dictators in the Middle East are far more likely to be killed or overthrown by their own people than by the United States. In the last nine years, all three of Libya’s Arab neighbors have succumbed to regime change. In many ways these regimes were the lucky ones, they weren’t murdered like Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen or engaged in a decade of civil war-like Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In none of these cases would nuclear weapons have deterred uprising from within.
With this reality in mind, spending more resources on a nuclear weapons program may not seem any more attractive to Iran now than it did to Libya seventeen years ago. Nuclear arms proliferation experts have noted that financials weighed heavily on the mind of Qaddafi during the late 1990s and early 2000s. While Iran is much closer to acquiring a weapon today than Qaddafi was back then, to cross the finish line and then maintain a relevant nuclear arsenal requires Tehran to spend vital resources it needs to bolster its domestic economy.
Iran, like Qaddafi in the early 2000s, may fear a future under international isolation more than a future without nuclear weapons. Iran, like Libya, has an economy dependent on energy export and advanced technology and machinery import, making it particularly vulnerable to sanctions. With oil prices plummeting to a shocking $34 barrel for Brent Crude, the regime’s future will depend on the foreign investment put toward economic diversification. It also has a population hungry for change, just like Libyans and the broader Arab street in 2011. For Iran, further economic isolation would eventually make an already tenuous domestic situation explode.
Tehran certainly knows, looking at Israel’s experience, that nuclear weapons don’t always prevent conventional conflict. In the lead up to Egypt and Syria’s surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur 1973, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was well aware of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. But it did not deter him. In fact, the early days of Egypt’s operation were so successful that Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan was said to have told Prime Minister Golda Meir that he feared “the destruction of the Third Temple.”
Additionally, Iran isn’t laboring under any delusion that the final steps in acquiring nuclear weapons will be militarily risk-free. In the early 1980s, both Israel and Iran attacked Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor, effectively eliminating his program before he could achieve a weapon. In 2007, Israel destroyed Syria’s nuclear reactor in the Deir Ez-Zor region. It’s unclear whether even the United States has the capability to destroy Iran’s well-buried enrichment facility at Fordow, but it could certainly hit other critical facilities, perhaps even nonnuclear targets like Iran’s power grid.
All of this suggests that when Iranian officials say they do not want to get a bomb, maybe America should listen. If it did, then it would make sense to double down by reminding the Iranians of all the good reasons to hold off.
John Spacapan is the Wohlstetter Public Affairs Fellow at Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, in Arlington, VA.