The Nuclear Impasse With Iran

For most of the past several months, the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program has largely been a theatrical collision of highly antagonistic political attitudes with political leaders in both the United States and Iran using the issue to address their domestic constituencies. It now appears, however, that a more serious effort to resolve the problem is beginning and that the global security implications are becoming more immediately relevant. There is potential danger. Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons would assuredly inflame an already violent region and could conceivably trigger a collapse of the entire nonproliferation regime. There is opportunity as well. The evident compromise solution would stabilize the region and substantially strengthen the global regime. Neither a disastrous nor a constructive result appears to be imminent, but the issues demand prominent and immediate attention. Promising as recent diplomatic initiatives may be, the respective national policies are not yet on a constructive course, and rumors about American military action must be considered alarming, outlandish as they might seem from a common sense perspective.

Current Technology

Given the emotional resonance of the situation and the inherent uncertainty of consequences yet to be determined, most of the relevant facts are subject to some degree of dispute. Nonetheless, interactions between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency have provided an official account that is sufficiently reliable to frame the basic issues. The I.A.E.A. record indicates that beginning in 1981 Iran initiated efforts to develop the various technologies necessary to produce plutonium and enriched uranium without disclosing those activities as required under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (N.P.T.). Iran was an original party to the N.P.T. treaty when it entered into force in 1970 and had signed an inspection agreement in 1974. Since the activities themselves could be justified as investments in nuclear power generation capability and would be legitimate if documented, the fact that they were systematically concealed suggested that they were intended to support a clandestine nuclear weapons program, in violation of the treaty commitment.

In 2003 Iran acknowledged the previously undisclosed activities, agreed to suspend their uranium enrichment efforts and signed an agreement for more intrusive inspection, known as the Additional Protocol. Iran pledged to comply with the terms of the protocol pending formal ratification and did succeed in answering some of the specific questions posed by international inspectors.

The period of suspension did not produce any significant political accommodation, however, and in numerous interactions with the I.A.E.A., Iranian officials were not sufficiently forthcoming to remove even the technical doubts of the agency, let alone the much broader and more assertive suspicions of the United States prominently proclaimed by the Bush administration.

On Jan. 6, 2006, Iran announced its intention to resume its uranium enrichment program exclusively for the purpose of developing fuel for nuclear power generation while categorically denying any intention to develop nuclear weapons. On Feb. 6, 2006, Iran submitted a letter to the I.A.E.A. formally suspending voluntary compliance with the advanced inspection protocol, and it subsequently directed the I.A.E.A. to remove all of the monitoring equipment associated with that agreement. A few weeks later Iran announced it had succeeded in producing enriched uranium at a level suitable for nuclear power generation but not weapons application. On April 28, 2006, the director general of the I.A.E.A. issued a formal report to the U.N. Security Council noting that the agency had not seen any direct indication of diversion of nuclear materials to a weapons program but could not determine with confidence that such a program did not exist or that its inspection efforts had identified all aspects of Iran’s nuclear efforts.

Despite the inconclusiveness of the I.A.E.A. assessment, its detailed access since December 2003 has provided the basis for some strong presumptions about Iran’s technical capacities. The inspection record clearly indicates that Iran is not yet capable of producing nuclear explosive isotopes in sufficient amounts to fabricate nuclear weapons. It is always possible to imagine more advanced capabilities hidden from inspection, and it is difficult to prove conclusively that they do not exist. As a practical matter, however, it is reasonable to assume that Iran would have to undertake several years of unimpeded effort to produce enough material for a single nuclear weapon, and during that time the facilities in question would be exposed to observation and potential attack.

Iranian Intentions

The matter of Iranian intentions is far more uncertain, of course, and not subject to direct inspection or to the reliable laws of physics. Even so, some reasonable presumptions can be made here as well. It is evident that the nuclear program is popular within Iran as a symbol of national pride and an assertion of national prerogative, as has been the case in India and Pakistan. There is strong domestic political resonance for all Iranian political statements on the subject. There is a common belief, moreover, in public discussion throughout the world that possession of nuclear weapons confers a decisive deterrent effect, and Iranian officials are presumably attracted to that notion. Faced with apparently implacable hostility from the United States and no prospect of matching its military capabilities, it would be remarkable if Iranian leaders did not contemplate the acquisition of nuclear weapons as an act of self-protection.

Beneath those natural surface attitudes, however, is a hard operational fact. It would be extremely difficult for Iran to deploy nuclear weapons that are credibly prepared for retaliation but reliably protected from pre-emptive destruction by the United States.

That means, first, that Iran has very poor prospects of ever achieving the principal requirement of effective deterrence and, second, that an inadequate attempt to do so would be dangerous. It is a strategic axiom that a vulnerable nuclear force would provoke attack rather than deter it.

Devising a viable nuclear weapons program is a much more demanding problem for the Iranian government than is commonly imagined. It is very unlikely that they have mastered that problem, whatever they may currently think about it.


The United States has so far been the most assertive critic of the Iranian nuclear materials program, contending that it unquestionably reflects an intention to acquire nuclear weapons and is therefore illegitimate. Most of the rest of the world is more circumspect on that point but not prepared to dismiss the possibility. It has long been recognized that the N.P.T. has an inherent flaw. Its provisions do allow a state to use the legal protection it provides to produce enough explosive material to fabricate nuclear weapons and then withdraw from the treaty on three months’ notice. The final step of fabricating weapons would require only a few months, and a weapon utilizing highly enriched uranium could be used with confidence without prior testing. Even for countries less antagonistic toward Iran than the United States, the possibility that Iran is exploiting the N.P.T. flaw is a troublesome problem. There is general international consensus that Iran’s nuclear program is unnecessary and undesirable.

As principal prosecutor of the Iranian case, the United States has insisted on immediate termination of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities and ultimate abandonment of a nationally controlled nuclear materials production program. In order to accomplish that against increasingly vehement Iranian defiance, the United States has been threatening to apply economic sanctions targeted specifically against Iran’s nuclear materials complex and the officials involved in the program. In order to do that effectively, however, the United States would have to achieve a U.N. Security Council resolution that would explicitly prohibit explosive nuclear materials production by Iran and would provide legal foundation for sanctions to enforce the prohibition. International cooperation would depend upon such a resolution and is essential to any hope of success. The United States itself has not had formal relations with Iran since the hostage crisis of 1979 and has imposed its own sanctions since that time. There is not much more the United States alone can do to inflict economic pressure on Iran, and it has not yet made a serious effort to utilize positive incentives.

It is questionable whether a resolution sufficiently robust to impress Iran can emerge from the Security Council. A resolution under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter would establish the legal basis not only for economic sanctions but also for military action. Neither Russia nor China is prepared to agree to the use of military force, and both appear to view economic sanctions not as a substitute for a military attack but rather as political preparation for one. Such suspicions are encouraged by reports that plans for an attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities are being prepared, with the use of U.S. nuclear weapons not excluded from such planning. While such reports may be only a flamboyant bit of saber rattling, meant to motivate Iranian accommodation, they do inspire Security Council caution. In the unfolding international debate, adroit Iran leadership could exploit such caution and might succeed in making American threats the central issue rather than their own intransigence.

Incentives, Not Threats

Up until the past few weeks, the only positive incentive for Iran prominently mentioned was a Russian proposal for a joint uranium enrichment effort undertaken on Russian territory with Iranian participation. That would give Iran access to the science and technology of enrichment and presumably entitlement to the material product, but not exclusive national control over its use. If assurance of adequate reactor fuel supply is indeed the only Iranian interest in question, as the government officially claims, such an arrangement might solve the problem. To the extent that Iran harbors significant security concerns, however, the Russian proposal would not be helpful. It undermines the justification for their program without providing protection. Iran’s evidently ambivalent reaction to the proposal is not surprising.

More recently, in attempting to induce Security Council action, the United States has accepted the principle of presenting positive incentives to Iran and has suggested an illustrative list. But it has not yet included, at least not in public, the most significant itemthe provision of security assurances. The relatively modest economic inducements specifically mentioned have not impressed Iran and by themselves would not be expected to do so. The obvious open question is whether endorsement of the principle reflects a sincere commitment to resolve the issue by constructive means or whether it is merely a tactical maneuver designed to fail and thereby to justify coercive action.

Iraq as Precedent

The issue of justification is truly vital. In the case of Iraq, the United States initiated military attack on its own initiative after failing to secure an authorizing vote from the Security Council. It appears that the critical decisions on Iraq were made by a small group of people high in the Bush administration who grossly exaggerated the threat posed, seriously misconceived what the use of force could accomplish and did not appreciate the importance of establishing the legitimacy of the operation. The United States military executed those decisions and the American political system accepted them with little protest. The world can hope that some lessons have been learned from the Iraq experience, but at this point that is a hope rather than a demonstrated fact. If the same people make the same misjudgments on Iran and wield American military power without effective constraint, the result could be more disastrous than what has happened in Iraq.

It may be operationally feasible for the United States to retard the Iranian nuclear program by a military attack on its facilities, but it would be a strategic catastrophe to do so without the authorization of the U.N. Security Council. No amount of coercive force could compensate for a failure of justification in the judgment of the international community. Should the United States actually initiate the use of a nuclear weapon, the resulting tragedy would assume monumental proportionsnot at all likely, one can additionally hope, but also not as inconceivable as in principle it should be.

The danger of the situation does offer constructive opportunity, however. A formula for reasonable accommodation is available, if belligerent posturing is subordinated to real national interest. Iran’s legitimate security concerns could be resolved by credible assurances from the United States that it will not initiate a military attack and not allow anyone else to do so either. That, in fact, is the only way Iran’s legitimate security concerns could be resolved. If such assurances were offered as an inducement to Iran to forgo a nationally controlled nuclear materials production program, and if they were supplemented by assurances of equitable access to internationally controlled nuclear fuel cycle services, the combination of incentives would constitute a fair test of Iranian intentions. A credible offer of internationally sanctioned protection from the primary source of threat and access to reactor fuel from the most advanced sources of enrichment services could not be refused for legitimate reasons. Despite their recent public defiance, the Iranian government can reasonably be expected to accept such an offer. If they did nonetheless refuse it or temporize indefinitely, that fact would provide a more credible basis for coercive action and would help mobilize international pressure.

Moreover, that formula for compromise has broader significance. It would set a new standard that could be applied more generally to overcome the acknowledged flaw in the N.P.T. regime. Under that standard no additional country would have reason to develop nationally controlled uranium enrichment or plutonium production capability, since those that do have such capabilities would be required to offer equitable access to those services. Adherence to the standard and acceptance of the Advanced Protocol for verifying compliance would be accompanied by more explicit and more binding security assurances from the nuclear weapons states.

At the moment, long-entrenched antagonism would seem to preclude consideration of such a compromise both in Iran and in the United States. The potential for disaster does impose pressure on all concerned, however, and the modest pace of the Iranian nuclear program allows time for strategic reason to discipline political belligerence. Current policy and current diplomacy are both clearly inadequate. Innovation will be required if a compromise formula is to be developed.

In situations where there is an imbalance of capability, the stronger party bears the burden of initiating a process of accommodation. Progress toward a constructive outcome in Iran will have to begin in the United States.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Welcome to our newly redesigned website.
Sam Sawyer, S.J. January 23, 2017
What perils would Jefferson and Franklin warn us against?
James T. KeaneJanuary 23, 2017
I might have come in wounded, but during Mass I am healed and made whole.
Valerie SchultzJanuary 22, 2017
Anarchism calls for a politics that doesn’t begin and end with politicians.
Nathan SchneiderJanuary 22, 2017