Iran > Key Myths > Nuclear
 SEND   PRINT
Nuclear Standoff     


Claim:
Iran is messianic, undeterrable and will bring about a nuclear holocaust if it ever gets nuclear weapons.
Response:

No one outside Iran wants to see Iran armed with a nuclear weapon, but this apocalyptic scenario is based on no behavioral evidence whatsoever.  The recent history of Iran makes crystal clear that national self-preservation and regional influence - not some quest for martyrdom in the service of Islam - is Iran's main foreign policy goal.  For example:

  • In the 1990s, Iran chose a closer relationship with Russia over support for rebellious Chechen Muslims.
  • Iran actively supported and helped to finance the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
  • Iran has ceased its efforts to export the Islamic revolution to other Persian Gulf states, in favor of developing good relations with the governments of those states.
  • During the Iran-Iraq War, Iran took the pragmatic step of developing secret ties and trading arms with Israel, even as Iran and Israel denounced each other in public.
 
Claim:
Iran has declared its intention to develop nuclear weapons.1
Response:
In fact, Iran has consistently denied that it seeks nuclear weapons and its leaders have even declared such weapons to be "against Islam" (an unnecessary and curious thing for mullahs to say about a weapon they plan someday to unveil).   Iran may or may not be seeking nuclear weapons in fact, but it is patently false to claim that they have declared an intention to do so.

Footnotes

1. This argument is heard almost exclusively from neo-con ideologues such as Liz Cheney who have shown little regard to the facts over the years: "I think that the only responsible position as a nation that we can take is, they actually want what they say they want, which is they want a nuclear weapon." CSIS, "Assessing U.S. Policy Towards Iran," Remarks by Elizabeth Cheney, June 26, 2008. [back]
 
Claim:

Iran is developing a ballistic missile capability, which makes no sense unless Iran plans to mount nuclear warheads on them.

Response:

Even though they are currently inaccurate, ballistic missiles are valued in Iran both as war-fighting tools and deterrents to attack even when armed with purely conventional warheads.  The U.S. intelligence community judges that Iran is currently focusing on further developing ballistic missiles which can target other countries in the region, rather than outside of it. Such missiles make strategic sense for conventional warheads as well as non-conventional ones. As experts at the U.S. Air Force-funded Rand Corporation recently observed: "Based on their experience in the Iran-Iraq War—during which exchanges of ballistic missiles caused modest destruction yet had great impact on civilian morale—Iranian leaders appear convinced that ballistic missiles are the most reliable means for attacking deep targets, and that they would have psychological effects disproportionate to their destructive power."1

Footnotes

1. Rand Corp., Dangerous But Not Omnipotent: Exploring the Reach and Limitations of Iranian Power in the Middle East (Rand Corporation, 2009), p. 80 [back]
 
Claim:
Iran is insisting on enriching uranium, with no economic justification. That proves Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.
Response:
No, it doesn’t.  Iran is building nuclear reactors, which cost a fortune to build but are worthless without fuel.  And there is no ironclad way to guarantee a fuel supply if the fuel in question is not located in Iran.  Iran recalls that after the Revolution the chief enrichment consortium, Eurodif of France, refused to deliver one gram of fuel to Iran, even though Iran owned 10 percent of the company.1

More to the point, perhaps, all kinds of governments pursue programs for political purposes that lack clear, ex-ante, cost-benefit rationale.  Conservatives have complained about this tendency in our own government for decades. In Iran, enrichment has become for Iranians a matter of national entitlement and a source of pride in technological advancement not unlike our own moon landing—supported by reformers and hardliners alike.  Five years of Bush Administration ultimatums and Western pressure have made enrichment an ongoing emblem of Iran’s independence and refusal to be cowed. Commercial unprofitability is beside the point.

Many of the people who “just know” that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon are the same people who “just knew” that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapons program in 2003.  They were wrong.  The U.S. intelligence community, which has looked at this issue closely, finds Iran’s intentions on nuclear weapons to be unclear, and possibly not yet determined.

Footnotes

1. Slavin, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies (2007), p. 36. [back]
 
Claim:

Iran pursued covert R&D project on uranium conversion and enrichment that went on for years and was exposed only by an Iranian dissident group in August 2002.  Iran then concealed and lied about its nuclear work to the IAEA.

Response:

It is certainly true that Iran initially concealed its program and later lied about it, suggesting that Iran was at least considering pursuing nuclear weapons at one point. It appears to be keeping that option open still.   However, since the program was revealed in 2002, Iran is operating in a different environment of very close international scrutiny, making the risks of making a definitive move towards nuclear weapons far more difficult and risky for Iran.

Still, there are significant measures that could be put in place to make international scrutiny tighter and deterrence greater.  The task now is to get in place a system of safeguards and surveillance that is so searching and comprehensive that Iran itself detemines that it will not be able to complete a weapons program without being detected early and stopped, thereby persuading Iran that it should satisfy itself with a peaceful nuclear program.

It bears mention that Iran has offered to accept very searching safeguards and surveillance in the context of a comprehensive agreement that respects its basic right to enrich for peaceful use.   In fact, it suspended enrichment, accepted enhanced safeguards, and cooperated with the IAEA much more fully during the time (Oct. 2003-May 2005) that it thought there might be the prospect of such an agreement coming to fruition.

 
The IAEA Director General explains that the Annex is not a secret but rather a working draft not yet sufficiently vetted for publication.  Its conclusions are drawn mainly from documents the agency has had in its possession since 2005 , but they serve as a reminder that knowledge of how to make at least a crude nuclear device is widely available . . .
 
Claim:
IAEA has repeatedly declared that it cannot conclude that "there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran."
Response:
Making this finding requires proving a negative and the IAEA has set a very high bar for doing so.  The Lawyer’s Committee on Nuclear Policy reported in 2006 that the IAEA applies the same “unable to conclude” status to every country that had not accepted the Additional Protocol at that time, and to 40 nations that have accepted it.  

This does not mean that Iran's conduct is no more worrisome than the conduct of other countries.  It clearly is much more worrisome.   The point is simply that lack of proof of innocence is not the same thing as proof of guilt, and a lack of an IAEA declaration of "no undeclared nuclear materials or activities" is not terribly probative in an of itself.  The IAEA has declared, repeatedly, that it has found no evidence of Iranian diversion of nuclear material for illicit purposes.
 
Claim:
Iran has forfeited its right to enrich uranium for any purpose.
Response:
This is a popular misconception.1 Like other countries, Iran is entitled under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and that right has long been understood to encompass enrichment under safeguards.1 Nothing in the NPT or Iran's Safeguards Agreement supports the notion that a country is barred from enriching uranium if it has ever pursued a weapons program, even one halted years ago.

If Iran is willing to honor its legal responsibilities under its Safeguards Agreement and the NPT, there is no principled basis for denying Iran right’s to enrich or demanding that Iran permanently cede that right.

Footnotes

1. See, e.g., Remarks by Sec. of State Hilary Clinton on Meet the Press, July 26, 2009 ("You [Iran] have a right to pursue the peaceful use of civil nuclear power. You do not have a right to obtain a nuclear weapon. You do not have the right to have the full enrichment and reprocessing cycle under your control.") [back]
 
Claim:
Allowing Iran to enrich uranium will set off a nuclear enrichment and arms race in the Middle East.
Response:
Iran’s nuclear program predates the Iranian Revolution. Over decades of history, enrichment has become a national industry in Iran and a symbol of independence. None of these circumstances apply to other nations in the region, and there is no commercial incentive to pursue enrichment.  In fact, other states in the region have proposed enrichment via multinational consortium.  This would both defuse the Iran crisis and set a new standard for a multilateral fuel cycle that would benefit the global nonproliferation regime.  If the concern is that Iran’s enriching will cause other nations in the region to want a weapon, we fail to see how allowing Iran to enrich uranium under full safeguards will somehow spark a nuclear arms race when Israel’s bomb has not done so. Israel is far more hated and feared throughout the region than Iran.
 
Claim:
If Iran is allowed to accumulate a stockpile of enriched uranium at Natanz, they can seize it at any time and turn it into a bomb.  Allowing Iran to enrich at Natanz will let Iran proliferate right under our nose.
Response:
Not true. All the material produced at Natanz is low-enriched uranium that is unsuitable for weapons use.  It is under IAEA seal and surveillance.  And it is all fully accounted for.  Any effort to seize or divert this material would be quickly detected and would provoke an international outcry with a very high likelihood of a forceful response, from Israel if not others.

Moreover, converting this low-enriched uranium to weapons-grade form would takes weeks if not months of further enriching, so there would be plenty of time to organize that response.  Under these circumstances, a completely clandestine route would seem far more attractive to Iran than any breakout involving safeguarded facilities.  Stopping enrichment at Natanz will do nothing to address the clandestine risk, and may well increase it by driving enrichment underground. Iran itself seems to realize the risk of using Natanz for a weaons program. That is likely why it constructed the Qom facility.
 
Claim:
Diplomacy has been tried. Iran won't negotiate in good faith on its nuclear program, unless we either impose or credibly threaten it with really tough econonomic sanctions.
Response:

Actually, diplomacy with the United States has not been tried.  It is sanctions that have been tried and failed.  For five years until nearly the end of its term, the Bush Administration refused to talk to Iran at all about nuclear issues -- because Iran would not comply with U.S. demands that it first suspend all enrichment. This strategy merely squandered time: while the U.S. sat silent, Iran continued to enrich.

It is true that the Europeans talked to Iran, and they didn’t make much progress. But this is hardly surprising.   Without the United States – the world’s sole superpower and Iran’s chief nemesis – at the table, why should Iran give its best offer to Britain, France and Germany? They would just pocket Iran’s concession, which would become the starting point for later talks with the United States. more

Real diplomacy on this issue has not been tried, not by the United States, until Fall 2009. What has been tried is sanctions, and everyone agrees they have failed to achieve our objectives.  They may well have set us back by galvanizing Iranian resistance.  More of the same is not going to produce different results, and escalating the confrontation with a campaign for "crippling sanctions" will not only fail but backfire.

Footnotes

1. Following is the relevant text of the P5+1 offer to Iran as conveyed on June 16, 2008, largely reiterating a 2006 offer: “. . . the elements below [including support for light-water reactors,  fuel supply guarantees and other incentives] are proposed as topics for negotiations between [the P5+1 countries and Iran], as long as Iran verifiably suspends its enrichment related and reprocessing activities . . .” (emphasis supplied).  On any fair reading, this is not a specific offer so much as an outline for a negotiated settlement, discussion of which could not start until Iran had first met the Bush Administration’s precondition for talks: Iran must first suspend all enrichment immediately.  This for Iran was a poison pill, whether intended as such or not. [back]